by Sister Joan Holmberg
Contemplating our Chapter Statement, I remain aware that as evolutionary change swirls all around us some essentials remain the same.
In one nanosecond of our universe story, and being loved, energized, called and trusting in the One, four women from New York disembarked in a foreign city and seeded a new religious congregation. No doubt experiencing their own vulnerabilities, yet desirous of serving the poor, these pioneering women began ministering to the city’s newly arrived Irish immigrants who were often the victims of prejudice and discrimination at the hands of Halifax’s more populous British residents.
Within the next century, as the Sisters of Charity, Halifax took root and grew, pioneering women left the Maritimes to minister anew to those experiencing discrimination – the Portuguese in Bermuda, the Anglophones in Quebec, the Irish in Boston and New York, and the First Nation People in British Columbia. Soon these women were joined by others and our Congregation’s involvement in schools, hospitals and social work agencies expanded.
By the late 1960’s the seeds planted in 1849 had matured as Vatican II called us to reclaim our charism and to attentively read the signs of the time. Embracing our Vincentian-Setonian heritage, our Congregation listened in a new way to the cries of the poor and sought ever more creative responses. Pioneering women once again left the comfort of their homes to establish missions in Peru, the Dominican Republic and the Yukon. Still other of our Sisters remained in place and became pioneers in innovative ways. Several became pastoral ministers in inner-city parishes. Some established shelters for women victimized by abuse and trafficking. Others initiated ESL and job training programs for recent immigrants. Several provided housing for refugees. A number counselled troubled youth. A few established earth literacy programs. And all of our pioneering Sisters found their own unique way of reaching out to those in need while accepting their vulnerabilities and trusting in the One who loves and energizes.
Reflecting on all of this, I believe we have much to celebrate! Throughout our Congregation’s nearly 175 years history, we have been gifted by so many pioneering women. But evolutionary change continues and soon our nanosecond role in the universe story will come to completion. Yet until that moment arrives, we have promised to “give joyful witness to love with every breath.”
So, during our Congregation’s waning time, we continue to read the signs of the times and attempt to creatively respond to the cries of the poor. The voices that follow address the three major crises facing our global community – climate change, systemic racism and economic inequality. The voices of these pioneering women of today remind us that as it was in the beginning of our Congregation until this moment we are “loved and energized by the One who calls us, we hear the cries of those who are poor, embrace our own vulnerability, trust the presence of the Spirit in every moment.”
“We Hear the Cries of Those Who are Poor”
by Sister Katherine McGrath
“What do YOU do?” I remember so vividly that Sunday morning at Saint Mary of the Angels Parish in Roxbury, MA where the congregation had sung the psalm refrain, “The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor”. In the homily, the celebrant asked if those words we had repeatedly sung had given us comfort. You could hear the murmured ‘yes’ in response. “Yes” he continued, “the Lord does hear but I have two questions for each of you this morning. “Do YOU hear those cries?” Then after moments of deep silence, in almost a whisper he asked, “What do you DO when you hear those cries? Truly hearing them makes you responsible to be compassionate in action”. He finished there and we sat for many minutes in such prayerful, reflective, communal silence with that question, “What do YOU DO/I DO for the poor?” That Sunday morning, that simple homily, the soul searching questions and the shared communal, reflective silence still prompt my heart to this day. (I continue to be a member of the parish and the active Social Justice Committee.)
Recently I was asked, “As a Sister of Charity what inspires you to make ministry choices?” These are some of the responses that immediately flooded my heart:
“…by rendering to Him every temporal and spiritual service in their power in the person of the poor.” (Constitution)
“…show forth the love of God by serving those in need in a spirit of humility, simplicity and charity.” (Constitution)
“…to be in solidarity with the economically poor.” (Chapter 1980)
“Moved by the pain of the world and by the energy of our charism …” (Chapter 2008)
“From this place that we call home, how will I live charity today … because it matters”. (Chapter 2014)
And always, always the words of Matthew 25, “When I was hungry …”
Inspired by these sentiments, my ministries as a Sister of Charity have been so enriched while responding to those in inner-city parish communities; in our Sisters of Charity mission in Peru; while being a presence of hospitality to those seeking refuge at the southern border in El Paso, Texas; and in reaching out to new people in ESL, Adult Literacy programs. In each of these missions, the words of Saint Vincent de Paul challenged my style of ministry: “Let the poor be your teachers”. They were and they are! From them, I learn humility, simplicity, charity and gratitude.
