Playing in my psychic cinema: Gifts of strangers

With all of the rhetoric regarding immigrants in our political debates, images of welcoming the gifts of strangers has been playing in my psychic cinema. Real people, coming from other countries, have made a difference to me and my congregation.

The marquee of my psychic cinema reads: "Resilience and Reconciliation Brings Renewed Energy."

Scenes of us as a religious community, crossing over into another perspective, play in my mind and heart. Strangers who have entered our lives, share their gifts and renew our energy.

One cold evening this past January, there was a shift of energy during supper in our community dining room. We heard a small ripple of applause which suddenly swelled into a loud "Welcome Home" for our Vietnamese sisters returning after their retreat. As they went from table to table greeting sisters and exchanging hugs, I was grateful for the gift they are to us.

Somehow through years of struggle and suffering these women see us as "Sisters in Christ." Through our universal citizenship in baptism, a bond deeper than nationality, there is a worldview that believes all are welcome. This bedrock of faith challenges us to see beyond what propaganda or political pundits once labeled as "enemies." We experience the gifts of patient listening in our common struggle with language, of laughter and tears when we feel deeply about something; and of resilience and reconciliation in a world torn by violence.

Several years ago we, as School Sisters of Notre Dame welcomed five sisters, members of a native Vietnamese congregation The Lovers of the Holy Cross. Ranging in age from 27 to 33, they bring youthful enthusiasm, creativity, joy and fidelity into our lives. Four of them are studying English and plan to attend American universities, building on their education as teachers and nurses. The fifth is finishing a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration, hoping to contribute to the development of Catholic higher education when she returns to Vietnam.

Their willingness to forgive the suffering engendered through the Vietnam War is a constant call to deeper reconciliation on all levels. As we share Eucharist I feel their resilience, trusting in Someone greater than themselves to sustain them. These are moments of mutual evangelization, reminding us, across cultures, of what it means to be followers of Christ in the 21st century.

Probing into the past, another image plays across the screen of my psychic cinema.

Our American foundress, Mother Caroline Friess came to this country in 1847, along with five others, including our German foundress, Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. After some time, Mother Theresa, realizing she didn't have the gifts needed to live in America, returned to Germany. She left 26-year-old Sister Caroline in charge of the American mission. I thank God for this remarkable immigrant woman whose French mother and German father had married at a time their nations were at war.

This high-spirited young woman received a deep grace at her first Communion, a mystical moment which energized her for a lifetime of dedication, especially in educating immigrants. I believe resilience and reconciliation were in her DNA.

Through many difficulties she became an American citizen in 1856. By the time of her death in 1892, she had established 200 convents and educated 2,000 sisters, who were teaching 70,000 students. And most of these sisters and students were children of immigrants. We wouldn't be School Sisters of Notre Dame without her Eucharistic energy, world vision, and spirit of adventure!

Educating immigrants and their children has become an essential of our congregational identity.

As my physic cinema continues to play I'm reminded of someone who lived Mother Caroline's vision and influenced lives, even in American politics.

Sr. Pascal Carton's generous and creative spirit offers another example of welcoming strangers and celebrating their gifts. She was of Irish ancestry and began her teaching career in 1910 at St. Leo's in Baltimore.

In an interview recorded in 1984, Sister Paschal, shared her story. Most of the children were Italian immigrants, and she did not speak Italian. There were 80 of them in her classroom, stacked in tiers. When she met them for the first time, she asked if anyone spoke English. One little boy, Alex, came forward. She made him her translator and he would stand tall and shout out in Italian whatever she was saying. Obviously, little Alex grew in self-confidence as he "directed" his peers in the first grade. Later she would discover that she had helped engender in him a genuine desire to help others to have similar opportunities for education and service.  

As Sister Paschal continued sharing her story, the interviewer could see that she was getting tired and attempted to conclude. With exertion Sister Paschal said: "One last thing. Alex became the mayor of Baltimore [Tom D'Alesandro]. And Tom's daughter is Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House." And Tom's son, Tommie D'Alesandro, also became mayor of Baltimore.

How amazing that a young, primary educator had some small influence in strengthening the diversity of a great city like Baltimore as well as our nation, simply by welcoming the gifts of strangers!

Flitting next across my mind is an incident that was recorded in the archives of the School Sisters of Notre Dame after World War II by our sisters in Fussen, Germany:

"Former American prisoners of war who were provided with meals by the Sisters in Fussen sent 20 pounds of soap and detergent, thread and yarn, 2 dozen handkerchiefs, ten meters of woolen cloth, three woolen shawls, 20 toothbrushes, sweets and cocoa."

Often it is ordinary people whose simple gestures of gratitude renew hope.

Our freed American prisoners were grateful for the kindness of the German School Sisters of Notre Dame who risked their lives to feed them during their captivity. The soldiers did not forget their benefactors when they went home. Their ordinary gifts to German School Sisters of Notre Dame, barely surviving after the war, helped heal the wounds of war.

This trip through my psychic cinema has led me to a new place. Images of welcoming the gifts of strangers, leading to resilience and reconciliation have given me renewed hope and energy.

Today, telling stories of welcoming the gifts of the stranger is vital to our current political debate. Sue Monk Kidd wisely said in The Secret Life of Bees, "Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here." Stories of forgiveness, across cultures, releases Eucharistic energy into our world of confusion and harmful rhetoric, reminding us of who we really are as both the Body of Christ and American citizens.

Our cultural diversity is a precious legacy gifting us beyond imaging!

[Judith Best, SSND, is coordinator of and gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]

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