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A few weeks ago I visited the northeast coast of Japan, where last year’s earthquake and tsunami caused enormous death and destruction. It was heart-breaking to see the extent of the damage and to witness the suffering of the survivors. Yet there was also a glimmer of hope amid the despair.
“I lost my home and my business,” one man told me. “I give thanks that all the members of my family survived. That is what matters most,” he said. I’m sure that many people in New York and New Jersey who were battered by Hurricane Sandy can identify with this experience. Let us pause in gratitude this holiday season and remember our blessings.
Our blessings seem to increase when we share them with others. As contradictory as it appears, the more we give to others the more we receive. Maryknoll Sisters Margaret Lacson and Kathleen Reiley are among the many volunteers who have been helping those affected by the tragedy in Japan.
“In the beginning, Caritas Japan distributed food and blankets,” they told me. “Now the volunteers go to the temporary shelters to visit, to listen, to do whatever the people ask of us. They tell us that our presence helps them to forget. Some wanted to commit suicide but now they see a reason to keep on living.”
Inspired by the spirit of perseverance of the survivors and those who are assisting them, Margaret says: “This experience has given new fire to my missioner’s heart.”
I pray that each of you who have been faithfully assisting Maryknoll Sisters over the years will also experience new fire in your hearts this Thanksgiving. Whatever your personal needs and troubles, God will reward you for reaching out to your brothers and sisters in need around the world. Whether it is the family in Japan that lost everything, the young woman in Tanzania who is the first in her family to attend school, or health workers in Haiti who are receiving further training, your monthly donation keeps that glimmer of hope burning.
As we come to the end of this Centennial year, we are deeply grateful for the outpouring of love and appreciation that we have received from friends, co-workers, alumni, donors and all our partners in mission in the United States and throughout the Maryknoll world. This holiday season, let us make the following words of our founder, Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, our own:
“We would do well to recall at this moment the benefits that flow into our lives daily, sometimes almost threatening to engulf us and leave us breathless in the face of God’s bounty.”
– Sister Janice McLaughlin, MM
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For Sister Janice McLaughlin, suffering can be the ‘stuff ‘of artistic expression. You not only open yourselves to a variety of experiences and allow yourselves to be transformed by them but you also share your new vision with others through your work. This is indeed a noble calling.
When Maryknoll Sister Mary Boyce called and invited me to speak at the annual gathering of the Dominican Institute for the Arts recently, I said yes immediately. I agreed, because the arts, culture and nature speak to the deepest parts of me. The African rain forests and plains are my cathedrals. A dance, song or poem are my prayer. Animals have been my guides during my 40 years on the African continent.
I also said yes because of my Dominican connections. I was educated by the Dominicans of Columbus, Ohio, for 13 years before I joined Maryknoll. Imagine my delight when I learned that Maryknoll Sisters are also Dominicans. Officially we are the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic and were trained by the Sinsinawa Dominicans.
At my talk, our guide was the dung beetle. I know it’s not very complimentary to be compared to a dung beetle, but as I explain in my book, Ostriches, Dung Beetles and Other Spiritual Masters, A Book of Wisdom from the Wild, these very common insects play a very important role in the perpetuation of plant life on the African plain. “They help to spread the seeds that were ingested by various animals and are expelled in their droppings and are ready to sprout when the rains come.”
Through artistic endeavors, you also help to perpetuate new life – the life of the spirit. You take the ordinary seeds of daily life, some as unpleasant as dung, and turn them into something unique and beautiful. You spread them widely so that others can see and understand. You create images and symbols that speak to the Mystery enshrined in all creation.
Dung beetles also teach us the virtue of perseverance. “I have watched beetles pushing a ball up a hill, only to have it slip and roll to the bottom. Like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the beetle returns to the bottom and starts all over again, and again, and again – never giving up until she reaches the top with the dung ball intact.” I conclude: “Such perseverance is a reminder that achievement takes effort and persistence. If we give up when we encounter obstacles, we will never reach our goal.
