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Rema AmbulanceIn Part I of this blog about a strong woman of Africa, I mentioned that in 2004 I sensed that Maggy would not stop with the orphanage in Burundi, and I began telling you the story of the expansion of Maison Shalom (House of Peace) which I visited in 2008.
 
During my 2008 visit, Maggy also took me to visit the Mothers’ and Children’s Center, where Josline, the director and a clinical psychologist, described the programs for me as she showed me around the modest building. Mothers participated in classes on child care, nutrition, and hygiene and brought their babies on a regular basis to be monitored. They could also participate in maintaining a community garden where fresh vegetables were grown.
 
We then moved on to the new hospital—opened three months before—on the same grounds. “Here are my roots,” Maggy said. “I was born over there,” she added, pointing towards the hills beyond. “Since it is just my brother and I, we decided to use this land for the hospital. Then I bought 80 hectares (approximately 200 acres) on which we have three community farms to provide food for many people, including the patients. I used prize money I received to do all this.”
 
Outside the hospital stood an ambulance on which was printed, “We will come and get you.” An ambulance driver was on duty 24/7 and the service was free. “We want everyone to know that this is their hospital, that you don’t need money to come here. See, there are no walls here. It is open, open to all.” She continued the tour through the emergency, reception, and obstetrics areas, where we met a mother—who had given birth by Caesarian section— with her newborn. From there we went to the lab, the exam rooms, x-ray, and sonogram. “That building under construction will be the kitchen so that everyone can eat,” Maggy told me, “and the next project is the surgical unit. Over there is the morgue and that other building is the chapel. Families can wake their dead here, have Masses of Christian Burial. We want to serve everyone. We have our own potable water supply that comes from wells back in the hills, and we have our own electrical transformer. If the transformer goes off, we have back-up generators. Eventually we will also have solar power. The food will come from one of our farms.” This was an amazing project: potable water is virtually non-existent in the country, electrical power goes off without warning, and only sizeable businesses have backup generators!
 
Cinema Shalom, where young people learn cinematography and create original films, was next. It began as a project for healing of memories, but now other types of films are created. Every night there is a showing. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go back later, but Richard, one of the other visitors, assured me that the films were wonderful. On the door, there was a sign that said, “No guns. No war.”
 
Next door, there were several other centers where tailoring, information technology, and other trades were taught. Maggy proudly counted 36 university graduates, some of whom had returned to work with her or teach in the local schools. Many of her “children” of Maison Shalom were employed at the hospital and in other programs. “I’m sure I’m the only mother with 36 college grads!” she said with a smile.
 
When it was time for Mass, we scurried back to meet a young priest and a group who came to celebrate, sing, and praise God. It was a wonderful, joyful celebration. Afterward at supper, I met Chantal, Paul, Richard, Ina, Maggy, and Sandra, who lost all her children in the genocide. Sandra had lived with Maggy for 14 years. “We are best friends. Even when we fight, we are friends,” Maggy said. Sandra never recovered mentally. She kept going over and over the slaughter, mostly sitting on the floor and mumbling to herself. Maggy lets her. What a witness to unconditional love. It was late when the meal was over, so we went back to Maison des Anges for the night. My bed and mosquito net had been prepared.
 
The next morning we all had breakfast together and then it was off to the mechanics’ shop. There were about 20 students, young men and women, in class. The women smiled broadly when I told them I was glad to see women there and shared about my friend, Marge, the master electrician. Outside, the garage was in full swing. One group was repairing a vehicle with four-wheel drive, and another was cleaning parts for re-use. It was easy to see that they were proud of themselves. Once, they were all child soldiers. Now they had a future.
 
In addition to the child soldiers, Maggy helped 300 women who were former rebels to settle on three large farms, build houses, and support themselves. We passed by some of the houses on the way to one of the community farms. Crops were rotated; a portion of the land was always lying fallow. There w
ere cows and chickens. A group sorted seeds in the yard in front of a barn that sported solar panels on the roof. “We have our own potable water supply, and solar energy runs everything we need here,” Maggy explained. She introduced me to the woman who was the director—yet another life she had “saved” from despair.
 
We drove her back to the hospital where she gave us a tour of the little round chapel under construction. The workers laying ceramic tile were former children of Maison Shalom.
 
