A dream coming true: Mobilizing African sisters for systemic change

I was received into the novitiate on April 1, "April Fools' Day," despite my disapproval of the date. In her effort to ease my discontent, my postulate director told us of a saint she considers a fool for Christ, Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan who became a martyr of charity for volunteering to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz, a World War II Nazi concentration and death camp. Although this story did not assuage the poor choice of a date for the novitiate reception, it left a lasting impression on me. The story enlarged my mind about other ways of serving humanity. Kolbe's love of God in the other, his recognition of the dignity and worth of the person, and his giving up his life choices and opportunities for the other were indeed inspiring.

Everyone is born with worth and dignity, choices and opportunities. Unfortunately, some individuals enlarge their own choices and opportunities at the expense of others by creating unjust systems and structures. This deprivation of the humanity of others became clearer to me as a provincial of my religious community some years ago. Part of my job was to listen to sisters' stories, conduct intake interviews for young women wishing to enter a religious community, seek employment for sisters after qualification, and set up new ministries and projects. In the process of doing these tasks, I came face to face with the reality of life for ordinary Nigerians. I witnessed the threats to the dignity of the human person and the pervasiveness of structural injustice that has eroded the peoples' choices and opportunities.

These ugly situations have loomed over my years of service to the sisters and until now. I knew something was going wrong and needed to be addressed. Until these wrongs are righted, the tireless commitment of the sisters to enhance the overall quality of people's lives is hampered — their efforts to ensure quality healthcare and education, establish rehabilitation facilities and skill acquisition centers, provide micro-credits and pastoral care, and pray for the nation in distress from bribery and corruption.

I had no solution to propose during my term as provincial, as neither my social nor my religious formation had prepared me to handle structural and systemic issues. Nevertheless, I was convinced that systemic injustice stands in the way of sustained progress of the people; progress that could come about through the sisters' services.

In my desire for sustainable change and being conscious that my social and religious formation had not adequately prepared me to tackle structural injustice beyond prayer and service, I started thinking of building my capacity in this area so I could pass this on to other sisters. After my leadership ministry, I enrolled in a social work program, concentrating on social justice and social change. Concentrating on how I myself could engage as well as mobilize other sisters for systemic change, I also studied development and public policy in relation to Africa.

During my years of study in Washington, D.C., I was exposed to two faith-based organizations: Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) and NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. Knowing these organizations was one of my greatest pleasures. From my earliest formation, I can always remember having great aversion for politics, considering it dirty. My initial repugnance for politics was turned into passion for public engagement because of what I saw and learned through my interaction with these great organizations. Through them, I learned how important faith engaging politics is, and how to bring the Catholic social justice tradition to bear on public policy. In particular, I was fascinated by the levels at which NETWORK engaged politics, especially during the debate about the Affordable Healthcare Act during President Obama's administration.

One of the greatest gifts I received was having the privilege of being employed at NETWORK where I studied the intersection of faith and politics as well as practical ways of working toward structural change from the standpoint of Catholic social tradition. Witnessing NETWORK's influence on shaping public policies and its effort to ensure that U.S. policies have a human face, I came to the conclusion that sisters acting on behalf of justice by exerting political influence must complement their provision of services for people in need. As a result, I became more convinced that African sisters, like their counterparts in the U.S., could become a formidable force for change if they are mobilized for collective action on behalf of justice on the African continent. This idea took form for me thorough my year at NETWORK.

It was like a dream come true when, at the end of my time in NETWORK, AFJN invited me to coordinate its women empowerment project, designed to empower African sisters for collective action on behalf of justice so that they in turn will mobilize other women. Working with AFJN interests me because we hold a common belief that African sisters could be a formidable force for change by giving their leadership in providing critical and essential services-- education, healthcare, pastoral and social services-- to families, mostly women and children. As individuals and groups, sisters represent a unique social diversity that is essential for ending poverty, protecting human rights and building a fair society. In fact, most Africans, especially women, can attribute their education and standing in society to the sisters' educational ministries.

To harness African sisters' enormous potential to work for a more just society and to engage in action for justice requires rallying their political will in this direction. So from April through the month of June this year, while I was visiting Nigeria, AFJN sponsored my travelling around the country to speak with some leaders of women's religious communities, both individually and in groups, to ascertain their willingness to address systemic injustice. AFJN also sponsored a one-day sisters' forum on "Just Governance and the Common Good: Religious Vocation and Faithful Citizenship." More than 50 sisters from over 23 congregations gathered to discuss Nigeria's socio-political reality, the intersection of faith and politics, and the possibility of expanding the sisters' mission of service to include working for systemic change.  

At the end of these meetings with the sisters, most especially the one-day sisters' forum, I was pleasantly surprised at the sisters' level of awareness of systemic injustice and its negative impact on the people, as well as their recognition of the need for something more than providing service to the victims. I was also astonished at the excitement with which the sisters kept referencing Pope Francis's challenge to religious during the celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life in 2015 to "wake up the world." It was very revealing.

The sisters affirmed their having been brought together, not as a congregation, but as Nigerian Catholic sisters to discuss this issue of great concern. Their vibrancy and eagerness to work together for change showed their understanding of the power of associational relationships and networking. Despite fear of being misunderstood by church leaders and ordinary Nigerians, the sisters showed an enthusiastic desire to raise their voices and hands against the sorry situation of Nigerian women and children. They demonstrated readiness and determination to engage the endemic systemic structures in the nation.

My encounter with the sisters throughout these months was for me a dream come true, a kairos moment to work to strengthen the voice of sisters, bringing their talents and influence to bear on the Nigerian public arena. I treasure such an opportunity to encourage the sisters' desire to participate in shaping their society, and to tap into their energies to bring about change needed in Nigeria and on the continent at large.

Catholic Sisters in Nigeria and in Africa have always been an integral part of the social fabric in their various societies. They have shown their leadership potential and proven that they can become formidable agents of change through their efficiency in providing services. Enabling them to expand their leadership in society into the socio-political arena in their various communities will go a long way toward dismantling structures that hurt the people the sisters serve. The sisters' engagement with the structures of injustice, as well as their service provision, is indeed their mission of "bringing life in full" that is at the heart of religious life. It also restores their right to participate in shaping the affairs of their society.

[Eucharia Madueke is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in the Nigerian Province with expertise in social analysis, grassroots mobilization and organization. She coordinates women project of the African Faith and Justice Network.]

Learn about the benefits of living in community in our latest Notes from the Field installment. Notes from the Field reports are written by a Catholic Volunteer Network volunteers.
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