Admitting young women from tribal communities in India as candidates for religious life is not new, but I was surprised when in January, I met two tribal sisters who are currently theology doctoral candidates, the first in the history of India. They participated in a Women of Wisdom and Action colloquium of young Asian sister theologians in Bangkok. I also learned about a congregation of tribal women founded by tribal women.
Why am I surprised? Tribal people in many countries are stigmatized and excluded from opportunities afforded to others. In India, their number is about 104 million, the largest population of tribal people in the world.
Sr. Rashmi Kanta Kiro, one of these new doctoral students, was eager to share her story. Sister Rashmi is not only tribal, but her congregation, the Daughters of St. Anne, Ranchi, is the first congregation in India founded by tribal women, established in 1897. Their story is so fascinating and courageous, I could hardly stop reading.
Rashmi describes the early foundresses as revolutionaries who bucked discrimination from their tribal communities and European missionaries to follow their call. As one of the first two female tribal doctoral students in India, Rashmi is carrying on this revolutionary charism.
GSR: Before I go into your personal journey, what did you find helpful as a participant in the Women of Wisdom and Action colloquium in Bangkok?
Kiro: The entire colloquium was helpful, fruitful and insightful. The presentations and stories of diverse ministries were enriching and thought-provoking, helping us discuss relevant topics and issues. The women theologians from different countries and continents gave me innovative ideas and insight into their many different life experiences and struggles.
Listening and sharing, I felt bonded to the other women who told stories of their people's suffering from discrimination, injustice, poverty and inequality. The best part of it all was the equal participation of everyone. All got opportunity to bring and share their stories.
How did you become involved in Women of Wisdom and Action?
Sr. Julia Prinz of Verbum Dei came to Vidyajyoti College of Theology in 2015 searching for women theologians doing doctoral studies. She shared her vision and hope for women theologians of India, wanting our voices to be heard globally.
In 2017, gathering 30 sister theologians from different states of India, she introduced the Women of Wisdom and Action program and in 2018 held an intensive writing seminar. She invited some of these women to join the Thailand colloquium. Participating in those three years brought me great joy.
Tell me about your family, where you are from, what tribal community was like and if you experienced discrimination.
I belong to a good tribal Catholic family of seven, my parents and five siblings. My place is second. My mother died while we were all young, and my father took care of us. He was in government service and is now retired.
My parents were from Jharkhand, a northern region of India. My parents moved to Andaman and Nicobar Islands to search for work. Because my father was educated, he found employment with the local government.
My siblings and I were born there. We lived in a city not far from tribal communities, so at church and school, I could enjoy the celebrations and church programs of my Jharkhand tribal community.
Tribal groups are discriminated everywhere, especially in India. We are thought of as "simple," unwise, of low status and thus easily cheated. Andaman and Nicobar Islands had mixed cultures and immigrants, so we lived harmoniously but experienced some discrimination, too.
What attracted you to the Daughters of St. Anne?
My congregation is an indigenous group founded in 1897 in Jharkhand by Mother Mary Bernadette Prasad Kispotta and three companions, Cecilia, Veronica and Mary. They wanted to serve the needs of the local church inspired by the Loreto Sisters, who worked among the tribal people in their area.
These four were revolutionaries wanting to be nuns. The idea of being a nun, a virgin, went against tribal culture.
Eventually, after much controversy and struggle, the archbishop of Kolkata, Paul Goethals, permitted them to found the congregation. In 2002, Pope John Paul II raised us to pontifical rite status. Mother Mary Bernadette became the first tribal servant of God of India in 2017.
Our charism is "Better service with the love of Jesus," and our motto is "Ablaze with the love of Jesus." We have 1,000 sisters working mainly in central and north India, Italy and Germany.
I was attracted by the sisters who were my teachers. I liked their affection for me, their simplicity and hard work. They also had good relationships with my family and neighbors.
As a teacher, what is your professional education?
I have a bachelor's degree in political science. I taught for four years. Before going on my theological journey, I did a two-and-a-half-month formators' course in Bihar and a youth seminar in Ranchi and served as a formator for three years.
I was then sent for theology studies, earning bachelor's and master's degrees, attaining a first division with distinction. Before going on for my Ph.D. in Christology, I was assistant to the sister in charge of temporary professed sisters.
What areas of theology have you studied?
I liked systematic theology because it appealed to my day-to-day religious life and touched me deeply, especially Christology — learning about Jesus, my master, strength and love.
I was the first sister of the congregation to obtain a master's in theology. Prior to theology, my superiors sent me to study canon law. I did a licentiate in canon law, but could not go on for a Ph.D. in the same subject because St. Albert's College did not offer enough credits to gain admission to the Gregorian University in Rome. I changed my specialization to systematic theology, continuing my Ph.D. in Christology in Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi, India.
What was most challenging for you?
Because of my background, I was unable to think critically or raise questions to professors during lectures and seminars. I had an inferiority complex that was a great challenge for me.
Your congregation seems very interested in theology studies. Were other sisters sent for study after you?
Yes, my congregation wants more sisters to be theological Ph.D. scholars. Three have completed licentiates in spirituality, moral theology and canon law from Gregorian University, and one is in Rome pursuing a Ph.D. in canon law.
With these important degrees, they are prepared to educate others in initial and ongoing formation and teach in seminaries and be qualified spiritual directors.
What do you hope to do with your degrees?
I studied theology to be a formator, but I do not know what my next assignment will be. I could continue teaching tribal theology as a visiting professor to seminaries.
What is tribal theology and why did you choose to write your dissertation about it?
Tribal theology reflects on the life of tribals: the theological implications of their sociocultural and religious heritage and stories of their struggles and challenges. It is important to help tribals uncover new meanings that can transform and deepen their understanding of their own spirituality, identity, dignity, life experience and justice in relation to God.
I chose it because my ministry will be among the Jharkhand tribals. I want to get to know them more deeply and then be part of helping them rediscover their faith, sociocultural and religious heritage, and how these impact their struggles and difficulties. I hope I can assist in finding new ways to confront the challenges.
Do you plan to continue writing?
Being a Ph.D. researcher, I am developing skills in writing because right now I am not a good writer. I plan to keep practicing so I can continue writing articles and books. No matter what my ministry assignment will be, I will try to dedicate at least two hours a day to writing. I am also interested in teaching, so I would like that very much.
What has brought you the most joy in your theological studies?
Learning and gaining theological knowledge with other sisters and brothers in college, the discussions, class dynamics and helping one another and receiving moral support — all brought joy. Of course, completing my bachelor's and master's degrees with first division results and distinction also brought great joy.
Now as a Ph.D. scholar, I feel more deeply the seriousness and depth of my work and realize that my own joy is not as important as writing well so that I will bring joy to others, especially my own tribal people of Jharkhand.
[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]