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SMC alum makes the mission possible … and so can you

| Thursday, March 31, 2016

The morning after graduation, my friend and former classmate Catherine Sullivan, a Saint Mary’s 2015 graduate, boarded a plane to Washington, D.C. to discern a two-year position with Franciscan Mission Service (FMS), an internationally focused lay mission program. After three months of classes on cultural sensitivity, white privilege, racism, sexism, globalization, Catholic social teaching and more, Catherine left for Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city. Since January, she’s been working with abandoned children and women in or just released from prison. The majority are survivors of domestic violence.

Coming from an American women’s college, Catherine is now working in a country with domestic violence murder levels high enough to be declared femicide. But, as she told me in an email last week, it’s not necessarily because numbers have gone up, but because more cases are being reported. There is hope after all, according to Catherine, because it means “women are finally realizing their rights here.”

But with no solid education base about gender-based crimes, inequality can be a difficult problem to unravel. “Many [women] are raised in households where their fathers beat their mothers and so they believe this to be normal,” Catherine said. The cycle is further complicated because many women have used Christianity as justification for domestic violence, accepting their suffering in solidarity with Christ’s.

Catherine believes the U.S. still has a long way to go toward complete gender equality but acknowledges that it is further along than many other countries. “As a young woman who has been raised and taught to be sure of her rights, proud of her sex, and aware of her strength, I have a responsibility to fight for the rights of those women who have not been offered what I have been offered,” she wrote. “It starts with giving them an opportunity to realize their own human dignity.”

For a generation already famous for rejecting conventional career paths and seeking meaningful ways of connecting with an aching planet, mission work — though difficult on many levels — may be well suited for adventurous millennials like Catherine. But her one-on-one work with women and children isn’t quantifiable with numbers or data. She is not in Bolivia to change the entire society or culture or laws: “I have no right to do that in a society and a culture that is not mine to begin with,” she stressed. “My work is one woman at a time. Get to know them, form a real friendship, a friendship that builds them up and helps them to see their own strength and their own dignity and capabilities.”

Negotiating differences in culture, ethnicity and religion in a postcolonial world — where the scars of appropriation, racism and cultural extermination run deep — is admittedly a challenge. Catherine said most missioners either stay outside of the culture when they are not “working” — by hanging out with other missioners from their country and sticking to their own traditions — or deny their home country and try to be “as Bolivian as possible.” She tries to maintain a balance by speaking only in Spanish and learning everything she can about Bolivian culture and history while also honestly representing her Irish-Italian heritage and American nationality. “I think it all comes down to friendships,” she said. “There is no hiding who you are in a true friendship, and that’s what I am here to form, so I can’t be anything but me.”

Nonetheless, years of colonization, enslavement, persecution and globalization weigh heavily. “Me, being of white skin, living and volunteering in a country of people who have been made to feel inferior to people of white skin, of English tongue, is not easy on anyone involved,” she wrote. She’s been offered work positions and compliments based on her skin, eye and hair color; a fellow missioner was offered an agricultural management position multiple times instead of the native Quechua women who were better qualified for the job. There is not a moment when missioners cannot be aware of what their presence signifies.

But in their experiences with FMS, missioners are expected to confront, question and challenge racism in their own lives. “Our very presence in the systemically racist world makes us pawns in its racist games,” Catherine wrote. “The only way we can fight to not be racist is if we consciously and purposefully walk backwards on this moving walkway of racism. It is a constant, constant action.”

Such action is necessary, and programs like Franciscan Mission Service are opportunities for a restless generation to make the difference so many crave. Catherine believes everyone should consider programs like FMS, which sends missioners to Bolivia, Jamaica and Guatemala, but she cautions: “Do not do service because you think you have something to teach, or you owe it to the world to share your knowledge and gifts. You will learn much more than you teach.”

I write a lot about gender and racial injustice, but Catherine walks the walk. She’s equipping herself to be a force for good in individuals’ lives and allowing them to change hers. So consider if mission work might be how you could best step into a postgraduate world that needs listeners, leaders and servants. And while you’re discerning, adopt a mission attitude in your life today. We’re all on the racism — and sexism — walkway. Let’s start walking backwards.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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