I was born on the outskirts of Chile’s capital city by the mountain range in a town called Puente Alto. It means a town of spiders, which might explain my phobia to spiders! I grew up with my extended family around, and I was much loved by my mother, from whom I learnt about hard-work and achievement.
I was educated by the female branch of the Salesians, the sisters of Maria Auxiliadora. They were my helm and anchor throughout that part of my life. Salesian education helped me become aware of the vast needs of the children and families who lived in cardboard makeshift neighbourhoods only a few miles from where my family lived. I used to see little children -as young as 4- outside the local bakery begging for bread or inhaling neoprene to supress their hunger. It was heart-breaking. It was then that I started to learn about inequalities and extreme poverty.
The following years of my life, I did a lot of what some people would call conforming; I studied hard, went to University, and got my degree in education, found a job, became financially independent, got married, and had children…In the middle of this, I met my other half, my husband Mauricio, who happened to have the same ‘searching virus’ as myself. It was at a retreat to a neighbouring parish, whilst attending confirmation classes, that we met. The parish had a Columban priest, an Irish man with a foreign accent! Sometimes he would come to supply to our parish, and we found it fascinating that he had come from so far to work among the poorest of our communities and even more, that he kept a small vegetable plot and a few chickens by the church, and that he had learnt the local language. There was something in those encounters that motivated us to explore the possibility of living our own baptismal call to mission with the Columbans.
In 2000, we joined the Columbans and after a period of training and orientation we knew that our assignment would be to Britain. Mauricio had hoped we would go to Pakistan, and I was keen to go to the Philippines. But God’s plan was that Britain would become our sacred land!
We arrived in Britain just a week before the 9/11 attacks in the US. A date that, for years to come, will shadow world history – a day which also has a tragic significance in Chilean history. Sadly, what happened that day not only ended many lives, but also awakened widespread animosity, fear, and suspicion, particularly towards our Muslims brothers and sisters. We came to Birmingham with our then two-year old daughter with the expectation that we would be involved in pastoral work, evangelising, and spreading the joy of the Gospel in a parish. The multiculturality which permeates Birmingham’s communities was what immediately struck us most. We had not been aware that some areas of the city were distinctively identified by the presence of people of other faiths and cultural background. When we saw this rainbow of diversity in just one city, we realised what our missionary work would involve. Columban lay missionaries are invited by the Church to cross boundaries of language and culture to promote life-giving relations between peoples of different cultures and religions. Therefore, we have come to dialogue with others not in our terms but to humbly listen to them on their terms.
After spending 6 months learning English, we were ready for action. However, then I felt I was still in nappies, trying to understand the different accents and making myself understood to others. But I was already a mother of two! My children were a source of encouragement and helped me to open and push doors. They also moved me out of my comfort zones to speak and act regardless of the mistakes I would make.
All my years of mission in this country have been devoted to working in deprived communities in Birmingham, supporting the elderly and migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, and supporting people to explore their own baptismal call to mission. I have been privileged to hear many stories of asylum seekers and be part of their journeys – my journey too.
In 2008, for a period of 6 ½ years, I was the local Lay Mission Co-ordinator and during that time the region welcomed a team of 3 missionaries from the Philippines. And since 2013, I have been the Invitation to Mission Programme Co-ordinator. Together with a team of ordained and co-workers, we have organised opportunities for local people to experience cross-cultural mission whilst following their own missionary call. Since 2015, we have run 7 programmes to El Paso, Peru, Chile, Pakistan, Korea, and the Philippines.
I recently completed a Master’s degree in Migration, Superdiversity and Policy at the University of Birmingham. However, what defines me is not any academic title, role, or any other achievement. It is all the experiences and opportunities that I have had all these years of journeying alongside people who are rejected and excluded. It is there where I feel most fulfilled and whole as a woman, a wife, a mother and a missionary.
To contact Nathalie for details of the Columban Invitation to Mission programme and to register your interest, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.