Katy McFadden comfortably settled into her seat as she stared out through the bus windows. Jungle forestry blurred by as a bumpy dirt road carried her and the rest of the passengers closer to the border between Costa Rica and Panama. An adventure-compatible backpack, generally seen adorning the backs of hikers and nomads, rested on the seat next to her as the zippers jangled with every bump in the road.
Any backpacker would find this scene normal: traveling between different countries via planes, busses, and dirt roads while searching for the cheapest hostels and hotels, or even resorting to tents and random rooms belonging to hospitable locals. Although Katy’s blonde hair and blue eyes immediately tagged her as a foreigner, she felt at ease. She had to cross back into Panama from Costa Rica to catch a flight back to the States after spending six and a half months living in Latin America. The summer before this bus ride, she lived in Panama. And the summer before that, she spent two months in El Salvador. This kind of bus trip was normal for her.
But one detail in particular made this bus ride very not normal. Katy was 18 years old. And a recent 18-year-old, at that. As a matter of fact, her senior class had just graduated a few days prior, but Katy finished high school six months early to live and study in Colombia. So, yes, as the dirt road jostled the bus to-and-fro, Katy felt comfortable. But that would all change as soon as the bus rolled to a stop.
She picked up her backpack and walked down the skinny aisle toward the bus’s front exit. Once there, she asked the driver where the border entrance was. The driver pointed up the road and shooed her off of the bus.
“They let me off on some dirt jungle road, not in sight of the border crossing,” Katy explains. “And they just pointed in the general direction. And it is like your worst nightmare, in the jungle. Like, in-in the jungle and on some dirt road.”
it is like your worst nightmare, in the jungle. Like, in-in the jungle and on some dirt road.”
Katy trudged along that road for about 10 minutes. She had no other option but to walk in the general direction the bus driver pointed. Finally, the border-crossing booth came into view, and Katy sighed in relief. It looked like a highway toll booth, but instead of cars stopping to pay the fee, people lined up to display the proper documentation.
When Katy’s turn in line came, she walked up to the booth window, relieved she even made it. The worker, however, did not care about Katy’s small victory and quickly asked to see her $500 cash. But Katy didn't have $500. She had her plane ticket, showing her departure from Panama tomorrow afternoon, and about 200 bucks. She stared at the man on the other side of the window blankly, waiting for the nod to go through. When that didn't happen, Katy stepped aside, uncertainty forming in slow tears.
Anytime a person crossed this particular border, people had to show proof of assets as a form of reciprocity. In this case, $500 was the needed amount. And the Panamanian border agent simply informed Katy of this law by pointing to a sign on the side of the booth that stated this basic entry guideline.
It only took a few minutes before Katy regained her composure. She stepped back in line and walked straight up to the booth. In very clear Spanish, she yelled “It’s okay for a country to have rules, but you have to inform the people! It is my third time entering Panama, and I have never heard of this rule before. I am a little girl, and I am traveling through the jungle at night. Why would I have that much money on me? That would be the most dangerous thing in the world! And...and...don’t you have daughters?”
Her Spanish pierced the otherwise subdued border-crossing station. The man looked back at her and calmly asked, “Do I need to call the police?”
looked back at her and calmly asked, “Do I need to call the police?” Dejected again, Katy sheepishly said, “No,” and stepped out of the line. Standing alone with silent tears running down her frustration-flushed cheeks, she looked over at the border agent, pondering her next move. He continued to see and approve several people for entry while Katy looked on.
But she didn’t call anyone. She suppressed the temptation to panic. And she certainly did not give up. Katy knew one thing: she not only needed to get through that border turnstile, but she should get through. The facts stood before her. It would be an injustice to keep her out. So Katy did the only thing she knew she could do: she stood there until the injustice became corrected.
Ten minutes later, the border agent softened his stance and called her over, eventually letting her through.
This event would have intimidated or scared even the bravest of individuals. But every bump she encountered was just a part of the journey to becoming what God called her to be at the age of 15...a missionary.
“[Katy] felt God’s calling. She did the research. She did all of it,” Katy’s mom, Stephenne, remembers of younger Katy. “That is just who she is. She doesn’t just jump into anything, but I just knew [missionary work] was what she was called to do. There is a saying: you can’t be a grandchild of God. And Katy is a Christian because she chose to be.”
Katy grew up without an ounce of timidity or hesitation. When something made sense, she went for it. Strong-willed could be one way of describing it. But really, it was more of an innate desire to do good. And nothing stopped her from pursuing just that.
When a friend asked her to read A Purpose Driven Life, the internationally best-selling book by Rick Warren, it took about four pages for Katy to get it.
“Each day in the book, it said things like, ‘God created you for a purpose.’ I was like, ‘Oh, really?’” Katy explains through the intrigued voice of her 15-year-old self. “And then, it says stuff like, ‘You should give your time to serve your church,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do that!’ It just made sense to me, so I did it.”
For the first 15 years of her life, Katy had grown up in the church and had always been a cheerful attender. She loved her church, with its sound theology and healthy community. But it wasn’t until she read A Purpose Driven Life that it all clicked for Katy. She saw her faith from an entirely new perspective.
“That [book] is when I pinpoint when I became a Christian because I finally got it,” Katy remembers. “I got that I was supposed to follow Jesus and have a relationship with Him. And God made me for a purpose. So, I felt that if this is true, it should be true [for everyone] and for me, and I should become a missionary.”
While Katy read the book, she made a decision to follow Jesus. Doing so established a deep desire in her to travel to the most remote locations to serve the locals and share the same love of God she came to experience herself. Being a missionary became her dream.
Her nights started filling up with Internet searches at her computer. She eagerly searched the web for missionary organizations she could volunteer for. At 15 years old, her mind raced with endless opportunity. Katy imagined herself in Mexico since she was studying Spanish in high school. She pictured herself working with the impoverished, with orphans, anyone in need. She dreamt of sharing the Gospel to people who had never heard of Jesus before.
dreamt of sharing the Gospel to people who had never heard of Jesus before.
But her search revealed that the options for someone her age to work as a missionary abroad were quite limited. Although there were many one- to two-week trips, Katy wanted something longer. So, when she read an advertisement in the back of a magazine for a summer-long missions trip, her heart leapt. “Swim instructor wanted in El Salvador at an orphanage,” the ad read. Katy immediately emailed the organization. Becoming a missionary didn't mean later in life. It meant now. So, the summer after tenth grade, when Katy was 16, she boarded a plane to teach kids at a children’s home how to swim in a small town buried in El Salvador.
“She doesn’t do anything half-way,” Stephenne explains about Katy’s first trip. “Once she decided that Christ was her Lord and Savior, she decided that she was going to follow Him anywhere He went. There was no hesitation. It was either all or nothing. There was no wishy-washy. It was always, you either are...or you aren’t.”
On a warm August night in 2014, ten years after Katy boarded that flight to El Salvador, she places a bowl of sliced baguette on the table. A salad gets tossed with bright heirloom tomatoes as some sliced apples are passed around for hors d'oeuvres. Katy zips from counter to table, placing the rest of the food and cutlery in its proper spot. She then walks to the back of the two-story brick home and gently yells to the people in the back rooms, “Dinner is almost ready!” A smile appears on her face. “Is anybody upstairs?” she turns to ask the three other individuals who are helping with dinner. These are just a small fraction of the folks living in Katy’s house.
fraction of the folks living in Katy’s house. Twelve in all. And more, if Katy had it her way.
At the age of 26, Katy purchased the house as a way of providing a reasonable and affordable living situation for people who live and work in the area. She envisioned an “intentional community”—as she calls it—which means eating dinner as a family, raising their seven hens, and composting food to help harvest a vegetable garden. All together.
Drinks are poured as chairs are scooted in. And there's a moment before jumping into dinner, where everyone waits. Katy asks the seven adults around the table to hold hands as a housemate prays for the food. Everyone happily obliges.
This scene reflects what Katy might have envisioned as a 15-year-old. She knew that God wanted her to help people. He wanted her to love people in several different ways. He wanted her to go where He sent her.
But this house, at this dinner table, with these people, is not in Latin America. Or Southeast Asia. Or North Africa. This house sits smack dab in the middle of Brooklyn, New York, in a neighborhood called Crown Heights.
After dinner conversation winds down, Katy gives a brief tour of the house. At every stop on the tour—by the bathroom, under the stairs, squeezed between the hallway, and even up to the ceiling—a bookshelf lines the wall, crammed with manifestos, paperbacks, and children’s books in different languages.
“I figure I will need to have books when I am a foreign missionary,” Katy says, while scanning the collection. “I will probably have to homeschool my kids for some portion of their lives. So I started collecting books in high school to build a library.”
She walks from room to room, explaining what each housemate is doing in the city. She boasts about how amazing they are, like a proud mom. The fondness for those in the house is palpable. The end of the tour leads to the back of the house and into the large backyard. A rarity in New York. A cement patio covered by gigantic leafy trees steps down into a courtyard, which then leads to a grassy corner in the back that is lined by high brick walls. Strings of lights float overhead as they connect from one tree to the next.
“Our community values are: community, hospitality, sustainability,” Katy says. “My hope is really that people can experience a Christian community that blesses one another and provides ‘family’ to people who are otherwise single and family-less here in New York City.”
As Katy explains her vision for the house, a single sleeper tent is propped up in the grass. The tent currently houses what is known as a “couch surfer.” This term comes from a website that connects people who are traveling on a small budget to people who are willing to let them sleep on their couch for free. The hosts and travelers can review each other’s experience as a way of providing quality assurance. Hosting a couch surfer is nothing new to Katy. Since moving to New York in 2013, she and her roommates openly welcomed over 170 couch surfers into their home. And plenty of them left rave reviews about their host.
“We had a lot of Karaoke nights,” Rachel, Katy’s first roommate in the city, remembers about hosting the couch surfers. “And sometimes, the couch surfers would join in or just sit there and think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ And Katy, of course, has a beautiful voice and loves sharing that. And, actually, a lot of people mentioned her voice when they were reviewing. She probably has 75 people on there, referencing her singing, extolling her praises.”
It becomes very clear—with the couch surfing, purchasing the house, the backyard, the community values, the housemates—that Katy is a planner. She planned out her life at the age of 15, when she knew she wanted to be a missionary. She planned her trips to Colombia and to El Salvador. And when she discusses her plans for the future, she lights up. She describes her future travels to remote towns with an excited reverence for what God will do.
And while her plans are generally regarding her future, Katy may not realize just how much her planning has impacted those around her today.
“Katy has decided that her time and resources should be used in service of God and others,” one of the housemates, Frances, says. “And I think that is exactly what she is able to do with her house. She said that she wanted to house people that may not otherwise have the resources to live in New York City. And she wanted to create this beautiful community where people could learn and grow together. What is more missional than that?”
Katy has had to redefine what being a missionary is in her mind. Growing up, a missionary always meant serving God and His people overseas, in some remote village or jungle. So when God took her out of those remote villages to return to the U.S., Katy found herself frustrated and confused.
“You know when people say, ‘When has God ever let you down?’” Katy says. “And I will be like, ‘Actually, I have a list!’ Which is totally crazy. I totally recognize and understand that God can’t let you down. I know that it is impossible for God to let us down. But I had to come to terms with that, and repent, and let God into those places where I was sad.”
repent, and let God into those places where I was sad.”
After Katy graduated high school, she moved to Colombia to participate in a training program called Discipleship Training School (DTS) for the global missions organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Nearing the end of the five-month program, Katy's desire to become a missionary only grew. And her heart burned for Colombia. She wanted to stay, pursuing the life of a full-time missionary just as she had always planned. But every time she spoke to her parents on the phone, they always brought up college. Was she going? Or was she going to skip it altogether? In Katy's mind, she didn't need college. She was exactly where she needed to be, serving a place where she could serve and be a blessing.
But just weeks before the program's end, a friend and a pastor expressed concern to Katy about pursuing higher education. She was devastated, but she knew that, perhaps, God was trying to tell her something. As much as she wanted to be a missionary, she also wanted to be obedient. So, in 2006, Katy returned home to go to college.