Before we left, Richard arrived. He had been writing Maggy’s story. Some years ago, Maggy published her story in Hatred Won’t Have the Last Word. “The book is old news,” she said. “Richard is telling today’s story.” She was right. She may be admired for what she endured, but she would be admired even more for how the faith that got her through the crisis blossomed in so many beautiful projects that are helping to lift up both the attacked and the attackers into a new life of respect and peace.
 
It is certainly not “all about Maggy.” “Everything I have done, I have done out of my faith,” she said. It is all about the community and building community, creating an atmosphere of respect and dignity, and recognizing that every person is a child of God created in God’s own image and likeness and called to a great hope in Christ. It takes a strong woman, a woman imbued with deep faith and openness to the Spirit of God, and Maggy definitely is that kind of strong woman of Africa!

Note: During the week of October 20, 2013 Maison Shalom is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary!

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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Maggy and Sr. MarieMarguerite—Maggy, as she’s called—creates oases, drawing from a deep well of faith that allows the waters of God’s love to flow into the desert of the Burundian province of Ruyigi to make it bloom.
 
I first met Maggy in 2004 when RENEW International began its partnership with the bishops of the country to provide a spiritual component for the National Plan for Peace. An internal war was going on, and we were there training lay leaders in the dioceses in the RENEW faith-sharing process and providing resources on themes that would promote healing, reconciliation, and peace building.
 
During that first trip, Maggy welcomed another RENEW colleague and me into her home and offered us refreshments as she talked to us about all the children she had begun gathering after the slaughter in her hometown of Ruyigi in October 1993—the beginning of a period of genocide. Originally she founded an orphanage called Maison Shalom (House of Peace). Nine years later, the children were being welcomed into family styled homes with surrogate parents. Trauma recovery programs were in place for children and teens, and I could sense that Maggy would not stop there.
 
Just four years later, in May 2008, I was able to visit Maggy again. As I bounced along the pothole-strewn road to Ruyigi, the capital of the province, I remembered my first visit in August 2004. Many things had changed since then, but Maggy’s passion for peace building and community building had not. She kept an open house. She kept telling me that I was the only one expected, but there were two men at the table when we arrived, and a woman and man came as we were finishing. Ina, a Rwandan who first came as a refugee and now works with Maggy, just kept bringing platters of food out of the kitchen for all these “unexpected” guests!
 
After dinner Maggy showed us the chapel. “I built this as an act of thanksgiving when I turned 50,” she said. “We are right next to the public hospital. The patients can come and rest or pray here. People were dying there, and they had no place to be buried from. Now they can be laid out here and have a burial Mass. We have Mass twice a week at 5:30 p.m.” In fact, there was Mass later that evening, and we all joined the community.
 
From the original Maison Shalom orphanage has grown the Maison Shalom project. After dinner Maggie took me over to Maison des Anges (House of the Angels, a hospitality center run by Maison Shalom) to show me my room. On the way, she noticed someone in the company of a person whom she knew was a bad influence. “I will call him later,” she said, “and tell him I know the person he is with. It will have to be later; it would not be right to embarrass him by talking to him while they are together.”
 
At the gates in the wall to Maison des Anges a simple, beautiful oasis was revealed. When I remarked, “How beautiful everything is, and how tastefully decorated!” she replied, “If we believe that we are God’s work of art, then all we do must reflect God’s creativity. The surroundings remind us of our own beauty. That’s why we always have fresh flowers.”
 
None of the houses or the chapel is built square or rectangular like a box; they are either octagonal or hexagonal or at angles with one another. The walls have curves. Curtains have bright flowery patterns, and the wicker furniture on the veranda has large pillows covered in white cotton duck fabric. The simplicity fosters an atmosphere of peace, order, and welcome. Maggy assured me that all was safe, including cameras and laptops. Another guest had left his laptop on the table in the common room. From my window, I could enjoy sunflowers, daisies, and cosmos in bloom. The only sounds were the birds. It was sunny, but at that elevation it was comfortable; a soft breeze wafted in through the window. Out of an experience of inhuman torture and death surrounding her, Maggy had created not only a new life for herself but for so many more — not just any life, but a life designed to surround all with love and respect.
 
