Friday, 20 April 2012

"Gratitude is the Memory of the Heart": Sisters of the Good Shepherd

"The coming generations will learn equality from poverty, love from woes."
(Khalil Gibran)
Photo: Gigi

Nuns - just how much d'you know about 'em? Quiet, retiring, gentle ladies who live away from the world as Brides of Christ, pray a lot and sing beautifully? Well, I was taught by nuns from the age of six; some were quiet, shy and retiring, others not so much! At various stages, nuns taught me to hopscotch expertly, play netball very badly, swear in French and Latin and how to tell the gender of a hedgehog (answer: with difficulty). I've known nuns to be feisty, grumpy, arty and hilarious. What the majority of them have had in common was a faith in God and a belief in the essential goodness of people.
I belong to a section of the Catholic Women's League outside of Brighton; recently, the group invited a lovely nun from the Philippines to talk at our monthly meeting. Some of the group had already met Sister Genny from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd when she joined the recent Parish Retreat. She's currently staying at Geo House in Ashurst, Hampshire; a retreat and mission centre jointly formed by the Volunteer Missionary Movement and the Montfort Missionaries. Those of us she spoke to, even briefly, on our coach journey were greatly impressed by her warmth, humility and the obvious joy she's found in the missionary work of her order. We were keen to hear her speak more about their global communities.
Sister Genny welcomed the opportunity to share the dedication of her congregation with the CWL: which is primarily to protect, educate and help women and girls around the world. The Roman Catholic Order of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (there is now an Anglican community for women which has the same name) was originally a branch of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, founded in seventeenth century France by St John Eudes. He was personally dedicated to opening safe-houses for prostituted and abused women and children. After the French Revolution, these established communities rehabilitated displaced women and orphaned infants. Genny reminded us that in times of war and social deprivation, women and children are often still the most affected.
The congregation was modelled on St John Eudes' order, founded by St Mary Euphrasia (Pelletier) in Angers, France, in 1835. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd today are guided in their missions by her words; she believed that "One person is of more value than a world". Canonised in 1940 for her lifelong devotion and fidelity, she originally used donations to "purchase" and house female African slaves who had been brought to Europe. In her lifetime, more than a hundred Good Shepherd convents were opened, establishing sixteen provinces throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the United States. In 2010, the congregation was comprised of more than five thousand Sisters working in seventy two countries, now including provinces in Oceania. Originally a cloistered order, it's now largely apostolic: with Sisters working and residing in deprived communities as outreach workers, social workers, special needs teachers, health care advisers, nurses and advocates for social justice and change.

She spoke movingly of the work of the order in her homeland. The Philippines is a huge archipelago of seven thousand islands and the Sisters now have communities spanning at least one hundred of them of them. Her family are indigenous to the country; the Philippines have multiple ethnicities, having been claimed by several empires over the centuries, only gaining independence in 1945. Genny told us that the indigenous population has historically been forced further into the mountains and forests. These areas are not only vulnerable to the scores of typhoons and seasonal floods which hit the islands each year, but have also been plundered by overseas mining and wood-trade corporations; unfortunately, I learned that one of the largest mining companies to stake a claim there is British. She stressed that it's often difficult to talk about a loving God to those with hungry stomachs. As well as educating previously unschooled children, the Sisters are involved in re-working rural areas to provide local trades and goods. One of the local communities of the Good Shepherd opened a training centre for young people; this centre now produces internationally acclaimed jams, marmalade and peanut butter!
With the twelfth largest population in the world, an additional eleven million Filipinos live overseas; 81% of these migrant workers are women, traditionally sending money home to the Philippines. Genny explained that sex-trafficking is still rife in the Philippines, as it is elsewhere in the world. Often, "jobs overseas" are promised to girls by neighbours or even family members; the girls are unwittingly sent across the world to a life of modern-day slavery. The Sisters provide a presence in airports and areas known to be part of this trade. As well as counselling abused women and children and providing sanctuaries, there are now Good Shepherd centres providing guidance on International Labour Laws and advising migrant workers on welfare rights and benefits and, of course, loneliness and homesickness. Genny had recently asked to visit the "red-light" areas in Southampton, a stone's throw from the leafy grounds of the priory she's been staying in. She says her personal preconceptions have been challenged by her experiences as a nun: how love for families and the need to survive and can still force the disadvantaged and marginalised to compromise and even endanger themselves. We may find the idea of prostitution distasteful, yet it's a strong love that will force a mother onto the streets for her child, or a daughter for her elderly parents. Or simply for food, to see another week.

"Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them as they ought to be."
(St Augustine)

In 1996, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd became affiliated with the United Nations as an NGO (Non-governmental Organisation). This enables them to actively work with or on occasion challenge the UN to promote justice and peace where there is poverty, inequality, victimisation and conflict. In the UK, some Good Shepherd homes have been taken over by Social Services, but there are still some communities in Newcastle, Manchester, Kent and London; also in Ireland. Sisters in the UK sell Fairtrade produce from Thailand to raise funds. "HandCrafting Justice" was created by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1997 as a fairtrade marketplace for goods produced in developing regions sponsored by the order. The approach is holistic, providing spiritual empowerment and economic opportunity; telling the stories of the craftsmen and women to those buying the handmade goods. As well as Thailand and the Philippines, goods are marketed from across Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific. And of course, you can shop "HandCrafting Justice" online! They have some truly beautiful and unique things:

Genny will be returning to the Philippines in May, to learn where her next mission will be. She spoke to me of working in her beloved homeland but also of her concern for the women and children in stricken Syria and Lebanon. She speaks about the work of the order and her own experiences without reference to notes and seemingly often without drawing breath! She speaks from the heart and is just naturally charismatic. Note to my brother-in-law if he should ever read this post: Sister Genny would dispel your notion that nuns are shy, silent and mousey and don't live in The Real World. Wherever she finds herself needed, I hope she'll stay in touch with her new friends in the UK.


"Gratitude is the Memory of the Heart"
(St Mary Euphrasia)

"A Woman's Heart"  Eleanor McEvoy (with Mary Black)


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