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Finding Common Ground: Twinning Parishes Break Down Distance and Cultural Barriers

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By Susie Bergman

Imagine boarding a plane to leave the comfort and security of your homeland to begin a mission solely focused on relationship-building with people you’ve never met. It’s a mission that will take you to places you have never experienced before, with an unfamiliar culture and a significant language barrier. This is exactly what a group of Shelby County parishioners did in 2011 when they began their parish twinning mission.

As Deana Chappie (Sts. Peter and Paul, Newport), Nick Poeppelman (St. Augustinemission, Minster), Ann Bollheimer (St. Michael, Ft. Loramie) and Deacon Paul Timmerman (Pastoral Region) recalled their first journey to El Salvador, a common theme quickly emerged: trust. When they landed on foreign land for the first time, it was a very vulnerable experience. In addition to the language barrier, each was paired separately with a San Cristobal family. Although these families welcomed them into their homes with peace, understanding and respect, they had to put their trust in God that they would remain safe from harm during their trip.

They all knew the purpose of the mission was to partner with a parish outside of the U.S. and build a mutual relationship that promotes learning, peace, social justice and faith sharing, but the “playbook” on how to execute these ideals was still undeveloped. The group did a great deal of research to ensure they knew the history of El Salvador and how politics has affected the people’s faith.

Many people think of mission trips as building infrastructure or imposing a way of life in an attempt to change others, but this was much different. As they explained to me, their sister parish is no different than any other parish in their pastoral region. Their twinning goal is to break down the logistic barriers and become one global parish. By utilizing the many technological advances of the last decade, they have been able to accomplish just that.

They hold monthly Skype meetings with their sister parish and worked together to develop a Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation (VLCFF).

They explained that resources for adult faith formation are not easily accessible or affordable in rural El Salvador, but that didn’t stop the San Cristobal community from rolling up their sleeves and developing the infrastructure needed to utilize the technology.

Through parish donations, they were able to purchase Rosetta Stone so the sister parish could learn and improve their English language skills.

In return, the U.S. group is “learning how to live in solidarity with them through the process of mutual faith development,” said Bollheimer, “and how we can live scripture by being with them in this journey of helping to move them forward. They do not have the materialist means that we do here in the U.S., but their love and happiness rubs off on us and humbles us,” added Poeppelman.

Over the past eight years, the mutual trust and respect have continued to grow. Just recently, Melvin Romero, from the sister parish, made the lone journey to Ohio to experience their faith-living. He placed his trust in the Lord when he stepped foot on U.S. soil for the first time. During his visit, he attend the Rural Mass in Versailles, visited St. Charles Seminary in Carthegena and even learned to drive a tractor. One of the most notable experiences was speaking, with nearly perfect English, at the University of Dayton about the benefits of the VLCFF program. Currently, 16 adults from the sister parish in San Cristobal are enrolled in the Adult Catechist Certification – the first ever for their parish.

The positive impact the twinning program has had on both groups is significant. Deacon Timmerman recalls having major health issues just days before a scheduled trip to El Salvador. “The doctor said I should not go. That I needed to stay home and get surgery. I remember waking up the morning of the trip and a voice was weighing on me saying ‘If you stay and get the surgery, you will be healed physically, but if you go, you will be healed spiritually.’ I put my trust in God and went, and it was the most spiritually moving thing I have ever done. It taught me what it truly means to walk with Jesus.”

To learn more about parish twinning through this pastoral region, contact Ann Bollheimer at [email protected] or visit www.nflregion.org.

Ohio parishioners visit their twinning parish in El Salvador. Pictured: A break during a tour of the El Salvador church campus. This is one of the potential sites for the proposed library.
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