Maggy’s story and the other endeavors of Maison Shalom will be continued in a future blog. Look for it here under the heading “Strong Women of Africa.”
 
Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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At an early age, I learned from my mother and grandmother that Jesus has a great heart and wants to embrace us in his love. They introduced me to devotion to the Sacred Heart. A picture of the Sacred Heart enthroned in the kitchen, where we spent most of our time, was a constant reminder. The devotion was further nurtured in me in our New York parish and school of St. Ignatius Loyola.One of our teachers, Miss Blanche Catherine Tintle, produced a large craft envelope on the first Thursday of every month and gave us each a Sacred Heart badge to wear to Mass the next day. I put it on and wore it proudly from that moment on. After school my mother took me to church to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. All this in preparation for “making the nine First Fridays,” a loving response to the great love of Christ poured out on us. On Friday morning, we celebrated Eucharist with the parish and received Communion. Because we had fasted since midnight, and I’m really dating myself here, we went to the Automat restaurant for breakfast with some of my classmates and their mothers and fathers. This breakfast was a special treat, a sign of our parents’ love. We were enthralled with the possibility of seeing so many options through the little glass doors, making a choice, putting in our coins, and retrieving the plate! After that, it was off to school for the day. At the end of the day, we returned the badges to Miss Tintle, to be saved for the following month.
 
Because I was a child, there were, of course, mixed motives behind my eagerness to participate in this monthly devotion. But what had penetrated deeply into my heart was the certainty that Jesus loves me and wants me to love others, so that in high school, I went on my own, satisfied with an apple for breakfast on my way to school.
 
When I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny I discovered that we, too, have a tradition since the time of our founder, Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, of devotion to the Heart of Christ. Making the “nine First Fridays” was a lot easier in a community that had Mass every day of the year, but the spirituality of welcoming the boundless love of Christ and reaching out to others in love became more and more a part of me. In fact, a friend, looking through my Bible one day, exclaimed: “You have a one-sided vision of God!” When I asked her what she meant, she said, “Well, just about everything you have underlined and highlighted in your Bible is about God’s love. You’ve missed the whole message about God’s anger and judgment!”
 
Perhaps I am a bit one-sided in focusing more on the love of God, but reflecting on God’s love and in particular on the love of Christ who became one of us and gave his life for us, urges me on to love him more and follow him more closely. I am deeply grateful for this understanding of God because God has always seemed very close to me in my life. Jesus is no only my savior but also my friend, my brother, the one who is always with me and with whom I can share everything. He’s also the friend and brother who gives it to me straight and doesn’t let me get away with anything, and he does it with love.
 
I believe the greatest testimony to the devotion we Cluny Sisters have to the Sacred Heart was given by former students gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our presence in a parish school. After reminiscing about all the pranks they’d played on us, and the trouble they’d gotten into, they said, “but we always knew you loved us.”
 
This year, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart falls on June 7. It is one of our moveable feasts, coming 19 days after Pentecost. For me it stands as one more reminder of the assurance of Jesus, “I will be with you until the end of time,” as well as his command, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
 
Some background on the feast: From Scripture, we know that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), and that “God is love” (I John 4:16). In the early church there was no special devotion to the Heart of Christ. This devotion began later on, and was a private devotion for centuries. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitadine sister, who lived in 17th century France, experienced visions of the Sacred Heart in which she was given the task of imparting new life to the devotion. Christ asked her to rekindle love in his people by assuring them of his love for them. He asked for a devotion of frequent Communion, Communion on the first Friday of the month, and the observance of the Holy Hour. The mission of propagating the new devotion was especially confided to the religious of the Visitation and the priests of the Society of Jesus.
 
In 1856, Pope Pius IX extended the feast to the universal church. On June 11, 1899, Pope Leo XIII, in what he called the “great act” of his pontificate, consecrated all humanity to the Sacred Heart.
 
(Source:The Catholic Encyclopedia online at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07163a.htm)
 
Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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St John Parish Bedford South AfricaShanty houses made of corrugated iron sheets offer an unpleasant welcome to visitors to Bedford, South Africa. Almost all the houses are run down and there is very little greenery. In recent years, the Afrikaans-speaking township experienced a severe drought that lasted for two years. The only drinking water came in by tanker trucks. The bare brown soil begs for the rain’s attention.
 

