The Notre Dame of Maryland University celebrated the founding of the School Sisters of Notre Dame on Tuesday, October 24th with their Baldwin Community Day.
As part of the celebration, Sister Arlene Flaherty, OP, our director of the Justice and Peace Department spoke about cultivating fields of compassion and making peace in the 21st century. Sister Arlene has worked at the intersection of theology and social justice for more than 35 years. She has served in Jamaica, Iraq, Syria, Lebanaon, and Jordan. She currently serves as the coordinator of SSND’s partnership for development in Haiti.
Please read some of Sister Arlene’s remarks (edited for clarity) and reflect on what you can do to help bring peace to our chaotic world:
I hope these are helpful to you as you consider how you, as individuals and as an NDMU community, will deepen and further your contribution to the great work of cultivating fields of compassion in our nation and world today. Thank you for your willingness to commit to be justice and peace makers in a nation and world that seems to be convulsing with violence in various forms: racism, and gun violence, economic inequality and injustice, sexism and hetero-sexism, threat of nuclear warfare, global human displacement and refugee crisis (65 million), while here in the U.S. 11 million people live in the shadows with irregular immigrant status, and nearly 1 million DREAMERS face the threat of deportation.
If this weren’t enough, the planet, upon which all of us depend for life ,is exhibiting irrefutable signs of its stress. Carbon induced global warming is not only causing sea levels to warm and rise but is also complicit in the California fires and the ferocity of the storms that are devastating already vulnerable communities in the United States as well as in the Caribbean.
I honestly can’t remember, in my lifetime, a time such as this one. Our nation is more polarized than ever and our legislators seem paralyzed and more preoccupied with preserving their political careers rather than the nation’s common good. I admit that in times such as these, it is easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged. There is the big temptation to try to ignore it, keep ourselves numb and entertained as best we can. But little by little this survival strategy inevitably leads to the surrender of our personal and collective power to make the changes that matter. So the outcomes of that strategy are dire— believe me. I wish I could tell you that it’s OK for you to just do what you can to cope, but it isn’t. No longer are there safety nets we could once rely on to help us through. We need everyone to commit and to contribute. These are hard times, and these are your times—our times. We all must engage!
The little girl from Mumbai
A few years ago I met a remarkable woman. Her name is Sr. Jeanne Davos, a Belgian missioner to India. In the course of her telling me about the origins of her now well-known work, she shared the following story.
One evening shortly after supper, the convent doorbell in Mumbai rang. As Jeanne Davos opened the door, a neighbor began a non-stop urgent appeal for help. “If someone doesn’t intervene they are going to kill that child. Something has to be done. That child will never see her next birthday. Please help that little girl.” Without a word to her community members, Jeanne followed her frantic neighbor to the doorway of a family whose children attended the Sisters’ school. As she banged on the door, the informant abandoned the nun and soon Jeanne was alone, and face to face with a young Indian couple who were surprised and honored to have a nun, and a European, visiting their household.
“I’ve come to see the child,” Jeanne remembers saying. “Oh yes, Sister, we have two children, one four and the other six. What joys they are to us. Please come in.” Crossing the threshold to their home, Jeanne said to the couple, “No, I am here to see the child who works in your home, the child domestic worker.” Immediately, the couple launched into a barrage of complaints and objections. “She is a lazy and insolent little girl. She is willful and evil. We have tried to discipline her and she never learns her lesson. We are at our wits end with this child and we are about to send her back to the streets.”
Jeanne Davos told me that as this young, somewhat affluent, and well-educated couple ranted on and on about Sunitha, the household’s seven year old Child Domestic Laborer, Jeanne was moving from one room to the other searching for the little girl. Finally, under the slop sink of the outdoor kitchen, she found what she described to me as a wisp of a girl, squatting under the table with a bruised and bloody half- closed right eye, matted hair, and limbs that bore the marks of brutality.
As Jeanne approached her, Sunitha suddenly stood up, and as Jeanne recalled, with a dignity that her suffering had not yet diminished. “Didi,"(respected Older Sister) she addressed the nun, “I knew you were coming. I knew someone was coming for me!”
Please take a moment and in the silence of your hearts consider these questions:
• How does one account for the ineffaceable dignity and tenacious faith in humanity that were the characteristics of this otherwise battered child?
• What impact do her words have on you? “I knew you were coming, I knew someone was coming for me!”
The outcome of this encounter, rescue, and the relationship that grew between Sunitha and Sr Jeanne Davos eventually gave birth to Jeanne Davos’ founding the Domestic Workers’ Movement in India. For the past 30 or more years, this movement that began with the rescue of one domestic child laborer has liberated millions of slave laborers in India, mostly women, from heinous forms of exploitation, and has opened the door to education, fair wages, and due process under the law. Sunitha, now grown and well educated, collaborates with Jeanne Davos, in the leadership of this organization.
All of the stages in the growth of what is today a national labor movement were seeded and cultivated in the compassionate heart of one Belgian nun and were nurtured in the conviction of a little seven year old girl whose faith in humanity’s compassion never faltered, “I knew you were coming, I knew someone was coming for me.”