In this time of pandemic, we Sisters of Charity affirmed in our Chapter 2020: “Loved and energized by the One who calls, we hear the cries of those who are poor”. How often also during those days of Chapter we sang with such gusto, “What shall we do with so great a love, so great a love?”
That great love of which we sang is our ‘unstoppable charity’! Together we must invite/inspire each other to hear the cries of those who are poor so prevalent today knowing we are blessed with response-ability to do so.
by Sister Geraldine Lancaster
It was the cry that echoed across the nation, George Floyd’s gasping pleas, “ I can’t breathe.” They were the last words spoken by the middle-aged African-American. We know the story and the treatment George received from the arresting officer was captured on a video. Shocking! was the word used to describe the brutality of the white officer. The egregious act perpetrated against George Floyd became a breaking news story, broadcasted globally. The public exposure of the inhumane treatment George experienced left no room to deny racism within the police forces.
Public reaction to George’s death triggered immediate protests. They were not limited to one country but were far-reaching. People took to the streets to call for the end of racism. The constant presence of protesters in city streets and the memory of George’s last breath did much to focus people on the evils of racism. Educators, historians and academics began to delve more deeply into the past to expose the origins and roots of racism.
The roots of racism were deeply planted centuries ago, during the expansion of European Empires, discoveries and colonization. Dominant white settlers arrived on the new shores with the belief that they were superior to people of colour. The new arrivals imposed their culture, laws and superiority on the native inhabitants. In many cases, black African people were brought to the Americas as slave labourers. Settlers thrived in the colonies, while people of colour became oppressed and treated as inferior humans. Violations of their human rights and freedoms were part of their daily lives. The Black Lives Matter movement is about restoring the dignity and equality of people of colour. Bringing an end to racism and the discrimination of races will involve people who are able to surrender their white privilege and others who understand that we are all connected, brothers and sisters and share the same air that George Floyd can no longer inhale.
People of colour and race do not receive the same services and treatment when they seek medical help, educational opportunities, economic assistance and so on. The systems that are meant to ease our ways of life cannot be assumed to fairly and equally treat dark-skinned people. Racism is embedded in institutions and social organizations. The anti-racism demand is to root out systemic racism.
I now question as I look back to my teaching years if I have wronged any student of colour. Unmasking racism is the process of stripping away the layers of understanding and arriving at a new consciousness. I am grateful for the experiences given me to attend the Truth and Reconciliation events that were held in Canada a few years ago. The stories of the survivors of residential schools tearfully told about abuse, loss of culture, language, separations from family and home … all insightful. These government designed schools were meant to extinguish “the Indian.” Racist behaviour was responsible for demeaning the students and culture of First Nations Peoples. It’s painful to admit that racism contributed to the present-day marginalization of Indigenous peoples.
Our Chapter gatherings brought us together at a time when the Black Lives Matter protests were energized and active. The human rights issue of racism was a large piece of our conversation and discernment. Contemplative moments and the presence of the Spirit nudged us to embrace a bold commitment to “engage in a process that seeks to enter into the woundedness and pain suffered by persons affected by racism, and address systemic racism which includes an acknowledgement of our own white privilege.” This commitment makes me know that I and we are part of a large movement and we will have a mountain to climb to get to its summit.