Mini, Rosie, and Angie were the only remaining members of a once numerous Catholic Women’s League in St. John Parish, part of the Diocese of Port Elizabeth. Their primary activity involved running a food pantry, striving to stave off starvation for families in Bedford with no source of income. Although their treasury was empty, the women did not give up. They continued to run the soup kitchen, and they continued to pray. Their prayers were answered when a woman who had participated in a RENEW Africa workshop asked to join the CWL. That day marked a turnaround for the group—other women began to join the CWL, and the league’s treasury began accepting donations, including help from other CWL groups in the diocese.
 

Mini, Rosie, and Angie began hosting RENEW Africa workshops in October 2007. These women put pitchers of fresh water on each table for every RENEW Africa meeting, and prepared tea and sandwiches for participants. There was no mention of the difficulties involved because of the severe drought that plagued the region for two years. For the closing prayer of the workshop, all gathered in a circle with Rosie, Mini, and Angie in the center and prayed for their needs and for rain for the area.
 

However, their difficulties were not over. Despite the great enthusiasm they expressed for small Christian communities at the workshops, no one joined RENEW Africa. Undaunted, the five women who made up the CWL formed their own small Christian community. As they continued with the process and reflected on how to reach out, they decided to begin home visits.
 

At each house, they introduced themselves and asked if they might visit for a while. During the exchange they became more aware of the various needs of the families and offered to pray with their hosts. As they continued their visitation, word got around that they brought compassion and understanding, and that they were very discreet. One day, a deacon from a Protestant Church approached them. “Please come to my house. I want to talk to you.” When asked why, he replied, “I am having family problems, and I can’t talk about them in my parish. I’ve heard that you are very helpful and that you can keep things in confidence.”
 

Mini, Angie, and Rosie are striking witnesses of women’s strength. In the midst of poverty and deprivation, even in the midst of obstacles to the ministry of evangelization through small Christian communities, they carry on. More importantly, they evangelize by their witness and by their dedication to announcing the Good News in whatever way God leads them. These women show us how to live our baptism in the world today: they stand firm in their commitment to Christ and live it by reaching out to others without judgment, demonstrating God’s unconditional love for all. The women’s dedication is surpassed only by their wisdom, faith, and courage in the face of difficulty.
 

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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Who is this saint whose experience of Jesus Christ led to the founding in 1540 of a religious community, the Society of Jesus, dedicated to announcing the Good News through a multiplicity of ministries? In the United States alone, there are 28 Jesuit four-year colleges and universities. Among the members of the Jesuit community there have been canonized saints, some of them martyrs, renowned theologians, scientists, and a decorated U.S. military veteran known to have made major contributions to church and society. All have drawn their inspiration and been guided by the charism (unique gift for service in the Church) and spirituality of the Basque from Azpeitia in the province of Guipuzcoa in northern Spain, Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola.
 
Ignatius’ journey, like those of many saints, took several twists and turns before he discovered God’s will in his life. His earliest experiences contributed to the development of his personality, his vision, and his response to Christ’s call for his lifetime. As a young teen, Ignatius served as a page in the household of a noble in the kingdom of Castilla. He later embraced the life of a soldier. He was 30 years old when his leg was severely wounded in the battle to defend Pamplona from the French. After a long and difficult recovery, his leg healed, but he would always walk with a limp.
 
During his long recuperation, Ignatius longed to read novels, but when none were available, he began reading a book about saints and the life of Christ. He was impressed by the courage and zeal of the saints, while at the same time he daydreamed about winning the heart of his ladylove. Ignatius began to notice that his feelings were very different after his daydreams than after considering the saints. After his daydreams, he felt restless; after reading about the saints, he was at peace. It was the beginning of his own discernment of God’s call, for he realized that not only our intellect but also our emotions help us discover the movement of the Spirit. This experience served as the beginning of his work known as the Spiritual Exercises.
 
After Ignatius recovered, his plan was to go to Jerusalem. He was prevented from doing so because of the Turkish occupation of the Holy Land. Instead, he traveled to Barcelona. He stopped at the shrine of Our Lady of Monserrat where he made an all night vigil, left his weapons at Our Lady’s altar, and set off dressed in poor clothing with only a staff. Continuing on his way, he stopped at the town of Manresa where he remained for ten months. Ignatius spent hours in prayer in a cave outside the city and experienced a significant spiritual enlightenment he later described as understanding that one must “find God in all things.”
 
After a couple of false starts at studying for the priesthood in Spain, Ignatius set off for Paris where he strongly influenced Francis Xavier, Peter Fabre, and others whom he directed in the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius engaged in his great love of caring for the sick in hospitals, teaching children about God, and directing adults in the Exercises during these years. After ordination, Ignatius and two of his companions set off for Rome. Prevented from traveling to Jerusalem, Ignatius asked all his companions to join him in Rome, where they decided to form a religious community. With the approval of Pope Paul III, they pronounced their vows, forming the Society of Jesus. Ignatius, despite his reluctance, was elected their superior.

 
From the original group of eight, Ignatius lived to see the company grow to over 1,000 members and establish colleges and houses throughout Europe, and as far as South America and Japan. Over the more than five centuries since Ignatius founded the order, his vision has been carried out by thousands of members of the Society of Jesus. The gift bestowed on the former soldier and courtier has touched and continues to touch countless people. The greatness of this saint was perhaps best summed up by Luis Goncalves de Camara, one of his closest associates, when he wrote, “He (Ignatius) was always rather inclined toward love; moreover, he seemed all love, and because of that he was universally loved by all. There was no one in the Society who did not have great love for him and did not consider himself much loved by him.”
 
An example of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises can be found in our Podcast on the Daily Examen. Pray with Sister Veronica as she leads you in this exercise.

 

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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In April 1994, President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprian Ntayamira of Burundi were assassinated when their plane was shot down near the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The incident was followed by a wave of genocide during which the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis. The month that followed was brutal and bloody.
 
Only this week did the investigation come to a close, citing scientific proof that cleared the current President of Rwanda Paul Kigame, of any responsibility for the attack.
 
Soon after the genocide, RENEW International was invited to work in Rwanda bringing training workshops and resources to parish leaders to establish small Christian communities where members gathered to pray, reflect on Scripture, share faith, and move to action. Bishop Kizito Bahujimihigo of Ruhengeri said of our work in Rwanda, “To my knowledge, RENEW International has contributed more to the process of reconciliation in Rwanda than any other group.”
 
One example of the miracle of healing and reconciliation comes from a small Christian community where the members became aware that two women, Sarah* and Elizabeth*, were not speaking. During the genocide, Elizabeth’s husband had killed Sarah’s. It is not unusual in Rwanda and in neighboring Burundi for victims of the genocide to see the perpetrators on a daily basis.
 
The members of the community began to pray about the situation and to reflect together. As a result, they decided to work to enable reconciliation between the two women. They invited both women to a meeting, thinking that even if the women did not want to have anything to do with one another they both could use the support of the community in their loss.
 
Foreseeing some tense moments when the two women would meet, the group gave each a different arrival time. Sarah arrived first and spent some time visiting with the other community members and learning more about their meetings. She liked the idea of the prayer and mutual support. But when Elizabeth appeared, Sarah became agitated and stood up to leave. David*, her nephew, went after her and convinced her to stay. “You don’t need to talk to her,” he said. “Just stay and listen to the Scripture, pray, and share faith with us.” When Elizabeth arrived and saw Sarah, she had a similar reaction, but another woman spoke quietly to her, and she changed her mind.
 
Weeks went by and the two women continued to come to community meetings. They found the members warm and welcoming, and they were supported by the prayer and sharing. After many meetings and much prayer, the two women were reconciled.
 
Sarah noticed that Elizabeth would be gone for a week or so at a time on a regular basis. One day she asked her, “I noticed you didn’t make our meeting last week. Were you ill?” Elizabeth explained that she went to take food to her husband in prison. As they chatted, she confided that it was hard for her to keep up with tending her crops, and she worried about her children when she was away. Sarah touched her hand, saying, “Don’t worry, I have time and I love children. I’ll go out to the field for you and see that your children are taken care of while you are gone.”
 
This is but one story about the power of Christ’s healing and forgiveness. This hillside community is one of many that are the hands, voice, and heart of Christ in the midst of pain and suffering.
 