From the New York Times "Where 9/11 News Is Late, but Aid Is Swift" by MARC LACEYJUNE 3, 2002
After the tragedy of 9/11 there were many images and stories of compassion that seared our souls. However, one story, albeit almost 9 months after the fact, captured the attention of New Yorkers, indeed Americans, in an unexpected way. It is the story of the Masai of Kenya and the 9/11 widows and their children. The story was recorded in the NY Times, June 3, 2002.
Kimeli Naiyomah was a Kenyan student from the Masai tribe who was visiting in lower Manhattan when the terrorist attacks on the twin towers occurred. I don’t know if any of us could fully imagine the incomprehensibility of this event for a young man from a corner of Kenya were the tallest features on the horizon are the acacia trees and the giraffes that feed on them.
So when Kimeli returned to his village that summer of 2002 to give an account of his studies for the year, he found that his fellow villagers had only the vaguest understanding about what had happened in that far-away place called New York on that fateful September 11th.
Through his stories, September 11th and New York became very proximate for the Masai. While they felt relief that Kimeli was unscathed, they also felt sadness and compassion, especially for the widows and orphans of 9/11. They decided to do something.
There are three most cherished possessions that the Masai can give as a gift—a child, a plot of land, and a cow, which is far more to them then a source of milk and meat. So, shortly after their hearing of the 9/11 story, the Masai elders met and decided to bless and give 14 cows to the people of the United States. After their ceremony of giving, the cows were handed over to the deputy chief of mission of the United States Embassy in Kenya.
The NY Times reported that the U.S. embassy representative was understandably tentative as he held a rope attached to a rambunctious bull, but the people of the United States were deeply touched and awed by the solidarity and compassion extended to them by a so-called primitive tribe in the outskirts of Kenya.
One complication; The Masai fully expected that the American ambassador would take the cows to New York where they would be given to the widows and children of 9/11. But when the ambassador explained that there were no grazing grounds in this place, the Masai’s distress for the victims was irrepressible. To live in a place without grazing grounds upon which to feed livestock was unimaginable for the Masai. What will these poor people do!
Eventually an agreement was struck and Sotheby’s was recruited to auction off the Masai’s gift of cows on the international auction exchange. A large amount of money was raised and the United States embassy purchased Masai jewelry which in turn was auctioned at an event that raised millions of dollars for the widows and orphans fund of 9/11.
Please take a moment and in the silence of your hearts consider these questions:
- What does this story tell us about the capacity of the human person to enter into another’s suffering despite challenges of distance, culture, language, and custom?
- What possibilities does this response of the Masai hold for global solidarity and peace-making in our broken-hearted world?
Compassion is caring about another person’s happiness as if it were your own. I think we’ve seen evidence of this definition of compassion both in Sunitha’s Story and the Story of the Masai. Compassion involves the capacity to let the vulnerability of another touch the vulnerability that is at the heart of what we all know it is like to be human. Whether you are volunteering with children, teaching ESL, working with persons who are homeless or displaced by violence, whether you are listening to the stories of the elderly, or saddling-up alongside a student who is struggling to read, write or do math, you have entered a space of another’s vulnerability with tender care and understanding. Caring for another’s person’s happiness as if it were your own, opens up the doors of isolation or fear or shame and helps those you are accompanying reconnect with their dignity and worth and possibilities, no matter how daunting the challenges they face.
In the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, we have plenty of examples of compassion that transformed people’s lives as well as transformed social prejudices and exclusions. In his day, illness was viewed as evidence of the work and presence of demons in a person’s life. To be ill, let’s say like the woman with the hemorrhage or the young boy with convulsions, was not only to suffer personally from the ailment but it also ostracized you and your family from the community. Because you bore an illness, you were thought to be possessed by evil. In stopping and attending to the needs of people around him, Jesus not only offered cures but he also confronted his culture and society by challenging the practices of prejudice and marginalization that were afflicting so many. Likewise, the work that you do in service is not only directed to the individuals you serve, addressing their immediate need, but it must also be directed to the society that is creating and sustaining the problems that you see impacting the person or persons in front of you. There are two feet to the work of justice, one is to offer service to that in need and the other is to address those attitudes, policies, systems and structures that create the need to which we are responding in service. Doing direct service only, without addressing the prejudices or policies that create the need for service, only sustains the problem and does not address its cause. We need two feet, two approaches in our work for justice and peace. Here’s a short parable about the need for us all to engage in the two parts of justice making, direct service and advocacy work.
Conclusion: Cultivating Fields of Compassion: Justice and Peace-Making in the 21st century.
The world in which we are living and to which we are called to serve is yearning for your care, your concern, and your compassion. As great religious leaders and social prophets have taught us, only compassion will bring about the universal peace with justice for which we all long. What we are about, in the service work to which we commit and the advocacy work which is its counterpart, is to create fields of compassion across our nation and our world. In this work you are not alone. All around the world, hundreds of millions of people are engaging in acts of compassion all the time. Seen or unseen, these efforts are collectively creating great fields of compassion where its transforming power is at work in small and big ways.