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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth

Since I've spent the last 3 months living with eight Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and two candidates and since this past weekend kicked off the celebration of the SCN becentennial, it seems only appropriate to dedicate a post to these amazing women. 

I'm not sure what it was that prompted me to ask an SCN friend of mine about the possibility of working with them in India, but I am so glad I did.  Honestly, I didn't know much about SCNs, but knew they worked in India and knew that the ones I did know were impressive women.  When I told a friend from another congregation about my interest in going to India, she gave me information about her order's missions in India, but I never pursued it, confident for reasons I still don't understand that it was the SCNs I would be working with.  Obviously I made it here and couldn't be more pleased about it.

"O daughters of Catherine, simple and free,
Pioneer women, we are called to be,
With the love of Christ, urging us on"

The above words are the refrain of a song we often sing during evening prayer, based on the SCN mission and charism.  I can say that the words accurately reflect my experience with the SCNs here.

Pioneer women.  As I've been writing my blog posts, I've mentioned no one by name, unless I've quoted a song or text.  I've thought about mentioning this person or that, but in the end decided to simply describe them.  As I write this post, it seems appropriate to break that trend and say something about Sister Ann Roberta, one of the six SCN pioneers to leave the U.S. in 1947 to come to India.  Incidentally, the day I began writing this, December 5, was her birthday.  When she left her home in 1947, she did so thinking she'd never see American soil again.  That was the commitment she and the others made.  I'll be away from home about 9 months and I communicate often with family and friends.  I can't imagine making the decision to leave permanently to go to a land about which I know very little without any means of regular communication.  That is true commiment.  As it turns out, she has gotten to go back to the States to visit, but India is and will remain her home.

There is something so compelling about Sister Ann Roberta.  She exudes peacefulness and joy.  I have gotten to be around her on numerous occasions.  She lives in Gaya, a place that we have passed through numerous times going to and from Mokama and Patna.  We also visited Gaya for Diwali.  When we arrive, she is always there to greet us with a warm smile and hug.  She sits with us as we drink tea and eat our tiffin, always offering us whatever is in the house to eat (true of all SCN houses I've visited).  She has a keen memory and is a wonderful storyteller.  I could listen to her for hours.  She also has a wonderful sense of humor, sharing that lightness with those around her.  I asked to take a picture with her one time and afterwards showed it to her.  Her response was something like, "When I see pictures of myself, I always wonder, 'Who is that old woman?'"  She may be old in body, but not in spirit. Her smile and laughter radiate from deep within.

That joyfulness is a quality I have experienced with so many SCNs.  It has been a long time since I've lived with others and it's not always easy here to share space.  I think living in community is challenging for anyone, though.  In community meetings in Chatra, discussions sometimes get heated.  But then a compromise is reached or a decision is made, the meeting ends, and everyone is cutting up and laughing.  Laughter comes easily.  Like I have observed with children in various places, with the SCNs, work does not seem to be dull drudgery, perhaps because it is shared work.  The work itself may not be interesting, but the company shared in doing it makes it fun!

And let me talk about the work they are doing.  In the compound in Chatra, we (I know I'm not an SCN, but I'm still working with them for a few more days!) are serving about 2000 children in the 3 schools.  Yes, there are other lay teachers and staff, but the SCNs provide leadership and are at the heart of everything that happens on campus.  Ninety or so of the girls attending the schools live on campus in a hostel.  At least in these parts, it is very common for children (as young as kindergarten age) to go to another town and live in a hostel so they have a chance at a good education.  One of the young SCNs here is in charge of the hostel girls. 

Last week during the community meeting, there was a discussion about a proposal brought to the house for 40-50 more girls to come live on campus for another educational program.  Some money would be given to support them, but the SCNs would ultimately be responsible for the girls' well-being on campus.  My first thought was, "No possible way.  Everyone (except me) already has such a full plate." The SCN response was, "How could we not help these girls get an education?  What do we need to do to make this happen?"  The love of Christ is certainly urging them to see not limits, but possibilities.  Currently, preparations are being made so the girls can come.

I have seen numerous large events- the feast day celebration, a fair, two Annual Day programs, and a Sports Day program all come together as if there were many more people making them happen.  Everyone puts in whatever work needs to be done to make them successful.  I've helped a little with the events, but have not put in the long hours of labor before and after than everyone else in the house has.  I can at least say I've taken some good photographs of the events, though, and was the "official photographer" of Sports Day.  That was fun!

Also in Chatra is Chetna Bharati, where girls and boys get a rudimentary education and with it, the possibility of more formal schooling. Self-help groups, women's groups, trainings and workshops on various topics, and many other projects also come from Chetna Bharati's tireless work towards a more just world.  From here the unjust systems at work are challenged.  Actually, it might be more accurate to say that unjust systems are explained to those who are being denied their rights, so that they can stand up and speak for themselves.  It's all about empowerment.

These are examples of only a few of the many ministries of the SCNs in India.  Their work also includes work in hospitals, work with persons affected by leprosy and polio, work with children of sex workers, and many others.  A number of you have said very kind things to me about my presence here, and I thank you for your support, but I have to say that my short-term and rather relaxed commitment is nothing compared to the work these women have committed their lives to do.  I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them and learn from them.

I'll also say that as my time is almost over, I am encouraged to have heard the words, "the next time you come..." several times while I was in Mokama last weekend.  I hope with all my heart that there will be many next times for me with the SCNs here.  I am certain my relationship with them will continue and, as with any new relationship, I look forward to seeing how it will continue to develop.   

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