Sunday, August 26, 2007

Father Tommy King ofm: Navigating a Missionary Vocation

August 23. The Feast of St. Rose of Lima-- an auspicious date for our interview. Here in Sacramento, Father Tommy King is at the tail end of his fourth annual visit from Tierra Blanca, Peru (population 4,500). During his month-long stay, he’s been able to spend time with friends, family, friars, and dentists. He leaves the day after tomorrow, so this is a good time to sit down and have a relaxed conversation. No mean feat when it concerns Tommy. At age 51, he is still a ball of energy, only part of which is fueled by caffeine. The rest is pure Tommy: alive, alert, full of Irish wit (his puns are deadly), and in a state of constant, cheerful commotion.

So I asked Tommy: "What does it take to be an effective missionary, especially a Franciscan missionary in Latin America?" He and Brother Gerard Saunders, for example, live and minister together in the Peruvian Amazon (an hour northeast of the capital city of Lima as the jet flies, but in reality, sometimes up to a week away via boat, bus, and prop plane). Tommy becomes uncharacteristically quiet when the question is posed: “Well, I guess it’s something in the heart that attracts you to working with another culture…. Plus, if (like myself) you’ve enjoyed a simple apartment, enjoy camping—being outdoors. The contact with nature that is so conducive to contemplative prayer…the tremendous freedom to love people who would normally be left out of the reach of God’s love. All that comes into play.”

In Tommy’s case, the call began as an attraction—“a churning”— he calls it, that he experienced while still in his twenties: “Before I became a (Franciscan) postulant, I was thinking about priesthood and language study.” This San Francisco Bay Area native—eighth in an Irish-German family of nine kids— soon found himself working among people from Latin America. He followed language studies in college with an intensive immersion experience in Spanish in Cuernevaca, Mexico. This, in turn, led him to dive into ministry as a Franciscan student friar and subsequently as an ordained priest ministering among Latinos in California. His present stint in Peru, where he has been stationed since 2003, is his second tour as a missionary. Previously, Tommy spent four years as a formation director of Franciscan students from our province and was based in El Mezquital, a marginal area of Guatemala City, Guatemala.

While Fr. Tommy mentions interest and passion as elements essential to a missionary vocation, there are other components which, though unnamed, are very much a part of his own story and life. Physical and spiritual stamina, for one thing. Fr. Tommy’s “parish” extends over an area of 3400 square miles, most of which is accessible only by motor boat (in this case, the Grenada, purchased with the help of American benefactors) or ferry. While Brother Gerard focuses his energies in teaching—he is principal of the high school in Tierra Blanca—Tommy spends much of his year visiting the 60-odd villages scattered throughout this part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Requeña, one of three such dioceses in Peru entrusted to the care of the Franciscan order. The present bishop, Monsignor Juan Oliver Climent ofm, is a native of Valencia, Spain, and has been in Peru just two years.

Fr. Tommy describes a typical experience in an email to family and friends: “In a wonderful fraternal gesture of support, (Fr) Ed Shea (a friar from the Sacred Heart province in the US Midwest) came... to help me with the last three weeks of the gira pastoral (pastoral visitation)… Because we often baptized in two villages each day, we are able to visit 23 villages in 21 days. We often registered the children and gave pre-Baptismal talks at 3 and 5 in the afternoon and then baptized… the following morning. We had lunch… then proceeded to another two villages in the afternoon to repeat the routine...."

Back home in Tierra Blanca, Fr. Tommy has time for some r&r and contact with community life. He and Brother Gerard have regular morning prayer and lunch together most days. Wednesday evenings are for social time, which sometimes includes the viewing of a dvd, thanks to the house generator. Most evenings—there is electricity from 7-9pm, there is Internet access at the school: “After years of empty promises, “ Tommy writes, “(Brother Gerard) finally got the Peruvian Ministry of Education to install a satellite dish in the local high school!” An inveterate soccer fan, Tommy is also an active member of the veteranos, one of two soccer teams in town for men over 50. Town and village fiestas—with processions, music, food, and dance—provide the indispensable accent of Latino exuberance and joy!

Although they live in a remote area, Tommy and Gerard are not isolated in their Franciscan identity. Tommy looks as the Mision franciscana in Tierra Blanca as an “umbrella”: Gerard helps in the parish, but is full-time in the school. Three Franciscan Sisters of the Nativity of Mary —all Peruvian natives— minster in the town. Sisters Gloria, Guadalupe, and Esther are busy with the medical diapensary, a vocational training center, religious education, and youth ministry. Collaboration with the laity is promoted through the training of animators throughout the parish, who are authorized to assist in faith formation and in the administration of the sacramento of baptism. “I am trying to give a sense of ministry broader than that of the priest, “Tommy stresses. He presently teaches four formation courses per year for animators from both the southern and northern regions of the parish. Training sessions are offered in Tierra Blanca over a three-day period. Happily, the Parish Center is able to accommodate upwards of 30 participants during that time.

So how does it feel working in such an intense and demanding environment? “I’m excited. As a friar, I’ve never done anything for more than four years. It feels great to have established some relationships. People trust me a bit more (now)…. I know their names and the names of their dogs, too!.... Gerard and I have a shared conviction that this is where we belong. We Franciscans do our best work among marginalized people…. My hope for the future would be that the Church would affirm the dignity of all people as sons and daughter of God. That people will...push for better schools, health centers, etc. This comes from a sense of faith and joy, not of burden.”

Any words of wisdom for men in discernment? “If this is your call, it’s a tremendous freedom to love people who would normally be left out of the reach of God’s love. The freedom of Franciscan celibacy allows you to go to those places. If you feel the draw, the churning, pray with it and see what surfaces.”

Fr. Tommy King welcomes contact with anyone who would like more information about the Franciscan presence in Tierra Blanca. You can reach him at: