Vanessa Banks addressing the Stittsville audience as she relates her story of her missions from military to missionary on August 17, 2020.
This week the The Knights of Columbus 12249 Council of Stittsville and Stittsville Central presented ‘Vanessa’s Journey – A Mission of Love’ to the community. Many listened in as Vanessa Banks formerly of Stittsville shared her life’s story of being called to enter missionary life in El Salvador.
Initially, it was a difficult decision for Vanessa to make – changing ones life direction is always particularly difficult. She had been a Tank Commander and operated armoured military vehicles at Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston. Her family’s roots run deep in the military – three sisters and her Dad were members. It was at RMC where she found God’s purpose – a light in the darkness.
Albeit passionate about the military, in 2012 during her second year of intense training at RMC, she was invited to El Salvador by Youth for Christ, a non-denominational Christian group in over 130 countries worldwide. She spent two weeks where she connected with the people, children especially, spending time playing her guitar and singing to the kids. The kids were greatly impacted by her music – breaking down walls and barriers to provide a better future for them. She knew she would be back. She returned each summer until making her move.
After completing her studies and graduating, in 2016 Vanessa made El Salvador her new home. A third world country in Central America – with neighbours Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala – that is extremely dangerous. It was at one time the top murder country worldwide, but the murder numbers have thankfully lessened. Upon arrival, Vanessa had to become fluent in Spanish. She resided with families to learn the language. She watched ‘telenovelas’ – soap operas – to learn and can now understand and speak the language 90%. She also began her work as a guide and mentor to the youth – directing them towards God and away from gangs. Gangs are extremely prevalent in El Salvador with many youth joining at a young age. It is ironic that if you are a person of God’s work, the gang members consider you a neutral and are respectful of you and religion. She told the story of a gang member who became a Pastor and is now respected among gang members and is living his life in peace while sharing God’s work.
Vanessa had begun her journey to set-up and organize a NGO for Youth for Christ. On her own, she would be a pioneer of the Ministry and wants to see the NGO sustainable for years. She was in the midst of organizing this, when COVID-19 hit putting a stop to her dreams – for now. Her plans for the Ministry were to have weekly themes, a focus on soccer as this is a huge nationally loved sport and provide father figures to the fatherless (most children do not have a father figure to relate to). The Ministry would have a Board of Directors with a team of volunteers and be locally run. She had a team for soccer from her Youth for Christ group and the players were up against gang members who formed their own teams. Vanessa said the soccer league ‘gave her chills’ knowing that these opposing teams were made up of gang members.
Vanessa chose to stay during the pandemic and is content with this decision. She told us, “In March strict confinements and lock-down were put in place making it difficult to keep in touch with her youth”, so she turned to social media. It has been a traumatic time for the people, “so much poverty, no savings, the people are suffering and starving.” She and others from various ministry organizations partnered to deliver care packages of food, cleaning products and other essential supplies to the people. Vanessa told her audience that, “they were able to again connect with the people and spread some hope and love”. She was happy being able to help people ‘in a real way’.
In lockdown, El Salvador people were assigned ID numbers and allowed to go out once a week for groceries. Everything got sprayed – cars and people – with some sort of antiseptic concoction. During this time, COVID was raising its ugly head and in July her 5 roommates, one by one were struck with COVID including herself. One roommate, Pastor David, became gravely ill and had to be hospitalized in a country where hospitalization is free, but medical attention is not a top priority. She thanked everyone for their prayers for her group and Pastor David.
When the tropical storm hit El Salvador in May, Vanessa found herself again helping with building walls to save flooded homes and providing necessary supplies to families. She said, “25,000 families were displaced by the storm and it just isn’t fair, especially for all having been in lockdown for so long”. “People were depressed and were without hope. They broke down when they met Vanessa and her team who again were delivering care packages, God’s message and helping where they could.
Of the many questions Joseph Carbonetto asked, this one stood out. He asked Vanessa if she plans to remain in El Salvador after getting her Ministry up and running. Vanessa told us, “it could be an option, but I was called by God to El Salvador and have no immediate plans to leave. I will take it one year at a time, I’m not rigid and will go where God is leading me”.
Joseph told Stittsville Central, “Vanessa is one of many of the unsung heroes of Stittsville. Many of us go quietly through the days and challenge the status quo, move our own mountains, and make the impossible happen. With all of our perils and hardships of today she has shown us how to overcome impossible odds to build and sustain a mission of love. Congratulations Vanessa and we send our prayers and support for your continued success.”
Vanessa is pleased that, “El Salvador is opening up again on August 24 – that she got through the turmoil thanks to God and prayers – these have made her much stronger now”.