“The Shona word for perseverance, kushinga, comes from the same root as kushingisa, which means to strengthen. Isn’t it true that when we persevere, we become stronger and more confident?” As artists, I’m sure that you’ve experienced this reality many times. You may be tempted to give up and even to turn away from the artistic vocation since it is so demanding and often a very solitary pursuit, but if you persevere, the fruits of your labor will strengthen and give courage and confidence to others.
Let me explain how art, culture and nature gave me strength and confidence and led me to my mission vocation.
As a child, my father taught my sister and me how to garden and he took us fishing with him on the rivers and lakes of Western Pennsylvania. Those quiet moments sitting in the boat, waiting for the fish to bite, were probably my first experience of contemplative prayer.
My mother took us to art galleries, museums, theatre and ballet. She taught us to appreciate the beauty, truth and wisdom captured by artists of different nationalities and various generations and in a multitude of forms and mediums.
When I began my mission journey in Tanzania, East Africa, in 1969, I immediately felt at home. The beauty of the natural world and the spontaneity, warmth and humor of the local people combined to welcome me and tapped into the lessons of my childhood. The union of nature and culture is such a given on the African continent, where there is no separation between spirit and matter and where people live close to the earth and find God in all things.
“The Arts Were My Teachers” was the title of a short article that I wrote for one of our congregation’s publications. I explained that I learned the history and culture of my new home in East Africa through plays, novels, and films. They focused on contemporary issues such as the legacy of colonialism and slavery, modern-day corruption, tribalism, power struggles, wealth and poverty. Writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo of Kenya and Chinua Achebe of Nigeria explored their country’s history and critiqued the neo-colonial systems that benefit only a few at the expense of the majority of the people.
The artists, authors, musicians and playwrights of the present continue to expose the struggles of ordinary people to survive amid the extravagant excesses of their leaders. These struggles are being played out on our evening news as we’ve witnessed the overthrow of the leaders of Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Violence in Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan, Nigeria and Mali are being chronicled by young authors such as the Nigerian Jesuit who wrote a powerful book of short stories about violence and reconciliation, called Say You’re One of Them. Artists throughout the world witness to the crucifixion of Jesus in suffering people today.
The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many names for God. My favorite is Chipindikure, the One Who Turns Things Upside Down, Chipindikure. It comes from the root word, kupinduka, to be uprooted. This is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be touched by the pain and suffering of others and the pain and suffering in our own lives. This, I believe, is the gift and challenge of our religious vocation and the artist’s vocation – to be uprooted from the familiar, the comfortable, from what we grew up knowing and believing; to be uprooted as well from our assumptions, prejudices and deeply held views. In other words, to be transformed into new people; and to be open to receive God’s revelation in unexpected people and places.
I believe that this being turned upside down is the stuff of your artistic expression. You not only open yourselves to a variety of experiences and allow yourselves to be transformed by them but you also share your new vision with others through your work. This is indeed a noble calling.
As I embraced the newness of first Kenya, then Mozambique and Zimbabwe, I encountered the resilience, endurance and strong faith of people living on the margins of society with barely enough to eat, a grass mat for sleeping, a pot for cooking, and little else.
From the slums of Nairobi, to a prison cell in war-torn Rhodesia, and refugee camps deep in the forests of Mozambique, God kept opening my eyes to recognize God’s presence in the courageous, suffering people that I met wherever I went. I continue to be turned upside down in this society with its consumerism, militarism and polarized political debate.
I have seen more than my share of pain, death and destruction in my life. These experiences have made me vulnerable and taught me that I can’t solve every problem. But I can be present to those in pain, and I can stay with them in our shared powerlessness and I can cry with them. Sometimes that is all we can do.
Colonial Rhodesia in the midst of a war of liberation was about as far from my home in Pittsburgh as you can get! I was only in Rhodesia for three months when the police raided our Justice and Peace Office, took all our files, and arrested me. Those three weeks in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison for those called “terrorists” was better than any thirty-day retreat! In fact, I often tease that it was like my novitiate.
