A new ministry model of relationship and healing

For the past few years of my life as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, I have been pondering a big question: How does God need us to serve now?

To focus on one aspect, my community has a strong tradition of serving as healers. Healing is central to our mission. In the past, we’ve lived that out by building and staffing huge hospitals and other institutions.

I believe we’re called to continue the tradition of being healers, but my sense is that our religious vocation ought to compel us to serve in new and unique ways, ways which are particular to the needs of now.

In fact, I have an inkling that what God needs of us is for us to try something new, something different – or at least different than we have been doing lately. I’ve learned that as women religious, we’re called to be prophetic. Partly, that means that we are to be pioneers like our foundresses. We can do as they did: see a need and respond, from the ground up.

Our service is energized by the unique type of freedom that our religious consecration and lifestyle permits us to have. Our ministries aren’t directed by the same economics that influence the choices of most laypeople. In fact, our vows of poverty, celibacy and itinerant lifestyle enable us to be free of attachment to any particular place or type of service. Money and making ends meet is not our motivation.

Rather, we are guided by principles and contemplative questions. What sort of counter-cultural risks do we need to take for the sake of the Gospel? What margins of society do we need to move toward in order to build the Kingdom of God? What is our prayer teaching us about how to humbly and joyfully relate to the other? How does God need us to minister today? To what new frontier does God need us to go? How can we respond to the health care crisis?

Religious life is changing. The shifts in our demographics help us know this. Any honest look in the mirror quickly reveals that we need to change too. We must let go of how we have been and let God make us into something new. This means allowing God to show us new ways of ministering.

Certain words come to mind: leadership, modeling, mentoring. I’ve heard other sisters say these words when I have asked them for their thoughts about what they see as the unique role of sisters in church and society.

Then there’s the words that fit with what I have noticed emerging: mutuality, accompaniment, trust, relationship, cooperation and counter-cultural alternatives.

When I study the words mutuality, cooperation and relationship, I don’t have to look far to find an example of a ministry that shows that God is up to something new and different with sisters today. My housemate, Sr. Eileen McKenzie, directs a holistic health care clinic along with other Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and our lay partners in ministry, our affiliates.

At Integrative Therapies, Sr. Eileen works to make acupuncture affordable and accessible to all, regardless of income. For example, to make the services affordable, acupuncture treatments are offered on a sliding-fee scale to everyone who comes, no matter who they are. Other practitioners, like massage therapists and spiritual directors, who joined in on the collective also use a sliding-fee scale. Together, practitioners – many of who are our affiliates – share the work and expense of operating a center that offers complementary health care.  

It started in 2008 with two practitioners, one sister and one affiliate, and has grown to include 14 practitioners and more than 3,500 clients today. Its beginnings are rooted in a sense that Spirit was compelling them to offer health care from a more relational framework than what they had been doing. Essentially, they wanted “to do together what we can’t do alone.” Praying with the contemplative questions that guide sisters helped them to realize this.

But as Sr. Eileen has said, what she and the other founding practitioners felt called to create together was not just about “sharing rent,” but instead a mode of health care that is based on Franciscan values: loving presence, simplicity, minority and conversion.

What has emerged from that intention and the focus on Franciscan values is, in fact, a type of community. Many people who come through the doors for care comment that, “It’s different here.” When those receiving care are trusted enough to name their own price, they start to take ownership in the clinic and become eager to contribute, and not just financially. Many clients have become volunteers. Some donate office supplies and other goods. One person once asked if she could help with the bulletin boards. For sure, much healing and goodness has come from the feeling of mutuality that people have come to experience.

In a discussion about Integrative Therapies, Sr. Eileen told me that her experience has taught her that God creates new things and we are called to step forward and risk. It takes creativity; it’s prophetic and radical. And, it is a type of labor that truly builds up the body of Christ.

It is being inspired by Sr. Eileen’s integrative approach to health care and my Franciscan sisters’ input and prayer that I continue to ponder how we can share our abundance and knowledge of leadership and relationships, of cooperation and trust.

And as I imagine our future, I see us supporting cooperative grassroots movements that are about seeking alternatives. And, no matter how I serve in the future, I hope that I can be guided by an insight I heard from Sr. Eileen, a great lesson she has learned from cooperating with the Spirit in the creation of Integrative Therapies: “The more I am able to share, the more God is there.”

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

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