United in one hope: Religious at the United Nations

When I (as a 67-year old intern!) first walked through the gates of the United Nations proudly sporting my new U.N. identification pass, I felt like Dorothy entering the Emerald City of Oz. I certainly had no idea that the internship would lead within a year to a job as director of our NGO at the United Nations. Our particular NGO (non-governmental organization), UNANIMA International, is a coalition of 19 different congregations of women religious – 20,000 of us, in over 80 countries.

At the United Nations we join the representatives of over 100 Catholic congregations of men and women religious with a presence in more than 153 countries and hundreds of other faith-based NGOs from all over the world: Greek Orthodox, Baha’i, Buddhists and many Protestant denominations, to name a few. There is also an official representative from the Holy See. In the rich experience of coming together in a common ministry we manifest the one-ness to which the Gospel calls us.

We Catholic women and men religious at the U.N. consider ourselves “gadflies” who remind the U.N. delegates to be faithful to the post-world war United Nations Charter, which was based on peace, justice and human rights. We, as members of civil society, know that we are essential to the working of the U.N. – in fact, the writers of the U.N. Charter were wise enough to write civil society into the original document. Together we address world problems at the systemic level and collaborate on international issues of common concern. Besides being international in membership ourselves, our NGOs are affiliated with networks of religious groups all over the world, such as Talitha Kum (an anti-human trafficking group sponsored by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking.

At the U.N. we lobby, take issues to the U.N. by working on NGO committees, offer written and oral statements at U.N. meetings, and talk with country representatives and U.N. departments. We offer educational events that bring our congregations’ “grassroots knowledge” to the U.N. The goal of all these activities is to affect policies. Does it work? It does, though very slowly, given the nature of the United Nations, where 193 countries have to agree on everything. Getting a single word or phrase into a U.N. document is cause for great celebration. My predecessor worked for 10 years on educating the U.N. about “stopping the demand for human trafficking.” After 10 years, for the first time, the word “demand” finally appeared in a U.N. document, and now is part of the U.N. language! Many religious NGOs have been working to ensure that a social protection floor is an important component of anti-poverty campaigns. One NGO committee we work with has been trying for several years to ensure that U.N. documents refer to water as “a human right.” Small but significant steps.

We educate our membership by offering internships, providing U.N. passes for members attending U.N. events, creating newsletters. We give our sisters the tools they need to work with U.N. agencies and governments in their countries. For example, one of our UNANIMA members recently participated in the creation of an “alternative report” that responds to her African country’s claims on how well it is following the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child – a legal instrument for protecting children. Through the report, civil society offered its own criticism of the document.

We educate the public through social media, by writing articles and by speaking to religious and civic groups. Last year, a member of the Australian parliament visiting the U.N. came to talk with our NGO about the issues of trafficking, migration and other issues in Australia. He said, “The sisters sent me to talk to you.”

Our unique charisms and work at the U.N. enrich our own community ministries by making us one with our brothers and sisters all over the world. We feel closely connected to the tragedies and triumphs of other nations, and can bring them to our prayer in new ways. We find new answers to Jesus’ question, “Who is your neighbor?” by expanding our vision to the whole world. 

There are challenges. Most of us work with a small staff (usually just one) on issues that are too complex for whole nations to solve – poverty, inequality, global warming – coping with the huge and confusing bureaucracy of the U.N. But where else in the world would you find an organization committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights? A place where Iceland sits down every day right next to Honduras? Where representatives of warring countries can talk publically to each other in an atmosphere of civilized discourse?

Religious men and women are uniquely qualified to collaborate with each other and with other groups. The U.N.’s new emphasis on “partnership” fits right into our philosophy. We are transformed by the same Spirit which at Pentecost united a diverse band of disciples into a powerful group that would speak with one voice all over the world; dedicated to our common mission to minister to all people, especially the most vulnerable; and united in one hope that the message of the Gospel ultimately will transform the world. As we work toward this transformation, we religious NGOs bring to the U.N. a vocal testimony to the one-ness which is at the heart of the mission of the United Nations itself.

[Michele Morek OSU, is an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph Kentucky. She holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Notre Dame and worked for many years as a professor and administrator at the college/university level. She is Coalition Coordinator of UNANIMA International, a religious non-governmental organization at the United Nations.]