As I wrote in my diary, “I knew that God was with me in my cell.” Even though the bed was filthy and full of lumps, the food tasteless, the routine and lack of freedom monotonous and the uncertainty about the future frightening, I have never felt so peaceful and contented in my life. As I wrote in this little book, “God’s love became as real as the air I breathed and the blood that coursed through my veins.” I have come to realize that God is most present to us when we are most needy and vulnerable. Maybe that’s why the poor seem to have such a deep faith, in spite of the outward circumstances in their lives.
These are just some examples from my experience on the African continent. I’ve tried to capture some of them through the medium of words and through the animals. I’m sure you can add to these from your experience.
Whether exposing the lies of today’s world and offering alternative visions, or celebrating the prophetic voices of the past and of our own era, we are called to make a difference in the world.
Like the dung beetle, we need to keep pushing, even if it’s an uphill struggle. “A path is made by walking the same way many times,” says an African proverb. Can we persevere and through our artistic expression make new paths to a better world for all?
– Sister Janice McLaughlin, MM
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When farmers in Lyadebwe, Tanzania, won a regional grant to buy a machine that presses oil from sunflower seeds, there was no end to the gifts it would bring to all.
Janke Sanga (chairperson of the local Chapa Kazi group) was waiting for us at the petrol station at Makambako. Janke had arranged for a “Rover” car to take us into the village.
Well, the Rover was hilarious: it must be the smallest thing Toyota makes, but it was ok, and it even had an air conditioner, which was great as it is so dusty on the sandy road to Lyadebwe. The five families of the original eight were on hand.
Many of the children of these families are now in secondary school or form five and six schools or even teaching in other places now. But there are children still there attending primary school in the village.
George Sanga, Janke’s eldest son, who just finished form six, was on hand. He is teaching in a secondary school in Makambako as he waits to enter University in September or October. In this original group, there had been only one who had attended secondary school (he died many years ago).
Janke himself is now doing secondary school as a private student. He has a chicken project of layers in Makambako and makes a profit of 200,000 a month. He makes the chicken feed himself. This project helps with school fees. He gave us a generous gift of two trays of eggs (60)!
The first thing we did upon arrival was to plant the tree — it is a tulip tree with the big red flowers. Those flowers have a lot of mafuta, and cows love to eat them, but it is a great shade tree and Lyadebwe gets very hot in the dry season. Sister Noreen McCarthy gave a little talk about the Maryknoll Sisters’ 100 years as a congregation and that we chose this tree as it has nice shade and will cover all of them, holding them close as a group and as friends.
She went on about what a privilege it has been to work with them for many years and to see now, how they have all grown up and even now our “grandchildren” are growing up! So she said this tree will remind them that we are always with them, always holding them close.
Sisters Noreen McCarthy & Rachel Kunkler plant a tulip tree in Lyadebwe, Tanzania, to remind villagers 'that we are always with them.'
Janke responded with a gorgeous short talk, as well. He said, “Thank you for bringing us into the celebration of the 100 years of the Maryknoll Sisters. This tree connects us to the Maryknoll Sisters and will always be a reminder of our connection. We are very grateful that Maryknoll sent us you two Sisters to teach us, to be with us, to believe in us.” He went on as to what a blessing we have been for them.
Then they took us for the biggest surprise: they now have a huge new building for a big machine to press oil from sunflower seeds. This story was unbelievable. Last year, the entire district council came to visit them and to see what they have there as they had heard about them. Well, they were very impressed with their houses, all made from the things at Lyadebwe, including the handmade clay roofing tiles, with their water supply, pumped by a windmill, and with their solar lights.
They won first prize in the Njombe region, and were given eight million (tshs) to buy an aalizeti oil machine and build a house for it. Of course, the group did better than that. They bought the machine and made a huge house, which has a big office, a big store, and a huge room for the machine itself. They built it all themselves, as they know how to build. They bought bati for the roof; there was no time to make baked clay tiles. It is absolutely fantastic. Two of them are always on duty with the machine, and they meet once a month to go over the accounts and make all the decisions together.
They have now a saving balance of 700,000 (shs) and have decided to give themselves loans of up to 100,000 with five-percent interest per month, with repayment within a year. The loans would be for buying fertilizer, seeds and things needed for their work. It is a kind of credit union. Sister Noreen’s nephew Donal was there at least four years ago and explained credit unions to them. (Donal is the head of a large one in Ireland.) Well of course, Janke never forgets anything.
