The business of life since first vows makes me feel as though I’ve been swooped up into a whirlwind, making it hard to believe that only eight short weeks have passed since I became a program manager at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati. IJPC is a nonprofit organization that was established thirty years ago when Sisters from a few congregations, including my own, decided to work together on the social issues of their day. Though issues may change, the mission remains the same: to educate and advocate for change, challenge unjust local, national, and global systems, and to promote the creation of a non-violent society. I am responsible for developing the programming for three of the four focus areas including: ending the death penalty, eliminating human trafficking, peace and non-violence initiatives. Thankfully, we have a small but wonderful staff and lots of volunteers, interns, and partners to work with.
I love the work because it addresses systemic change, but that is also what can make it such a challenge. People have been working on these issues long before I came along, and there is still a long way to go. I am used to working with students and seeing the results of my efforts when their eyes light up with new understanding or by being able to see how much they’d grown by the end of a school year. This work doesn’t produce those kind of quick results, and I have to be satisfied with the little victories that faith tells me will someday culminate in systemic changes.
People often ask me what I think is the hardest part of being a vowed religious. In one of the psalms from our morning prayer this week, the psalmist wrote, “Blessed are they who carry the joys and the sufferings of the world.” I have found this willingness to do the heart-heavy work so many of us do to be one of the most defining characteristics of religious life, and for me, sometimes one of the hardest. “Caritas Christi urget nos,” is surely an integral part of every community’s charism, and indeed, it is the desire to share the love of God with those most in need of it that urges and compels us to act. So much so, that we are willing to devote our whole selves to the endeavor. Teresa of Avila’s admonition that we are the only eyes and ears, hands and feet that Christ now has in the world tells us that we are called to look and listen, lift up, hold, and go out to the suffering in as best an imitation of Christ as we can. But, heaven help us, it gets hard sometimes.
After a few weeks into my new position, I was feeling assaulted and discouraged by the cruelty and injustices I encountered as I became more and more deeply immersed in the issues of human trafficking and capital punishment. As I usually do, I went outdoors in search of some solace. As I trotted along the sidewalk through the neighborhood-in-need that we’ve chosen for our new home, I was thankful for the cobalt-blue sky, the orangey-red tint of the fall leaves, and the breeze and sunshine playing on my skin. But my heart was still heavy. I prayed, asking God to help me know how to carry such profound sadness without succumbing to it. I began to think of the many people I’m blessed to know in and outside of my community that are experts at doing this. Stories from Sisters and friends of their experiences in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and all over the United States came streaming through my mind. In particular, I reflected on a powerful experience I had last summer with one of my best and dearest models of charity, my cousin, Sister Kateri Maureen Koverman, SC.
As a young Sister she felt called to go to Vietnam to help the civilians being displaced and devastated by the war, though she knew next to nothing about the country or the related politics. Defying the fear she felt and only knowing she could not deny what God was asking of her, she agreed to go. Kateri was still there when the United States decided to pull out of the country and South Vietnam was going to fall to the communists in the north. She was instrumental in orchestrating the safe evacuation of countless babies and children, most of them orphans, through President Ford’s Operation Baby Lift. She has kept in touch with many of these children, who have grown into adults over the forty years that have passed.
In June, Kateri hosted a reunion of sorts for them at our Motherhouse. The adoptees came hungry for what only she can share with them. They wanted to hear her memories because they have none of their own but deeply long for them. I was Kateri’s assistant, doing airport runs and helping wherever needed. On the first evening, she showed them a PowerPoint of photos and painted for them a picture of what life was like for the people living in their homeland, the conditions that produced thousands of orphans and left thousands more homeless, wounded, or deceased. I sat in the front of the room across from Kateri, and though she had told me some of her experiences before, my mouth hung open in absolute astonishment at the narrow escapes and seemingly impossible feats she accomplished. It was crystal clear that God was with her and working through her, and she responded with an enormous faith and courage that left me speechless. I was so absorbed that I forgot the job I was supposed to be doing, and she had to give me a nod to remind me to go to the next slide.
Me in the back on the left with Kateri sitting second from the left, surrounded by some of her adoptees, spouses and parents.
I felt so weak in comparison, and wondered, how did she do all that without falling apart? How do the many others continue to do what they do working for healing, peace, and justice when it seems like the problems are just too big and beyond hope? Just as I was thinking these things, I crossed an overpass. The sidewalk was littered with bits of trash and some fallen leaves, but a few steps away, it registered that there had been something else on the pavement. Curious as to what it was, I stopped and retraced my steps. I threw my head back and laughed out loud as grateful tears blurred my vision-there in black spray paint was scrawled God’s answer to me…LOVE WINS!
No matter how hard things seem, how insurmountable the obstacles appear, or how far off the finish line awaits, believing that in the end, in God’s time and not ours, love wins keeps us going. And even more of a grace than that, we are joyful to be doing so!
My heart was markedly lighter and I felt the spring return to my step as I broke back into a run, making the turn and heading back home. A favorite quote of our foundress, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, echoed in my ears, “Only do your best, and leave the rest to God.” To which I exuberantly added, “Because love wins!”