Indigenous Racism in Canada
by Sister Donna Geernaert
As Canadians, we claim our contemporary society is not so much a melting pot as a mosaic with brightly coloured bits of ethnicity, culture, racial identity and language embedded side by side. We have also been happy to recognize various parts of the country as the terminus for the underground railroad which brought enslaved African Americans to freedom. While the mosaic has often been more theoretical than practical in application and anti-Black racism has been a persistent feature of Canadian society, anti-Indigenous racism is the clearest form of structural racism in Canada.
Early relationships with Indigenous Peoples were characterized by commercial arrangements, inter-marriage, and military alliances. A period of colonization and treaty making began with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which declared that Aboriginal nations “should not be molested or disturbed” on their lands without formal treaties, and only the Crown would have authority to negotiate such agreements on behalf of the settlers. In 1867, the British North America Act gave exclusive jurisdiction over “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” to the federal government of the newly formed Canada. In 1876, the first of several versions of the Indian Act was passed. In an attempt to regulate all aspects of life, these Acts required Indigenous individuals to receive permission from Indian Agents to travel or engage in trade and prevented them from voting.
From the 1880s to the closing decades of the 20th century, the federal government partnered with four major Christian denominations to establish and operate Residential Schools intended to educate, assimilate, and integrate Indigenous people into Canadian society. In the words of one government official, it was a system designed “to kill the Indian in the child.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which operated from 2008-2015 endeavoured to reveal and record the effects of these schools. Though some former students affirmed positive experiences, others bore witness to painful separation from family and community, harsh discipline, poor living conditions, and assaults on their language, culture, and spiritual traditions. Survivors often spoke with great pain of physical, emotional and sexual abuse which haunted them throughout their lives. Estranged from their families, communities and even themselves, many experienced a disorientation which would ultimately lead to multiple social problems. Indigenous peoples proportionately represent the largest number of Canadians who are impoverished, suffer from alcohol and drug dependencies, are imprisoned, and die of suicide or other violent deaths.
Reconciliation will need to address long standing systemic injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples: lack of economic development on Canada’s reserves, poor nutrition, the constant issue of unsafe drinking water, problems with seasonal flooding and evacuation of communities, a lack of safe housing, lack of educational opportunities, limited access to culturally appropriate medical care and treatment for addictions. Seeking to promote reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples in Canada, a coalition of indigenous people, bishops, clergy, members of lay movements and male and female institutes of consecrated life was formed in 2016. To view its purpose and recent activities please visit: https://ourladyofguadalupecircle.ca/.
Climate Crisis: When did I know?
by Sister Gertie Jocksch
Our Chapter commitment to participate in ongoing learning, conversation and discernment of actions we will take to address the climate crisis is indeed challenging. Our words and the sincerity of hearts brings to mind a plethora of stories and ideas. I can hardly remember when I was not aware of the unfolding climate crisis. Yet there was a time when I did not know and there was a time when I knew.
I owe much to Father Thomas Berry and Dr. Brian Swimme for their unrelenting commitment to tell the New Story and at the same time to report the devastating destruction of Earth. I share in their commitment and passion as I embrace the New Story and my love for Earth.
The desire to do something, to help make a change is strong and can be unsettling. I went through difficult times of feeling powerless and hopeless. How could I or our community possibly make a difference? The changes needed are large and often overwhelming. What is the learning, conversion and discernment that will lead us to helpful actions?
Conversion is ongoing and can take make forms. My love for Earth has given me the courage to be present to the destruction. Owning my part in the climate crisis has also helped me to be honest with the crisis we are facing. These keep me in the conversation of seeking a way to respond. This reality is present in my prayers, my ongoing learning and the choices I make in my daily life. I have come to believe that even the smallest things can make a difference.
I have found it essential to gather with others concerned about the climate crisis. I think community engagement and learning are important steps to take if we want our actions to be fruitful. My ministry in Programs in Earth Literacies gives me opportunities to offer educational programs. Our vision, ‘Igniting our connection with Earth and nurturing a spirituality of earth care’ has led us to offering workshops in ecology and spirituality.