So now, that they are making profit, they are doing a kind of credit union with low interest. They sell oil and they press oil for others and just charge so much per debe of seeds that are brought. They have all the costs figured out and make a modest profit.
It is hard to describe how very impressed we were. But they said they can do all of this, only because of us and our “teachings.” The women do a lot of business in the village, selling greens they grow in their garden, selling their sewing/embroidery work, and more. Even the village is so much better they said. And the Chapa Kazi group (which means “good job” or “hard work” in Swahili) is the only one who always has water.
Janke said he is amazed that we were so insistent and worked so hard that they have their own water supply and now they all understand why! The trees planted many years ago have grown so big and beautiful. They put flowering trees all near their houses and along the road. It is like a forest in the middle of a sandy semi-desert.
We could write a book just about this group and all that they have been through. Janke and Lydia, his wife, have lost two children and have helped countless others in addition to the six living ones they have.
We exchanged gifts. We had Nakumat supermarket bags with some used clothing, exercise books, pencils and pens and rulers for each family; and a box of cookies for the children. The young twins Rachel and John received them very formally.
We were gifted with five liters of sunflower oil made from their machine, two 20-liter buckets of peanuts, and one of popcorn (to pop!). But the biggest gift was to receive their love, their gratitude, and most of all their self-belief turned into more development. Truly the students have surpassed the teachers.
– Sister Rachel Kunkler, MM
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'I fell in love with these little ones right away,' says a visitor to Sister Celeste's school in northern Tanzania. 'Everyone is busy, everybody participates and everyone looked like they were having fun.'
Dressed in simple blue uniforms, easy-to-remove shoes, trimmed fingernails and luminous smiles most of the pre-school children were busy on their individual mats solving puzzles and learning numbers. In a tight cluster of three children, a teacher is gently reviewing simple English words. I fell in love with these little ones right away. Everyone is busy, everybody participates and everyone looked like they were having fun. I certainly did as I accompanied Sister Celeste Derr in a visit to the school she directs for 100 children in Mwanza, Tanzania.
Both morning classes at The Sacred Heart of Jesus Montessori School of Mwanza each have about 25 children whose learning experiences alternate between self-directed activities and more intense teacher-led group work. After the morning classes are dismissed there is time for tea with the teachers and then the afternoon classes begin with a gathering under the trees to sing their national anthem.
Whether individually or in small groups, students are eager to be heard.
The children seem to thrive in the school responding well to the individual attention as well as the time to work on their own at their own pace and to learn from each other in groups. They are bright and eager to interact with each other, with their teachers.
Once the final child leaves the school yard, Sister Celeste has time for administrative tasks and in-services for the teachers are also provided. Later in the afternoon, Celeste begins her volunteer tutoring of HIV/AIDS orphans who are assisted through a scholarship study and support group program run by Joanne Miya, Maryknoll Lay Missioner.
At the start of each school day, students are greeted personally by Sister Celeste.
Sister Celeste is a person who does a lot of work, moves slowly, deliberately and with a gracious heart through her day and gives the credit to others for anything accomplished along the way. So with a heart full of gratitude, I give Celeste an A+ in appreciation of her tireless work, her spirit of dedication, her warm hospitality and her sense of a kindly humor. Watching Sr. Celeste quietly talking with the children or working with the teachers was like watching this quiet, gentle woman conduct a choir in a minor key in which each one finds their own unique voice.
– Sister Ann Hayden, MM
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In today's globalized world, children especially are at risk. Hunger, poverty and disease stunt their growth and kill their spirits, says Sister Janice McLaughlin, who dreams of another kind of world.
The Tonga people of Zimbabwe, where I have lived and worked for more than 25 years, live along the banks of the Zambezi River where there are many dangers. Daily they face the danger of floods, of crocodiles and hippos, of elephants, leopards and lions. They have a proverb to help them survive in this difficult and dangerous environment; a proverb that reminds them of the importance of cooperation.
