Creating community in cyberspace

As part of an international congregation at a chapter two summers ago, I wondered about our future and what new, creative vision could connect us in different continents. I was conscious of our sisters in other countries and how seldom we are in conversations with them. What if we created community, not based on geographical location, but crossed boundaries and shared faith regularly with a new community? Technology makes all this possible!

We began our cyber community using Skype two years ago. We hear the stories of ministry, personal struggles and faith lives from sisters in Zambia, England, Nigeria, Ireland and California. There is mutual support between young and elderly. One sister is 94 and the youngest in her 30s. There is freshness, depth and a focus on what is most important. Unlike community meetings of the past, there is no tension or struggle over minuscule household details! Who left a smudge on the refrigerator door? Every sister knows what I’m talking about!

Vivid images enrich our sharing. The morning I wrote this, one of our Zambian sisters, Sr. Felistus Nyirongo, shared how she used animals and their behaviors to teach leadership styles to some women in the diocese. These women felt that they understood leadership roles much better than in the previous conceptual approaches in the workshops presented by men. Felistus herself was empowered by their positive feedback and used the word “jump” to express her joy. This ministry experience reminded her of the Resurrection story and how the women brought the good news. The individual sharing of ministry encounters has expanded our sense of the richness of cultural diversity and life experience in our congregation.

Sisters also share on the political realities and information not always accessible through the news. Sr. Elizabeth Onyekigwe from Nigeria facilitated our sharing that day and also brought us up to date on the activities of Boko Haram, their effects on the morale of the people, and the promises made by the new President Muhammadu Buhari.  

Sometimes the connection might not be strong enough for Skype in other countries, so we call sisters’ mobile phones to make sure they are included in the conversation. We have no designated leader in our cyber community but take turns creating the agenda and facilitating our faith sharing. Ahead of time we email a reflection question or two for our sharing, along with relevant material. In the last few months, we have focused on passages from “Rejoice,” Pope Francis’s letter for the Year of Consecrated Life.

What have we learned?

Listening to the reality of life in countries where our sisters daily encounter power outages, water shortages, poverty and violence are sobering for some of us who are relatively comfortable. It calls us to solidarity with people in these countries. When we read the paper now, we are much more attentive to news from Nigeria, Zambia, England and Ireland. The news has a personal face and touches our community. We have also delighted in our differences and our expressions. I think cyberspace also creates a safe place for the deeper sharing, and we probably know our cyber community members better than most sisters, even ones we might live with in local communities!

We are also often shocked by the reality of violence, homelessness and poverty as we listen to the stories. During Juvenile Justice Month (March) in the U.S. when we shared that 230,000 youth are arrested each year in California and that there are currently 15,000 young people under 18 locked up in detention, our sisters in developing countries were horrified. When we talk about widespread homelessness in Los Angeles, it comes as a shock to those living in the developing world who only see television programs glorifying a certain lifestyle. Likewise, we hear stories of courage and the prophetic voices of those fighting for systemic change in other countries.

We share a common commitment to fighting human trafficking and this enhances our shared unity. In Zambia, a sister had talked about the realities of human trafficking with some youth. After 10 of them were offered a job and transported by bus to a motel, one of the young boys remembered the sister’s talk. He gathered the others and they escaped out of a window to notify the police. Similar stories happen in each of our geographical locations and strengthen our passion to focus on the issue.

Kairos time in cyberspace

This was an initiative that we started on our own without a chapter directive or program. Since calendars and time zones are always a challenge, we are flexible about who can be present and fluctuate between seven and 10 sisters online at the same time. Since we have a variety of accents and expressions, we stretch our ears to listen extra carefully to reverence what is being said. We experience “kairos” time. One hour is a significant time for us as we share our hearts, our hopes and our faith, and it feels longer than 60 minutes in a positive sense. Even when we are offline, we are “connected” all the time as we remember poignant individual sharings, pray for each other and communicate in between by text or email.

Technology has gifted us with the tools for quality time as Religious Sisters of Charity, crossing borders, provinces and regions to realize our unity and identity as sisters in one congregation.

[Kathleen Bryant is Religious Sister of Charity from Los Angeles, California. She has served as a teacher in California, Ireland and Africa, as the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for 21 years, and as a trained spiritual director. Currently in leadership, she gives a variety of spiritual workshops, especially in the area of human trafficking.]

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