The International Symposium on the Pastoral Care of the Road/Street in response to the phenomenon of street children, street women and their families, was held at Vatican City, Sept. 13-17, 2015
Have you ever lost something when you seem to be moving around too much or are overly distracted by a number of things? In past months I misplaced a sweater that I had been using daily but, in the end, I am without any idea where I had left it. Sometimes it is a book or a key; all kinds of things get lost. I have been thinking of such things since talking to Sr. Rebecca Kay Thi Oo, a Good Shepherd Sister from Myanmar, after she had attended the Vatican-sponsored International Symposium on the Pastoral Care of the Road/Street.
I met Rebecca just as she returned from the symposium; we both happened to be in the Philippines. I wanted to hear about the conference and began by asking Rebecca about her direct service work in Myanmar. She described her work in Yangon at a simple Good Shepherd-sponsored community health ministry where she encounters many people with no home other than the streets. The clinic, on property with the sisters’ convent, is an accessible, simple, non-institutional service; many people come with need for health care, clothes, basic washing and hygiene. The people also do a lot of talking with the sisters and staff. Those who come are mostly women, children and, increasingly, out-of-country migrants. They tend to have no stability and a host of serious illnesses such as malnutrition, HIV or tuberculosis.
Sometimes the sisters are able to help with plans for some long term shelter. Many such people seek apartments near centers such as train stations, so they can set up a little booth and sell some food or trinkets they have made or acquired. Even when a meager apartment is secured, the people tend to move in and out frequently, often moving to other towns in order to follow street-type festivals where selling is possible.
The story of one particular woman was on Rebecca’s mind as we talked. She described to me small and basic services she would facilitate for this woman and her infant. She did finally help her to be settled in an apartment. Rebecca felt some satisfaction that this young mother, so alone, had shelter. Then, as often happens, she did not hear from her for a very long time. And, as also often happens, after many months the woman came again looking for Rebecca. She came with a very specific request: Did Rebecca have any pictures of her son, a baby at the time Rebecca knew him? The baby had spent some time in the nursery next to the clinic, also run by the sisters, where children have access to nutrition, care and learning to offset parental instability. Rebecca had no picture, and as she talked to the woman, who in fact had gone to other towns in the months since last being at the clinic, she learned that the woman and her son were separated. A picture might help her find him. He was now maybe two or three years old and lost; his mother really had no idea how to find him. Like my misplaced sweater, there is no conclusion to this story. Lost and gone.
How can one not be disheartened by such sadness and tragedy? And yet, “do not be disheartened by the difficulties and the challenges you encounter” was exactly the message Rebecca heard from Pope Francis at the conclusion of the symposium she attended in Rome. The pope spoke further about the importance of mercy as well as the need for “the church and her institutions to eliminate everything which forces a child or woman to live on the street.”
The September symposium was the concluding meeting of a series of eight continental and intercontinental conferences that have been occurring since 2003. In Rome there were 58 attendees representing 42 countries. Three days consisted of studies, presentations, videos and discussions, including the testimony of a woman previously on the street and now in a stable life.
But the real work of this meeting was to craft an action plan. Rebecca had participated since Bangkok in 2008, having presented theology, service strategies and pastoral understanding of the realities of those who live itinerant and fragile existences. She was now eager for practical planning. She was in energetic agreement with another participant, an African expert on the situation of women who have been trafficked from Nigeria, who implored the conference to conclude the endless talking and move to lead church actions that have relevance in people’s lives.
The Action Plan was published October 1, after my conversation with Rebecca. Some central hopes of the participants have been realized in the document.
The document is quite clear in rejecting the legalization of prostitution, even though symposium participants held various opinions. This point is especially timely given that the NGO Amnesty International is currently moving toward a policy position for legalization. At the symposium, Good Shepherd Sr. Michel Lopez, working now in Cambodia, clarified that a human rights model does not support legalization, quoting, “Whatever insults human dignity — such as . . . prostitution, the selling of women and children — as well as disgraceful working conditions — where people are treated as mere tools for profit, . . . all these things . . . are infamies indeed.” ("The Church in the Modern World" / Gaudium et Spes #27)
Another large hope of participants was to have reform in the training for clergy-to-be. The document instructs all religious education to include trafficking and the exploitation of people living on the streets within the basic curriculum. This may fall a bit short for participants who would have liked to see action beyond study, such as a call for the temporary closing of seminary classrooms when natural disasters occur nearby in order to allow seminarians to go out and help in direct relief work. But the directive certainly allows for such creative and direct formation.
Perhaps the most poignant of action plan recommendations is to those of us in everyday parishes to simply accept and include any family or child in difficulty not as “strangers or simply as beneficiaries of charity but as ordinary parishioners and citizens with every right and dignity.” What a Gospel hope this echoes for any minority group among us!
And lastly, the outcome urges us to enlarge our circles, expand our networks; it speaks of employing all resources, working with governments and using legal measures to remove the causes, the social infrastructure, which leave women and children on the streets.
Withal, Rebecca felt hopeful that the work of the symposium will propel change and action. She was happy at the end of the conference, noting, as one attendee expressed it: “We are trying to move the church.” Rebecca stressed that if we “can touch the ground” and can “open our churches” maybe mothers and children will not so easily lose each other to the indifference and poverty of the streets.
[Sr. Clare Nolan is the International Justice Training Coordinator for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, an international woman’s religious congregation that is involved in providing social services in about 70 counties, with a particular focus on women and girls in vulnerable situations.]