The 'hobo missionary' and the saints 'who give us hope'
A Pillar interview
Ten years ago, Meg Hunter-Kilmer decided that God wanted her to move into her car and hit the road, as an itinerant missionary preaching Jesus Christ.
Hers is, to say the least, not a typical way of living. But Hunter-Kilmer has discovered that God is still calling her to be on the road, preaching “the fierce and tender love of God,” and especially telling the stories of the saints.
Recently appointed a Fellow of the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, she is the author of “Saints Around the World,” an international saint storybook for children, and “Pray for Us: 75 Saints who Sinned, Suffered, and Struggled on Their Way to Holiness.”
She talked this week with The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy, about her own path of faith, the power of stories, and some saints you’ve probably never heard of.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I am very, very interested in the notion of reversions to Catholicism.
While immigration is of course part of the story, I’m not sure that we can explain that percentage of U.S. Americans who are Catholic has remained steady over the last several years without talking about substantial numbers of reverts to the faith.
You are a cradle Catholic and a revert to the faith. Can you tell us a bit about your reversion?
Reversion is a funny word to use to describe me because it so often involves decades away from the faith or the deliberate choice of another faith tradition. My story happened rather more quickly than most, leaving me an atheist by 11 and a Bible-thumping Catholic at 13.
I was raised Catholic but never had any relationship with Jesus beyond the sacraments. With no prayer life and no intellectual life to nourish my faith, I lost any faith I might have had by the time I was 11.
Mercifully, God doesn't give up on even the most petulant of us. I got dragged on a confirmation retreat that changed everything, all with the grace of a confession that showed me how desperately God loves me. After that, I really had to choose the faith, which (for me) meant wrestling with every tenet of the faith to see if I could really accept it. Before long, I had an arsenal of apologetics at my command and (after a few dozen more conversions) a heart that really longed for the Lord and looked with love at his people.
I'm obviously still deeply in need of conversion, but I'm awfully grateful for the ways God has drawn my heart to him, for the time away that showed me how deeply I needed him and for the sudden grace that grabbed me at just the right moment.
Amazing that your revision ended up with you becoming an itinerant missionary! Like most people, I suppose, I don't get to ask itinerant missionaries about their experiences very often.
How did this come about and what has this life been like in this role?
I was a religion teacher for five years, but at the end of my last year of teaching, God made it very clear that he was calling me out of the classroom. There was no longer any peace in my heart around a teaching vocation. So I began to pray about other options, with no idea what on earth I was going to do with a master's in theology if it wasn't teaching.
A priest friend suggested that I get more involved in public speaking and I laughed in his face. That's not exactly a concrete career path, and it was very clear to me that I wouldn't be able to support myself that way—at least not at first.
“So, what?” I thought. “I'm just homeless and unemployed? Indefinitely?”
It ought to have seemed like a ridiculous prospect, especially to someone as type A as me. But there was so much peace. Far more peace than I could ever have manufactured, particularly over a situation that I would never have chosen for myself.
So I moved into my car and began to drive around giving talks. I thought it would probably be for two months. Ten years, 50 states, and 25 countries later, I'm still living out of my car, moving (I hope) at the prompting of the Spirit and letting God love his people through me (and me through them).
And now you are bringing your faith to a new initiative at Notre Dame as the inaugural Fellow of Sullivan Family Saints Initiative at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. What's this all about?
The McGrath Institute for Church Life received a grant to help make the saints better known. Since that's one of my great passions, they've asked me to come on board and see what can be done.
It's a very exciting opportunity because there's lots of freedom to explore possible projects, to dream much bigger than my books and blog posts and imagine just how much God can do through these stories if we let him use us.
I'll be writing articles on the saints (my first is here) and creating videos, but I'm also exploring ways to gather information about recent saints (and saints-to-be) so that the personal memories of their living friends and relatives aren't lost to history.
I'm really looking forward to helping Catholics get excited about individual Saints, but also about the concept of sainthood and the role ordinary people might be able to play in telling these stories and drawing hearts to Jesus through the lives of the saints.
Also, as anybody who knows me has heard again and again, I am so excited to have university library access! I just got a whole new stack of books from interlibrary loan, featuring saints from California, El Salvador, and New York, and three from India, and I am dying to dig in.
I thought we were never supposed to use people as a means to an end! But in preparation for this interview you mentioned that you ‘absolutely view the saints as a means to an end—that end, of course, being a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ.’
Can you say more about this?
It does feel dicey to call any person a means to an end, but it's different with a person who's fully alive in the beatific vision.
The saints no longer have need of anything a creature might give them. They gain nothing from our esteem and lose nothing from our potential disdain.
In life, their goal was to glorify God; in death, they have no other purpose. They don't need to be loved or even respected, they only want to lead souls to Jesus. So no, we can't use them in the dehumanizing way we might with those on earth; in letting them point beyond themselves to Jesus, we let them serve exactly as they desire.
The point I want to make in calling them "means to an end" is that St. Anthony is never the point of St. Anthony; the point is always Jesus.
And if the hearts of the saints can be grieved, it must surely happen above all when we esteem them above or instead of God himself, when we obsess over a particular saint (or even the concept of the saints) to the detriment of our love for the Lord.
So in that sense, a relationship with the saints always has to be leading us to their true purpose: helping us to know Jesus better. Our faith is full of beautiful traditions and spiritualities and practices of piety that can be so life-giving—until they become ends in themselves.
When I tell the story of a saint, I never want the listener to be left merely with an impression of the goodness of that saint. I want every saint story to speak the name of Jesus.
I want the grand adventures to remind people that, in the words of St. John Paul II, “life with Christ is a wonderful adventure.”
I want the saints’ mental illnesses and chronic illnesses to show people that God is near them in their suffering. I want their hobbies and passions and joys and disabilities and idiosyncrasies to resonate with people and remind them that God loves them fiercely, tenderly, exactly as they are.
So maybe it's less that the saints are a means to an end and more that they're clear glass windows: beautiful inasmuch as they let in the light and show us what's beyond but not something to focus on to the exclusion of the view.
I often find those who are most primed to engage the saints are, frankly, not those who need them the most. Do you have any helpful strategies to share for helping ‘the nones,’ the lukewarm, the fallen away, engage the saints?
This is part of the beauty of the saints: they are incredible stories.
I don't care how disinterested you are in God, you'll be fascinated if I start telling you about a Japanese man who traveled halfway around the world because racists wouldn't allow him to be a priest, like Bl. Peter Kibe did.
Or a mischievous old French lady who smuggled priests through Revolutionary France by using her improv skills to distract soldiers, like Bl. Catherine Jarrige.
If you've felt rejected by the Church, you'll want to hear about the opium addict who was barred from receiving the sacraments for 30 years, St. Mark Ji Tianxiang.
If you've been assaulted, you'll admire the Korean woman who stood before a judge and decried her abusers, St. Columba Kim Hyo-im, and about her sister, who was unable to say a word — St. Agnes Kim Hyo-ju.
And I've never yet met an atheist who wasn’t delighted to hear about 12-year-old St. Eulalia of Merida spitting in the face of a pagan governor.
There are feminist stories and scientist stories and raucously funny stories, as well as a few that are frankly fantastical.
There are saints who bring hope and saints who convict and Saints who make you question your preconceived notions about the Church. People love stories and the Church has some great stories.
We just have to remember how to tell them—and always, always make sure the point of the story is Jesus.