When strangers become neighbors

by Justine Gitanjali Senapati


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It was like a dream for me when I was elected to serve at the United Nations and left my native India to live with the Sisters of St. Joseph in New York City.

My nationality, color, language and way of being were never an obstacle for the sisters, and I have experienced their true love, care, concern and unconditional acceptance. I never felt that I am a foreigner among them.

I can't imagine now how these sisters became so a part of me and I of them. But I better understand now what "sister" means: It is beyond borders, blood, language and culture, a much deeper bond than I ever thought.

Working at the United Nations, which embodies a world without borders, I feel as though I am a global citizen. We are one people on this beautiful planet, our common home, and we share a common destiny. So the word "neighbor" is becoming very alive in me.

At this significant moment in my life, living in New York with a growing understanding of what "global family" and "inclusivity" mean, the recent executive order barring immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries created confusion, fear and doubt in my mind. It is a huge blow to my understanding of global oneness.

The number of migrants worldwide reached more than 244 million by the end of 2015. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' report on global trends, 65.3 million were forcibly displaced by the end of 2015, including 21.3 million refugees and 3.2 asylum seekers. More than 40 million people were internally displaced, that is, displaced within their own countries. The total number of displaced people is the highest since the United Nations was founded after World War II.

With an average of 24 people fleeing each minute, migration has increased four times over that of the previous decade. It is a global phenomenon, growing in scope, complexity and impact.

America was built on immigrants and refugees. It is one of the strongest countries in the world because of the value it places on human rights and freedom of religion, speech and expression. But the travel decree, which seemed arbitrarily and summarily enforced, is clearly in violation of several U.N. conventions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, nationality or race. It creates division and demonizes as potential terrorists a particular group of people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity and national origin. It sows fear, suspicion and instability everywhere.

The concept of "neighbor" began to grow within me as a little girl. My parents had to move from place to place as part of their teaching profession, and I have a vivid memory of living in a small village of 80 homes with mud walls and thatched roofs.

It was an interesting neighborhood, of people who were different from my religion, ethnicity and status. The residents were neither from my mother's tribe nor from my father's caste but a different clan, with different religious beliefs (the Hindu religion) and customs altogether. Most were poor farmers and day laborers.

My family attended Mass in a small hut in a village 8 kilometers away when a visiting priest would pass by, which was rare. The closest parish church was 40 kilometers away; we could go to Mass there only for Christmas and Holy Week. The daily rosary and Bible reading at home followed by religious singing made me realize that we were different from others as far as religion was concerned.

But apart from that, our family prayers always centered on the well being of every villager and person on the planet, from one end to the other. For us, everyone was important; we loved and welcomed them all. Sharing and caring were part of our communal being, except for common worship.

A village custom was the common hunting of wild animals, and although my family members never joined in it, we were never denied our share. And it was fun collecting the wild mahula flower used for brewing country liquor, as well as berries, mushrooms and mangoes from the nearby forests. Because the jungle is not owned by anyone, it remains common, so all are free to collect and share.

Distinctions of caste and religion never become important. This was reaffirmed in the school with a Good Samaritan story. I still remember when my teacher asked the class to act out the lesson, and we did. The concept of God and neighbor imprinted on me.

I joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Annecy, whose charism — "Loving God and neighbor without distinction" — attracted me. My understanding of "neighbor" grew deeper working with the poor, the Dalits, and other marginalized people during my initial period of religious life and ministry. I found Jesus in them through ministries in education and religious formation.

But after the anti-Christian violence in my region in eastern India in 2007 and 2008, I felt a call within a call. And as I entered into social action, I was able to realize my vision to serve more directly and to realize my dream to be more like Jesus by seeking out the lost, the sick and the poor.

My eyes were opened as I listened to the cry and saw the misery of the people. I found Christ and his mission in a new way, although at times I was misunderstood because I was unable to participate fully in my religious community's daily schedule for communal prayer, gatherings and meals.

Many Indian congregations still follow some practices of the monastic way of life, so being unfaithful to the community schedule is often considered as being less spiritual and more secular. I was a bit perplexed when some of my close friends told me that my vocation could be at risk. As my own sisters became doubtful or suspicious, I was becoming stronger spiritually!

Nothing could stop me from going to the people who really needed me, even though they were 300 kilometers from my convent. I knew deep within my heart that to be like Jesus and stand for the poor and afflicted meant I could also be misunderstood, persecuted, challenged and marginalized. Just like my master Jesus himself.

By this time, I was getting support from the archdiocesan social center and the people working on the ground to meet dire needs of the many thousands of people who had fled during the violence, their homes destroyed. Here were migrants, people displaced in their own country, and despite the cold, wind and rain, were living in tents — crowded tents of up to six unrelated families.

The elderly, young girls, teenage boys, pregnant women, newborns — all were adjusting within these little places. There was no privacy for the women and girls, and very poor sanitary systems and drinking water facilities. Some of the babies were born in the tents. Many got sick and were hospitalized, and some of them died. It was unbelievable and unthinkable, but true.

The concept of "dear neighbor" is very significant to the Sisters of St. Joseph globally: Loving God and neighbor without distinction is fundamental. We are known as the "sisters of the neighborhood," and people are the center of our mission. We hold the values of union and communion, so we feel very disconnected when political, social and environmental disasters take place around us.

The Gospel imperatives and the sentence in in the preamble of the U.N. charter "to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors" means much to St. Joseph Sisters because of our charism and because we are part of the United Nations and live and serve in 52 countries. We are committed to global solidarity and take our responsibility as religious sisters, especially in afflicted areas, very seriously.

Our sisters have opened their convents' doors to migrants and trafficked persons, especially Syrian refugees, in several countries, notably Canada, the United States, Australia, and in Europe and North Africa, particularly in Lebanon. It is quite inspiring to meet a few of the St. Joseph Sisters who volunteered to manage refugee camps in Europe. And my organization, the Congregations of St. Joseph, contributes to the migration dialogue within the United Nations and works for international policy change initiatives.

So yes, I believe that everyone has a space as a human person on this planet.

[Justine Gitanjali Senapati is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Annecy. Since 2014, she has served at the United Nations as the representative for the Congregations of St. Joseph, which includes 30 global independent congregations.]