(* Names changed)

 

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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“In Africa, there is not so much the giving of presents, but the giving of presence.”
(Jon Blanc: Out to Africa Too web site)

 

On my first trip to Africa, I experienced first-hand the truth of Jon’s words. I was in Sierra Leone, West Africa. It was December 2003; the truce that ended the ten-year on-and-off war was not yet a year old. In the capital, Freetown, there were still no traffic lights, nor streetlights. In fact, electric power went on and off in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, phones rarely worked, and many public buildings were still in a state of disrepair. Broken sidewalks presented hazards day and night. It had been, and still looked like, a war zone.

 

There would be little to put “under the tree” at Christmas. Having a job did not necessarily mean that employees received a paycheck: teachers and other government workers had not been paid for over two months. Many men, women, and children had lost hands, arms, and legs during the war and could no longer work. Elderly people, accompanied by school-age children, spent their days begging from slowing cars at intersections. Street merchants as young as eight years old loudly hawked their items, which ranged from water to dishtowels. A steady stream of folks came to our convent door looking for some type of assistance. All my life I’d wanted to come to Africa, and having finally arrived, I felt powerless to help make Christmas special for anyone. It was heartbreaking … at first.

 

Then, in the Advent days leading up to the feast, I accompanied the sisters in my community on their rounds through the city and outlying villages. The experience became heartwarming. In Makeni, Cluny Sisters staff and oversee a variety of ministries including a girls’ high school, a school for the hearing impaired, an agricultural technical school, and a clinic. The students at the school for the hearing impaired invited me to their Christmas pageant, held out in the courtyard. All the teachers were dressed with the same cloth and pattern demonstrating their solidarity, their sense of belonging to the same “family” with their co-workers.

 

Busy with the camera catching the last bows, I was surprised when one of the teachers invited me to the front where the principal presented me with a basket of cassava and potatoes grown by the agricultural students for our Christmas dinner.

 

Later that day, I went to a nearby village to visit with the director of one of the schools, Sister Mary. Throughout the year she meets with parents to encourage them to send their children to school. One of the families offered us a chicken. In yet another village, the gift was spontaneous singing of local songs. Another family brought a tiny goat to the convent. (In Sierra Leone, as in many African countries, goat is the preferred meat for a Christmas roast.)

 

In the evenings, carolers came to entertain us. Often they were people with disabilities who sang to raise funds so they could provide food, clothing, and shelter for other less fortunate disabled people. They gave their gift of time and presence. In turn, they received the gift of presence from each home, as well as a donation.

 

It is the custom to wear something new at Christmas. At midnight Mass in the cathedral, family after family arrived similarly dressed. Fathers and sons wore shirts made from the same cloth and pattern as mothers’ and daughters’ dresses. This custom struck me as a beautiful way to express the unity we have in Christ, who came to gather us all in to the Father.

 

Back at the convent after Mass we gathered for the traditional Christmas soup and sharing of gifts and presence. The sisters shared many stories and news from family and friends; before we parted we gathered in a circle to pray for continued peace in the land.

 

Christmas dinner was fufu, a West African favorite. Fufu consists of dough, usually made of cassava flour, served in a mound on a side plate along with a soup or a meat stew. I learned how to pull off a ball of dough, make an indentation with my thumb, and use it as a spoon to scoop up some stew and enjoy! Despite the desperate economic and social issues weighing on everyone in the country, our table was full of joy. One sister after another shared experiences, humorous anecdotes, and traditional stories and parables. We were at table for hours, but the time flew. It was a celebration of relationships—God’s family gathered around the table to celebrate his Word become flesh for the salvation of the world.

 

In many ways Sierra Leoneans showed me how much they value presence, whether it was gratitude for time spent visiting in the village, enjoying a pageant, sharing the good news that their children could go to school, or providing health care at the clinic. My Christmas gift was indeed the gift of their presence and their appreciation of the gift of mine. They showed me that it is possible to carry heavy burdens without being crushed by them, and to find joy in the midst of pain and struggle. They revealed again and again how to live the Paschal Mystery – living, dying, rising with Christ – day by day.

