Inspiration from mother witnesses of Earth, in the true spirit of Mother's Day

In 1905, the year that Ann Reeves Jarvis died her daughter Anna Jarvis began the process to make Mother's Day an official holiday. Her intention to honor her mother, a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War, took an unexpected turn after Mother's Day became an official holiday in 1911.

Commercialization of the holiday, beginning with Hallmark, led her to boycott Mother's Day, threaten lawsuits, and stage protests at a candy convention that was exploiting the day for profiteering. Finally in 1925 she was so angered by the selling of carnations by American War Mothers to raise money that she got herself arrested for disturbing the peace.

Reflecting upon this history and that Mother's Day originally was to celebrate life and state that mothers did not want their children killed by war, I believe the added history is significant in our time. As we face the emergency of climate change, we can celebrate the true spirit of Mother's Day, which is to honor and affirm strong women standing up for life. We may need to move out of our comfort zones to live out the principal meaning of Mother's Day, just as Anna Jarvis did.

We have many "witnesses of motherhood" from whom we can draw inspiration. Several have died because of their fearless and persistent actions for life and we honor them as Presenté! in our own work and struggles each day.

Sister Dorothy Stang, who died February 12, 2005, in Brazil worked for decades with the land-based farmers to protect the rainforests and the livelihood of the people. She received many death threats from loggers and large land owners before her actual murder at point blank range while she was doing her work in the state of Para. She was a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the cause for her canonization is underway.

Shehla Masood, an Indian environmental activist was killed in 2011 for her work in protecting wildlife, especially around investigating the deaths of tigers in sanctuaries. She was also shot at point blank range outside her home. It is believed she was killed because of her work probing the illegal diamond mining and/or hunting of tigers. Posthumously she was given the Crusade Against Corruption Award.

Berta Caceres is our most recent mother Earth martyr. A Honduran woman organizer who received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award in 2015, she was assassinated March 3, 2016. Berta's life continued to be threatened even after receiving the Goldman Award. She worked for years with her indigenous community through COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) fighting construction of a dam and hydroelectric project on the Rio Blanco that poses threats to the environment, river and indigenous Lenca people.

But there are many mothers around the world working to care for mother Earth and address environmental degradation, climate change and human dignity. In the Franciscan Canticle of Creation we pray, "Praised be sister, mother Earth who sustains and governs us." These women know the meaning of not only birthing and sustaining life, but also the qualities of leadership that that break through greed and misdirected exploitation that does not allow Earth to govern us.

One woman that I met at the OXFAM Sister Ambassador on the Planet event in Washington, D.C., in March is one of the OXFAM 2014 Female Food Hero winners: Monica Maigari from Kaduna State, Nigeria. Monica is one of the 60 percent to 79 percent of women farmers in Nigeria who grow food amidst the violence of Boko Haram. She was the first woman farmer leader to stand before the chief of her province advocating for land rights for women because the women farmers own only 7.2 percent of the land. She works for true food sovereignty amidst climate adaptation.

Majd Chourbaji, is a Syrian woman organizer and recipient of the 2015 International Women of Courage Award who was exiled with her children after suffering imprisonment and her husband's death. She works for the education of Syrian children in exile. She is a strong proponent of non-violent action, including a hunger strike that resulted in the release of 150 women detainees from prison. The roots in the Syrian conflict can be traced to years of unprecedented drought and hunger linked to climate change, piled onto a government that was unresponsive to the needs of the people.

Ursula Rakova of the Cartaret Islands is the last mother Earth woman to lift up here. Ursula was honored at Gender Day during the U.N. Paris Climate Agreement meeting in December. I was moved by her courage and persistence in helping lead her island nation people, the first climate refugees, to a new land. She and the other leaders have planted thousands of trees for food and economic survival in their new land, as they deal with the loss of culture, spirituality, and livelihood in making a new home.

While we might try to convince ourselves that these are exceptional women and that each of us does not have the time, courage, wisdom or intelligence for the type of motherhood our times require — we are wrong.

Each of us know what mothers do to "sustain and govern" households. As we sign the Mother's Day cards of gratitude, let us invoke the name of the founder of Mother's Day Anna Jarvis and the other mother witnesses caring for Earth. May our greeting cards be transformed into letters-to-the-editors, rally signs, and petitions to public officials offering motherly advice to leaders. May we point out that it is no longer acceptable to leave a mess in our home, Earth.

"Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. . . ." Taken from Julia Ward Howe's Pacifist Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World and later used as a Mother's Day Proclamation.

[Sr. Joan Brown, OSF, is a Franciscan sister from the Franciscan Sisters of Rochester, Minn., and executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light.]

Check out the latest from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2018.