Being Sister Tracy calls me to something challenging and extraordinary. What do you think of when you hear the word “sister?” A sister is family, a confidant perhaps, someone who walks with. Throughout history, women religious have been close to the people, walking beside them through joys and sorrows. I’ve already experienced this privilege in my short time as a Sister of Charity. The relationality the title invites is perhaps my most treasured part of being a sister. I hear a lot of stories, and I get intimate glimpses into the real lives of my fellow humans. People often trust me with deep questions and honest conversations. What a gift, and one that I reverence! During my most recent trip back to Ecuador, after having been away for three years, I found myself in several of these frank, intimate conversations. I’ve been turning them over in my heart as the World Meeting of Families approaches. I offer two of them to you.
Maria lives in one of the most dilapidated houses I’ve ever seen. Made of rotting wood and lifted off the ground on short stilts, the house is buckling in, the floor folding in half like a creased piece of computer paper. As I walked up to the house, calling her name, I was surprised to see her step outside with a chubby toddler in arms. When I last saw her a few years ago, she had two young girls. We both smiled as our eyes met, and she introduced me to the newest family member.
I climbed the steps into the house. Maria’s two girls were working away at their homework on a little plastic table. Maria stood over the stove, the steaming pot of rice drawing out beads of sweat on her forehead. We all fanned ourselves and swatted at mosquitoes.
As we chatted, I remembered how much I love Maria’s free, bubbly laugh and glowing smile. She updated me on all of the kids, especially the little one.
“Three kids! I don’t know how you do it,” I marveled. “Do you think you’ll have anymore?”
Her smile faded, and her cheeks flushed with anxiety. She set down the spoon she’d been holding.
“No quiero tener más hijos (I don’t want to have more children),” she responded cautiously. And then, after a moment, she sighed as if even the thought exhausted her. “No puedo (I can’t).” She scanned her tiny, hot, falling-down house. She hesitated as if wanting to say something but unsure if she should. Then, lowering her voice, she confessed, “I’m taking birth control.”
Maria went on to explain how stressful her life has become. Her husband is rarely around. She suspects that he is being unfaithful. He occasionally works construction to make a bit of money. Sometimes he gives her the money that he makes; sometimes he spends it on beer at the corner store. She is scraping to feed her kids and make sure they have what they need for school. Knowing how hard life has been without an education, Maria desperately wants her girls to have the opportunity.
I took Maria’s hand and looked into her face so filled with pain. A big tear puddled at the corner of each eye and began to spill down her cheeks. I embraced her, and she squeezed back like she’d never been hugged before. I felt a warm stream of tears bathing my neck; her abdomen heaved as she cried.
“Yo sé que soy pecadora terrible (I know I’m a terrible sinner),” Maria continued once she had caught her breath, “but I just can’t have more children. I can scarcely feed the ones I’ve got.”
She tousled her little boy’s hair and forced a teary-eyed smiled at her girls, who stared at her with wide, concerned eyes.
Turning to me again, she practically whispered, “My husband . . . when he comes home . . . he won’t let me say no. You know . . . .” Maria nodded toward their bedroom, which is really a section of the one-room house partitioned by hanging sheets. With shame, she shrugged. “So I have to take the pills.”
“The worst thing for me is that I can’t receive the Eucharist. You know I love Mass, Tracy,” she offered, her voice trailing off into more tears. “I don’t know how long it will be before I can go back. I just hope that Jesus will forgive me.”
Later that week, I visited Rosa, also a dear friend from my time as a volunteer in Ecuador. Rosa was married in her late teens to a man who became physically abusive to her and the son they had together. She eventually left him, but she has been unable to secure a divorce or annulment. Those processes have been difficult, as Pope Francis acknowledged this week, and even more so when you live on the forgotten outskirts of Guayaquil. Rosa moved on and has been living with Johnny for the last 15 years. He is a faithful and loving partner, and they plan to be together for the long haul. They aren’t married, however, due to Rosas’s situation, so neither of them go to Communion. During my time as a volunteer, I had many long conversations with her like the one I had with Maria. Rosa saw herself as a stained woman, unworthy of Jesus’ touch.
Still, Rosa has always been very involved in the local parish. She used to spend hours with her family cleaning the sanctuary before weekend Masses, and she loved going to adult formation classes. I came to know God more deeply through her gentle way of being and her generous service to others. We loved sharing about our faith.
“¿Cómo está todo en la iglesia, Rosita (How’s everything at Church)?” I asked her during the visit.
“Ya no voy allí, Tracy (I don’t go there anymore),” she said almost matter-of-factly, but without making eye contact. Then she glanced up to see the confused look on my face. “I switched churches, I mean. I go to the Evangelical church now. I got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. It was so hard for me to sit in the pew week after week, watching others go to Communion. I miss our church, but I don’t feel so condemned anymore.”
Human lives are complicated, especially the lives of our sisters and brothers living in economic poverty. I wonder if stories like these will be told in Philadelphia. I wonder what might come out of the sincere conversations to be had. As we move toward the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I wonder how compassion and forgiveness will figure in.
On my last day in Ecuador, I traveled with a group of Sisters of Charity to a remote village where there is no electricity. We spent the day with students and families outside of the local two-room school building. People came from far and near, walking and riding horses. We played games with the kids and offered medical check-ups for families. At the end of the day, we shared a meal together. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but hundreds of us were fed there. Chicken and rice filled our plates, cooked in collaboration between some of the local women and some of the women in our group from the city.
There is a distinct moment from that day that will be etched in my mind forever. After one of the women handed me my little plate, filled with aromatic goodness, I turned to find a place to sit. For some reason, the scene that greeted me took my breath away. The sky was blue and clear, and the sun was just beating down on all of us in the dusty school yard. I saw people, hundreds of people, of different ages and colors and walks of life, all eating together. There was gratitude and laughter and sharing.
And then, I heard the words clearly in my heart, out of nowhere: Do this in memory of me.
I sensed God’s message to me. This is how the Eucharist we celebrate at Mass comes alive. When we reach out to our brothers and sisters on the margins. When we share. When we love. When all are welcomed. When all are fed.
I pray that, as church, what we “do in memory” of Jesus at the table is reflected in the love and healing we bring to the world.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]
Check out Horizons, featuring reflections younger sisters.