Friday, September 29, 2017

Sunset in Tanzania

Every 6 years, SMA has its General Assembly (GA), which is when the goals and direction for the next 6 years are established and elections take place for the top four leaders (the General Council) for the Society.  The GA is attended by the Superiors and a few representatives from each unit.  In the subsequent years, a smaller meeting takes place, which is attended only by the Superior from each of the SMA Units, the General Council and a handful of other representatives who review the progress on the goals and make adjustments as needed. This smaller meeting is called a Plenary Council (PC).  Last year, the PC took place in Ghana and this year it was in Kenya.  The Secretaries for the General Council (I am one of the two Secretaries – there is always an English speaker and a French speaker as Secretaries, and they can usually speak at least a bit of both languages) go to the PCs and the GAs.   

For a few months prior to the PC, the Secretaries are busy gathering reports from all the SMA units, interpreting the reports that didn’t come in both languages, organizing and preparing whatever else is needed, etc.  During the meetings, one of us is on top of taking the minutes, and the other one facilitates all the other stuff going on – communication between the small groups when they break into discussions and all the small and big other issues that come up. (I also sent periodic updates to the guys who were updating the website. This link takes you to the first update, and you can see the others from there.) It’s an interesting time to hear how people are thinking, what is going on in the various units, the priorities, etc.  It’s also an important time for camaraderie and strengthening the SMA Family spirit while we share meals, take coffee breaks and relax in the evening.

Dympna, me, Mara and Faith - Dympna and Mara represented the SMA laity at the PC
our paparazzi

June, when we had the PC, was my first time to ever go to East Africa, so of course I was excited the meeting was going to take place there, since I’d always heard stories about the people and the countryside.  It’s also the place that most people have in mind when they hear of Africa – there are giraffes, zebras, lions, etc. . . . all the wildlife that people picture and have asked me about when, over the years, I came back from West Africa where the wildlife isn’t quite the way it is in East Africa. 

I checked with one of my friends who had also worked in Ghana while I was there and who is now the head of the Philippines SMA unit.  I knew he would be at the meeting, so I wanted to see if he had any travel plans afterwards.  Who knows if/when I’ll get back to Africa; and who knows, if I ever get back, whether or not I will have the SMA connection, that feeling of “family”. Whenever I come to an SMA community, there’s immediately a feeling of being at home, of being with family – people to welcome us, give advice and often a place to stay.  

Alan, my friend, had plans to travel to Tanzania with Faith, a lay person from the Philippines who I had met back in December/January when she came to a meeting of lay people in SMA, and they invited me to join. Alan agreed with me – we needed to take advantage of being there, because who knows….? So, after the meeting ended, we took about a week to visit Tanzania, where we were welcomed by the SMA community.  There are a couple of Dutch lay women there doing some wonderful work with the youth, especially with young women and street children. There are also SMA Fathers in a several locations.

taking a picture of Kilimanjaro (the beer) while on the Serengeti
(there was also Serengeti beer and Tusker beer, but not with us)

We took a day safari into the Serengeti and saw almost all the animals that people always ask me about.  There is also an SMA community that works with one of the Masai communities. The Masai have always intrigued me.  I always imagined them having a similar lifestyle (or that there would be a similar “feeling” to their lifestyle) to the Fulani and the Wodaabi in West Africa (I was with the Fulani while in Peace Corps, and the Wodaabi is a sub-group of the Fulani) – traditionally nomadic (although, there are also some settled communities now), herders, distinct traditions that they have held onto, a bit “exotic” in their uniqueness, a sense of separateness from the rest of society, etc. I was happy we got some time with the Masai – even to visit one of the settlements, where one of the senior women walked us around to several of the huts, and our group gradually grew as more of the women joined the tour, until eventually, in the last hut, the women sang a song while dancing, and, as they danced up to us, placed a beaded rosary they had made around each of our necks.

We spent the final 3 days back in Nairobi, where we were able to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which takes care of orphaned baby elephants, eventually reintroducing them to an elephant herd.  While there, I finally knew what wedding gift would be a good fit for my niece and her husband who were to marry in July – a baby elephant.  Malima was fostered in their name.  They now have a watercolor picture of Malima and will receive monthly updates until she is reintroduced to a herd.


Thursday, March 09, 2017

I first came to SMA in 1993 with the intention of returning to Africa, where I had served as a Peace Corps volunteer.  This time I was going to Africa as a missionary, which would be giving a different motivation to my presence, freeing me in some ways, and focusing me more in other ways.  I never planned to one day end up in Rome, working in “Administration” for the Generalate.  

Every 6 years the SMA Fathers have a General Assembly (GA) when they elect the General Council of SMA (the 4 leaders of the Society) and make decisions about the direction and focus SMA will have for the following 6 years. In 2013, I was invited to attend the General Assembly in Rome to represent the lay missionaries.  SMA has lay groups in several countries – USA, Argentina, France, Italy, Holland, Benin, Nigeria, Ireland, Philippines and Spain – each with varying forms of attachment to the SMA fathers. 