 

 

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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South Africans will tell you, “We are not called the Rainbow Nation for nothing,” and it is definitely the most diverse country I’ve ever visited. Although English is generally understood across the country, it ranks only fifth out of the official eleven home languages. There are also several other languages spoken by many people. Among the official languages is Afrikaans, unique to South Africa. Languages of Africa, Asia, and Europe all influenced its development. This linguistic diversity has led to the languages affecting each other. South African English, for example, is littered with words and phrases from Afrikaans, isiZulu, Nama and other African languages.

Two of my stops during my time in Johannesburg included Regina Mundi Church and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando, a section of the city of Soweto (Area 57.9 sq. mi., pop. 1,000,000+).

The anti-apartheid movement began in different places around different issues. One issue was the use of Afrikaans as the medium of education in the townships. Being deprived of instruction in English meant that graduates of township schools would be severely limited in pursing their education beyond secondary school. At the end of their school term in June of 1976, students refused to write exams in Afrikaans and a march to protest the imposition of Afrikaans in the schools was planned for June 16 in Soweto (South West Township). On that fateful day, as school children began gathering and marching in protest, they were confronted by police, and violence broke out. One of the youth killed was Hector Pieterson, age 13. A photo of another youth, Mbuyisa Makhubo, carrying the dead boy’s body in the street with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running beside him, became an icon of not only the incident, but also of the struggle for freedom and justice. Following this event, youth in other townships across the country demonstrated in sympathy. Today the Hector Pieterson Museum tells the story of the uprising and preserves and interprets the memory, legacy, and history of the national uprisings. It is a most touching experience to spend time reflecting on these events while going from the outdoor fountain that commemorates all who gave their lives in the cause of freedom, through the many short videos, the newspaper documentation, and first-hand testimonials along the hallways of the museum. June 16th is now Youth Day and is a national holiday.

Also connected with the struggle is nearby Regina Mundi, the largest church in South Africa. It is called the “church of the people” and the “people’s cathedral” and can hold 5,000 to 7,000 people. The church has played an important role in the lives of the people before, during, and after the struggle against apartheid. When government forces began shooting the school children who demonstrated on June 16, 1976, the children ran to Regina Mundi for safety. During that time, churches were about the only places people could safely gather. The police fired live ammunition at them. No one was killed there, but many were wounded and there was damage to the church, altar, and statues. Some of the damage to windows can still be seen. In what was once the choir loft, there is now a gallery displaying striking photos taken during the protest and throughout resistance movement. On the walls are touching graffiti written by thousands of visitors, commemorating those who led the resistance, expressing solidarity with the people, and celebrating the end of apartheid.

Visiting these two historic places brought me a little closer to the experience of those whose present is still influenced in many ways by the oppression and forced segregation of the apartheid years. The role of Regina Mundi stands in testimony to the faith of the people and to our Church’s ministry to and support of those seeking human rights during those difficult years. The Catholic community is alive in Soweto with 15 parishes. The lay deanery who gathered to learn about RENEW Africa filled the meeting room beyond capacity, and all who attended were eager to involve their parishioners in the process.

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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My latest RENEW assignment has taken me to the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is a stunning winter day, with bright sunshine following a chilly, starry night. Yes, it does get cold, very cold in Africa! In fact, the day I arrived we had a hailstorm.

On the 18th of July, we celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday. Although it is not a national holiday (yet), there were festivities all around the country. School children celebrated with pageants, birthday parties, and opportunities to appear on TV news singing their greetings to Tata Mandela as they affectionately call him.

Here in the Diocese of Port Elizabeth, we are preparing for the first Season of Why Catholic? Journey through the Catechism with Christian Prayer: Deepening My Experience of God. I thought I’d share with you some of the reflections folks offered after the introduction workshop in response to the question, “What was the most important thing you learned?”

– How to communicate with God in different ways. I always thought that you have to use words. The beauty of meditation helped me to connect with God without speaking.
– Prayer comes from the heart. Prayer isn’t difficult; it’s between me and God who loves me.
– The experience of God’s presence in silence, in spirit.
– To let the Holy Spirit take over in you when you are praying.
– I felt the presence of Jesus near me, and that made me want to give myself completely to Him. In this way, I can help others. Thank you!

I’m on now to Cape Town and then Johannesburg. Watch this spot for more news from South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation”!

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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