Simweenda alike kakamulya kalonga: the one who walks alone by the stream gets eaten.
In today’s complex globalized world, we all face many dangers – a growing gap between rich and poor, crippling debt, corruption, HIV-AIDS, war, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, human trafficking and mass migration, to name but a few.
Children are especially vulnerable. Hunger, poverty and disease stunt their growth, hinder their development, and kill their spirits.
Unless we walk together to end child poverty, we will all get eaten! Our future will be eroded as our children die young, turn to criminal activities to survive, and are recruited as child soldiers or jihadists. Without a coordinated, collective effort to give our children a head start in life, the young will succumb to hopelessness and will fall deeper and deeper into a chasm of despair.
All of us are proof that another future is possible. We dream of a world where children grow up in loving and safe communities; where they have enough to eat, clean water to drink, a roof over their heads, affordable and available health care, a good education and employment opportunities when they finish school. This dream is not unattainable. It is part and parcel of the millennium development goals that we all endorse and work to achieve.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Maryknoll Sisters, the community to which I belong. We are a diverse, multicultural community of religious women who seek to make God’s love visible in 25 nations on five continents. Our founder, Mary Josephine Rogers, was a visionary who saw a role for American Catholic women in the missionary movement of the Church at a time when women in the United States did not have the right to vote.
For 100 years, more than 4,000 women “dedicated to the spread of the Gospel of Peace and the alleviation of suffering” have left their homes and families to help make the world a better place for all. From our earliest days, we established clinics and hospitals to build healthy bodies. We started schools to open doors to a better life.
For 64 of those 100 years, we have worked in Tanzania. Our pioneers on this continent established a clinic in Kowak, near Lake Victoria, shortly after their arrival in 1948 and founded the first primary school for girls in that area the following year. More than 50 years ago, we shared the dream of the Global Network of Religions for Children to provide children, especially girls, with quality education that would enrich body, mind and spirit and would challenge them to put their learning at the service of church and society. We opened some of the first secondary schools for girls in Tanzania: Marian College in Morogoro in 1957 (now Kilakala), Rosary College in Mwanza in 1961 (now Nganza) and Rugambwa Secondary in Bukoba in 1965. We continue to work in the fields of education and to promote the rights of women and children in all that we do.
Maryknoll Sisters embraced Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s vision of development. Indeed, President Nyerere addressed our Assembly at our center in New York in 1971 where he encouraged us to live and work with the people, not as bosses or superiors but as companions.
“Only by sharing work, hardships, knowledge, persecution, and progress can the Church contribute to our growth,” he said. “And this means sharing in every sense as ‘members one of another.’ For if the Church is not part of our poverty, and part of our struggle against poverty and injustice, then it is not part of us…. The poor and oppressed should come to you not for alms,” he stressed, “but for support against injustice.”
This vision of the role of the Church grows out of the belief that each person is a child of God with innate dignity and that we are called to work for the common good not just to enrich and advance ourselves. I think this is a vision that is shared by all faith-based groups.
The Catholic Church has a rich body of social teachings that show us how to apply the Gospel message to the pressing issues of the day. These teachings are based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ who showed us what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves and who told us that whatever we did to the least of our brothers and sisters we did to him.
The advent of the social teachings as a recent tradition that sheds the light of the Gospel on current affairs was Pope Leo XIII’s famous declaration in support of the rights of workers (Rerum Novarum) in 1891. This was followed by other Papal encyclicals or letters on issues such as peace, development, justice and evangelization. Conferences of bishops have also issued important statements about social problems such as migration, racism, economic policy, war and peace.
Fifty years ago, this tradition was strengthened and enlarged by the Second Vatican Council when all the bishops of the Church met in Rome to deliberate on the needs of the modern world. In one of the Council’s most famous documents, The Church in the Modern World, we are told:
“The joy and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”
This prophetic statement underscores why the plight of children is so central to our mission. It explains why poverty is seen as a moral evil, as a sin against the innocent. It propels us to work together to create a world of unity, harmony and interdependence.
– Sister Janice McLaughlin, MM
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