One of the decisions made at the GA 2013 was for the fathers to make efforts to have lay missionaries involved at a variety of levels within the Society’s structure.  A few weeks after the meeting, I received a call from the newly elected General Superior, Fr. Fachtna O’Driscoll, asking me to come to Rome to be the Assistant General Secretary for the General Council for the next 3 years.  My initial thoughts were, “YES!! I want to live in Rome for three years!!”  But, realistically I knew I had no training in this area – I’m an occupational therapist with almost all of my experience having been working with people in Africa who have a range of disabilities.  I love working with people in the field, and if this turned out to be a bad fit, it could be a long three years for all involved.  For these reasons, I told Fachtna “no.”  He then suggested we try it for a year and see how it goes. 

Who knows why God takes us in different directions at different times, but it’s about trusting that we aren’t being taken where we shouldn’t be, and remembering that we won’t be alone wherever we end up.  Now, 3½ years later, I’m still here in Rome as one of the assistant secretaries to the General Council.  Last year I was asked to stay for the time remaining in the General Council’s current term, so until 2019.  

me renewing my agreement in November, with Fachtna (L) and Antonio (Vice-Superior)

I still know my passion is working one-on-one with people, in the field.  Yet, it’s eye-opening to see this side of the picture – to get a fuller view of the entire process, to see the decision-making going on and the level of administration, of which I’m now a part, that is needed so that things can continue in the field – for example what I did over the years and what Joe is doing now, as well as what other lay missionaries and priests have done and are currently doing.  I’ve been very fortunate to still have close contact with Joe, and even to have seen him in the field a couple of times since I’ve been here.  When I see him and his passion and dedication to the people he is working with and for, I am motivated even more strongly to continue what I am doing.  It’s like that Bible passage, where we are many parts, all of us needed to make the whole possible.  Without the Administration, what all of the “Joes” are doing would not be possible.  Without all of the “Joes”, there would be no administration.    

the meal after my renewal, with Fachtna and a couple of others in the house

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It seems that for the past few years I have only been doing yearly updates on the blog.  When I was in Ghana, there was a lot to inspire and motivate me to write.  Since then, I seem to have lost that “muse” that inspired me.

In the past year I had a few promises from people I’d been involved with while in Ghana, saying that they would send me an update about what they are doing now and how it’s going.  They said I could share the updates on the blog, but I’m still waiting for most of them.  William sent me an update back at the beginning of November, but I wasn’t able to work on the blog at that moment – or at the next moment – or even the moment after that.  So, I think I will just do a personal post at this time, and then I have a few other updates in mind, and later I will update with William’s story (once I catch up to my November emails). 

This past June I was able to get back to Ghana, but it was primarily for a meeting.  I didn’t have time to see a lot of my friends, and didn’t even tell many of them I was in the country since I knew it wouldn’t be possible to see them.  We had a couple of days off and I used some of the time to go see Joe on the refugee camp (I think I most recently mentioned him here and previously here).  I’m so grateful every time I get to see Joe in action – he keeps me inspired and motivated. 

Joe has been devoted to Yama (aka Sharon) since he first came

I was also able to get to JB, one of the first Hope for Life (HFL) members.  Since I was first with HFL in the ‘90s, JB has been a good friend, even, at times, an advisor.  We also used to have some nice arguments and differences of opinion.
  Since I didn’t have much free time during and after the meeting in June, I suggested that some of the others I wanted to see should come to JB’s and we could meet there on my last day, have lunch together, catch up with each other, etc.  Alice, who I wrote about in the past and who was also one of the original HFL members, was able to make it, along with a few others.  However, time is never enough when we have these moments.  The most important things in life – when we can get together with loved ones, share a meal and talk – seem to pass so quickly.  After lunch that day I went back to the SMA house, took a quick shower and headed to the airport.
JB is on my right (looking like he is getting his head licked), and Alice on my left
About seven weeks after that lunch, when I was back in Italy, I received a message that JB - - a wise man, a kind man, a generous man, a gentle man, and normally I would not mention this next part, since his religion is not the issue, but with what’s happening in parts of the world today, including the US, it seems important to make it clear that this role model for us all was also a Muslim man - - had died.  He was a respected man in his community.  Over 30 years ago, as HFL was beginning, he got his first wheelchair which he used to take him out of the house where he could sit under the tree and type people’s letters and envelopes for them.  He began to hear about some children with disabilities in his area who were unable to go to school due to their disabilities and the family finances.  He sent for them to be brought to him and he started to teach them under the tree.  Gradually, the school built up through the years to over a hundred students sitting under that tree and in an open-air classroom that was put up near the tree while JB and his teachers prepared them to enter the public school system.  I have no idea how many students passed through JB’s classes over the years, but former students and others from the community regularly passed by simply to greet him and show their respect, and he was able to see some of those students graduate from the University and become doctors, lawyers, police officers and other respected citizens.  (I have a couple of other pictures of JB and also Alice and a brief reference to them at the end of this other blog post.  A longer story of Alice is here.)

I'm so grateful that we all shared that final lunch together.  These are the things that matter and that too often get rushed or overlooked.