In the fall of 2006, Katy walked into her freshman year at Binghamton University culture-shocked. Unlike her housing in Colombia, Binghamton University boasted a pristine and well-manicured campus. When she ate in the dining hall, she couldn't help but notice the sizable difference in the plate of food in front of her compared to the very basic meals at DTS. Her heart sank as she imagined the people in need who would actually appreciate this food.
Katy had a feeling that she wouldn’t fit in to the “college” lifestyle. And all of this was just proving her point. She couldn’t understand why God would take her out of the mission field to attend a college filled with students who had access to the Gospel but just didn’t care.
Then, she met Carrie Moorehead, a staff worker for the Binghamton chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a student-led ministry found on campuses all around the world. Carrie helped ease Katy into the culture of college.
“It was interesting to watch her progression,” Carrie remembers about Katy, “because she was always a person of purpose. But, she grew into her purpose.”
Four semesters into college, Katy became the Outreach Coordinator with InterVarsity’s Binghamton chapter. That set Katy on a journey of redefining what a missionary is. Sure, Binghamton wasn't a remote village in the jungle, but there were still people who were lost, broken, and in need of Jesus, just like in Colombia.
Meanwhile, Katy pursued her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Binghamton. Two years prior, when Katy visited Costa Rica, she met a woman who planned to live and work as a nurse and missionary. After describing what life could look like as a nurse in a missionary context, Katy realized how important a practical skill set like nursing could be to an impoverished nation. After she graduated from Binghamton University in 2010, Katy spent two months studying for the nursing boards exam and passed. Soon after, she got a job at Wilson Hospital in Binghamton, working as a nurse for a year on a cardiac floor and then another year in labor and delivery.
“Most missions organizations require two years of nursing experience at a U.S. hospital,” Katy explains. “So after my two years were up, I was like, ‘I am out of here.’”
Katy went on two missions trips as a nurse. She spent two months in Bangladesh and then another two months in Honduras. Before leaving, Katy thought, maybe this will be it. Maybe I will be living in one of these places for the next 30 years.
thought, maybe this will be it. Maybe I will be living in one of these places for the next 30 years. She could hardly contain her excitement.
And the experience was exactly what she had imagined. Every morning, Katy woke up and jumped into her role as a nurse in the local community. She chatted with the locals, ate the local cuisine, and worked with other missionaries who shared the same passion and vision as her.
But in the midst of working in these two nations, Katy had a decision to make. Could she see herself working as a nurse for the next 30 years? Or would she rather serve communities in a different capacity? Being a nurse greatly helped these communities; however, there was only so much she could do and understand as a nurse. Her expertise only went so far. When people came to her with strange or uncommon illnesses, she was stuck. When expectant women encountered complications during their pregnancy and labor, she could only do so much. Katy wanted to do more. So, in 2013, she returned from Honduras and moved to Brooklyn, New York to attend the midwifery program at the State University of New York Downstate. Becoming a certified nurse midwife would give Katy the expertise to provide primary care for women, no matter the circumstance or location.
This wasn’t an easy choice. Katy found herself going in the seemingly opposite direction of the mission field. But this time, she trusted where God was taking her. It may not have been perfectly aligned with Katy's original plans, but she was OK with that. God had finally gotten His point across to Katy: it's not about the destination as much as it is the journey. While He may delight in Katy's heart for missions, His first desire is to simply be with her. And if that means a few years here and a few years there, that's fine with Katy because she knows that she's exactly where God wants her to be.
Katy moved to Brooklyn in 2013. She began a new nursing job at the hospital associated with her university. She bought the house, where 12 young professionals have an opportunity to find family in one of the most isolating cities in the world.
Katy found a church, called Trinity Grace Church (TGC), through a friend and quickly joined a team to open a new location in Crown Heights. Katy has been with the Crown Heights church since it started. It is a branch of the greater TGC network throughout the city of New York. Half of the people living in the house are from the church. The vision of TGC is to participate in the renewal of their local neighborhoods.
No, there is no jungle nearby. Most of the people she interacts with have, in some capacity, been introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And as a homeowner and landlord, Katy readily admits the difficulty and uncertainty that comes with balancing a heart for missions with the ever-growing responsibilities of adulthood and settling down.
But if there’s one thing for certain, Katy is a missionary...no matter the location.
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