I am also active in a variety of organizations: Greater Victoria Acting Together, Conversation on One Planet Victoria, Sierra Club and KAIROS. These organizations are involved locally and are committed to substantial change. In BC there is no shortage of concerns in the area of climate, namely, oil tankers, gas and oil pipelines, old growth logging, agriculture, fracking, fish farms and transportation to name a few. Presently in British Columbia people are petitioning the government to stop old growth logging. Old growth is one of the largest carbon sinks and logging old growth is one of the highest carbon emitters, not to mention their spiritual significance.
How to respond, what shall we do with so much love? And I pray, “In this earth, in this immaculate field, we shall not plant any seeds except for compassion and love,” Rumi.
Random thoughts on Climate Crisis
by Sister Noreen Cleary
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper. (T.S. Eliot)
The first three lines, with their simple nursery rhyme rhythms, belie the terror of the last line’s catastrophic conclusion. And the catastrophe itself is rather quiet, coming along relatively unnoticed, quietly, just a whimper. This is climate change, climate crisis, climate collapse. It is happening now, all around us and around the world, relatively unnoticed, with only occasional mention in the media. ‘Whimpers’ as it were.
Climate change is the single worst problem facing us at the present time. It affects every aspect of our life and culture on our ‘Earth home.’ Floods, fires, and heat will impact all of us but in particular people of colour and the indigenous, those living in poverty, children and women, and animal species. The ‘whimpers’ we hear today are a harbinger of coming calamity.
Good news and bad news; which do you want first? Well, here is some of the ‘bad news.’
- Fires are raging on the West Coast; floods are swamping the East; glaciers in the Rocky Mountains are shrinking and disappearing; ice in the Arctic is melting; deforestation is ongoing in the Amazon; desertification is drying up large swaths of Africa.
- Carbon emissions from cars, trains, and planes are creating a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere and so causing the Earth’s climate to heat up; methane gas produced by ruminant animals, who are raised on a large scale because of ‘factory farming,’ is adding to the heat.
- We may be unable to meet the 1.5c temperature limit set by the Paris climate agreement.
- Pollution of this sort has been going on for more than 200 years! William Wordsworth wrote in 1802: … “late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in nature that is ours; … For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”
The factories of the Industrial Revolution were powered then by coal as many factories are today. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis noted those 200 years of ongoing damage to the climate.
- Plastic products, which take years to biodegrade, proliferate. Earth’s oceans now contain tons of plastic debris; bags, old fishing line, balloons, six-pack holders. These poison and ensnare the water and the fish. And if fish disappear, an important food source is gone.
Is there any ‘good news?’ Yes!
- President Joe Biden, U.S.A., and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada, have agreed to work together to create a more sustainable society.
- Car companies, led by Volvo, have promised to manufacture all or partially electric vehicles by 2030.
- Increasingly, consumers are searching for organic and/or humanely raised animal products. Many are turning to a vegan diet or at least set aside a ‘meatless Monday.’ ‘Simple living’ is a way of life.
- Solar and wind power are becoming less expensive; we see solar panels on the roofs of many houses and wind turbines along the coast.
- Hemp, a plant product, will eventually be substituted for many plastics; bamboo, which is prolific, is an alternative to wood floors.
- Many Sisters are committed to the work of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ even in difficult situations. Recently we were encouraged to investigate our carbon footprint, to use the carbon offset program for transportation, and to turn the thermostat down and the air conditioning up.
- Young people, perhaps inspired by Greta Thunberg, are leading the way and encouraging all of us to work hard to protect the climate.
What can I/we do? We can use our voices and our votes to influence corporate and government decisions. We can educate ourselves by reading and registering for online sessions. We can subscribe to an environmental periodical or read a book. We can sign a petition that comes across our email. We can join a march for climate. We can show up in a variety of ways.
This is the way the world ends … climate change, crisis, collapse, crash, calamity, cataclysm, catastrophe. This is the way the world ends.