On a mission City native, wife follow ‘calling’ to Tanzania

Published 12:05 am Monday, January 2, 2012

The year 2012 is not just a new year for Vicksburg native Christopher Reid. It’s a time of many “news” — new job, new home, new language, new country, new continent.

Reid, 35, a 1995 graduate of Warren Central High School, and his wife Katie, 33, a native of Philadelphia, have signed on with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, a Roman Catholic organization dedicated to living and working in poor communities in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The Reids arrived Friday in Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa, where for the next 3 1/2 years they will bring their backgrounds in social work and community involvement to work primarily with women in the country’s second largest city, Mwanza, located on Lake Victoria.

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“It is a leap of faith, with some pretty big unknowns,” Chris Reid said in an interview at the Highway 61 Cafe. “Will I be able to learn the language? Will they even want to talk with me? Will I be able to make a connection with them?”

On the whole, though, the Reids are excited and happy to be on their way to do the work they’ve trained, prayed and hoped to do.

“Even on a bad day it will still be interesting,” Chris Reid said.

Family members say he’s right for the challenge.

“I don’t really want him to go, because he’ll be away for so long, but they have to go,” said his mother, Patricia Reid. “It’s their calling.”

“My brother’s my best friend,” said Erica Reid Gerdes. “I’ve learned so much from him throughout my life. It’s difficult knowing I won’t be able to see him and talk to him as often as I might like, but I’m still learning from him — to not hold back, to take risks, to follow the passions I have, as well.”

At Warren Central, Chris Reid played trumpet in the Big Blue Band and was president of the art club before going on to Hinds Community College and earning a degree in graphic arts. Katie, raised in Philadelphia, got a bachelor’s degree from New York University.

Both Chris and Katie have a record of community and social service. They met in 2001 when they were members of AmeriCorps NCCC in Denver. For Chris, raised a Baptist, it was also a time of spiritual seeking and discovering the Catholic church, he said.

At the same time, some pivotal reading, like Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” got him interested in Africa, and Bible studies and Catholic instructional classes he attended sparked his desire to work for social causes.

“I was really struck by the stories of the people that were down in the dirt and working to help others,” Chris Reid said. “Yes, the history of the church, the hierarchy, these things were interesting, too, but it was the social justice that I found inspiring. It struck a nerve with me, and here we are six or seven years later actually going to do the same thing.”

Katie Reid’s path was a bit more direct.

“I remember from an early age wanting to do social justice work,” she said. “I also remember from an early age wanting to move to Africa. That’s how I ended up with a major in social work.”

Following their Americorps service, they were married in Cape May, N.J., and then moved to South Carolina where each earned master’s degrees at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and compiled extensive resumes of social work, including homelessness councils, sexual trauma victims, mental health agencies and juvenile justice programs.

Chris converted to Catholicism as he and Katie married — not because he had to, the couple said, but because of an authentic, from-the-heart response. They began looking for ways to serve overseas, though the illness and death of Chris’ father, David Reid, such a mainstay at the 61 Cafe that his hat still hangs over the door, intervened. The couple finally was able to sign on with Maryknoll this year.

“We told them, ‘We want Africa, but we are so committed to this work, you can put us anywhere,” Chris Reid said. “That’s how called we are. Maryknoll also sends missioners to Asia and South America, and they could have sent us somewhere else. But when I interviewed, it worked out to be Africa. We got all of it. We got exactly what we wanted.”

Maryknoll calls its workers “missioners,” not “missionaries,” and their focus is not overtly evangelistic, Chris Reid said. They respect the culture of the people and do not try to change them or effect a religious conversion. Missioners simply live among them, helping where they can.

His Maryknoll trainers told Chris that when he and Katie are able to let go of the idea of “I’m going to change the world,” that’s when they will actually start being effective, he said.

“Lower your expectations,” he said they were told. “You are an accompanist, accompanying people in their stories.”

Their first task will be attending an intensive residential language school for three months where they will learn Swahili, and then they will have a two- to three-month initiation period at their jobs, mostly honing their language skills.

The Reids will not know exactly what their duties will be until they are knee-deep into them, but Maryknoll had to provide a general job description in order for them to get visas.

Katie will be working with the Catholic Diocese of Mwanza in programming, focusing on gender-based projects like support for single mothers, gender and HIV/AIDS, and women and agriculture. Chris will work with the Buswelu Women’s Cooperative, where groups of 10 women to 15 women work on income-generating projects, he said.