Down is the new up: learning the lessons of religious life

This story appears in the The Life feature series. View the full series.

by The Life Panelists

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Global Sisters Report has provided award-winning journalism about the mission and ministry of sisters since its start in April 2014, but the columns that sisters write themselves are at the heart of GSR's goal to give voice to women religious from around the world.

Last year, we added a new monthly feature called The Life, an international panel of sisters who write short reflections on a question posed every month.

For our second year of The Life, we had 80 applicants. We appreciate all who applied and regret that you could not hear from all of them, as they each had something worthwhile to say. But many not selected for the panel have already appeared or will appear on Global Sisters Report as columnists, with reflections on missionary work, mental health and more.

We took advantage of timing to run two writing samples that were expanded into columns for the U.S. celebration of Mother's Day: "Edible relics: my mother's pickles" and "My mum's belief in me" (this one by a panelist).

Choosing the panel was challenging, so much so that we increased the number of panelists from 20 to 25 to include as much diversity as possible — geographical, religious congregations, ages, ministries and backgrounds — to truly represent the global sisterhood.

Our panelists this year represent many congregations and are from (or are working in) Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ghana, Haiti, India, Ireland, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, South Africa, Switzerland, the Philippines and the United States. You can meet them here.

Every month, GSR poses a question or topic and publishes responses from several sisters who volunteer from the panel. The questions and topics are suggested by panel participants, GSR staff, or you, dear readers: Submit any questions for the panel at

For the June installment of The Life, we are running a selection of the panelists' responses to this topic:

Describe a key lesson you have learned from your work or life as a sister.


Marilyn LaceyMercy Sr. Marilyn Lacey is a teacher and author who has worked with refugee workers in camps and in domestic welcome and resettlement with Catholic Charities in San Jose, California. She founded and directs Mercy Beyond Borders, an international nonprofit working with women and girls in places of extreme poverty. 

At the age of 33, it dawned on me that down was the new up.

Though I committed my life to God years before, I had given shape to that commitment in the relative security of high school classrooms. I was a math teacher. I was in control. My life had its parameters, within which I was getting rave reviews. All was well.

Then, merely by happenstance (or so it seemed), I volunteered one day to help newly arriving refugees. It was like Alice's rabbit hole: confusing, upside-down, peopled with strangers. There, I found my best self — and tremendous joy — as I left all that was familiar and moved halfway around the world to work in a refugee camp.

It was a world of tumult, violence and displacement where no one was safe and everyone riven by loss. I was now at the bottom, down in places I had never imagined with people whose languages and customs I did not understand. Control was a thing of the past.

My friends scratched their heads. Why was Marilyn, a bookworm who loved equations and answers, hated camping, feared spiders and was a picky eater — why, oh, why was Marilyn headed off to war zones?

Hard to explain, but I was discovering that the secret to joy is not perfection or acclaim or upward mobility, but compassion and hiddenness and downward mobility. It lies in being with the least of our brethren. Yes, down was my new up.

I found my stride as both a woman and a leader. Ironic, really, that disappearing into distant parts of the world to be with populations the world mostly ignores could catapult me into becoming a spokesperson and advocate for refugees. I welcomed and resettled refugees in the United States, worked with children from the Vietnam War, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and thousands of survivors from countless other violent conflicts spanning the globe.

Ultimately, I founded Mercy Beyond Borders to focus on distressed women and girls. But that's another story.

I've worked with refugees for nearly 40 years. People sometimes ask me if that has been depressing. Far from it! The refugees have been my best teachers. Here's what I've learned: None of my achievements or awards matter. We need to cross borders. We are all connected. We are all beloved of God. Unshakeable joy emerges at the edges of one's comfort zone. Down is the new up.

When we are drawn into that deep truth, all things are possible.

Adriana Haro BetancourtAdriana Haro Betancourt from Mexico is a member of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity. She currently works in youth ministry in the Philippines, does congregational communication committee work, and produces a weekly online radio program for youth evangelization.

The most important lessons I have learned as a missionary do not come from books. True formation happens when I am fully present to my daily reality. Then the word of God pierces my heart in the most unexpected ways, through the hands of his people.

One Friday as I commuted to work, a street child jumped into the jeepney and started begging. Sad to say, I'm already used to this scene. I know if I have no food to give them, I just have to nod my head or say, "I don't have," and they go to the next passenger.

But this time it was different: He stared at me and tapped my arm no matter how many times I said no. Right after my last "wala talaga," the man beside me shouted, cursed and threatened to beat the boy if he wouldn't get off. He kept yelling at him even when the kid was running away.

I was shocked and didn't know how to react. But then the word of God I had prayed in the morning came to me clearly: "Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country ... Never will I forget a thing [you] have done" (Amos 8:4, 7).

I felt sorry that I was not able to give this child anything. But my heart has developed a defense mechanism that makes him part of the urban landscape of Manila. There are so many like him! As I write these lines, his eyes are still staring at me, as if Jesus himself were telling me: "Please, look at me! Don't be part of the culture of indifference that neglects the poor!"

God is not indifferent about the sorrows of his people, especially those most unprotected: the poor, the outcasts. Jesus even identifies himself with these favored ones of God.

I thank this child for waking me up from my comfortable position — expecting others to defend the human rights of the poor, waiting for someone else to be the change. Jesus is waiting for us to see him suffering in our brothers and sisters, with eyes of faith and hearts full of love. May we be the real change we want to happen.

Adelaide NdiluAdelaide Ndilu is a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Kenya. After careers as a teacher, administrator and secretary, she studied mass communications. She now produces stories on church and justice topics for Radio Waumini, a Nairobi Catholic radio station.

When God calls us to serve him through his people, he accompanies us with the necessary grace to do so boldly and fearlessly. When God called him, the prophet Jeremiah said, "I do not know how to speak: I am only a child."

This reminds me of 27 years ago, when I was leaving the novitiate, commissioned to come face to face with the real world of real people with real problems, real challenges and, at times, real threats to my life as a religious.

Like Jeremiah, I was young — maybe only a little older than 22. I understood very well that I was timid and fearful and lacked the courage to speak before people. My colleagues knew this dark side of me. Anytime circumstances forced me to speak, words would automatically evaporate. Yet here I am, being sent out to speak to them. How am I going to do it, and what am I to say?

Somehow along the way, never realizing how and when it really happened, I found I was able to speak in public, especially in church. A number of times, I was called upon to give the homily during Mass, and I guess I did well, because the people would come up after Mass to say, "Bravo."

My colleagues couldn't understand how the "now Adelaide" had come from the "then Adelaide." I didn't understand it myself. That I was no longer timid and fearful — what might have happened, and at what point? As much as it puzzled others, I was equally puzzled.

Upon reflection, I realized that, like Jeremiah expressing his inadequacy, by feeling that I was timid, I was focusing less about God without me and more about myself without God.

I failed to realize that it is God who takes the initiative. I am not the one who first goes to God, but God comes to me first. As in the case with Jeremiah, God is the source of our mission.

And I think this is what gives me the courage and power to speak to a congregation or to various groups: youth, Christian mothers, fathers and, of course, through the radio, which is my main ministry.

For when God calls, he gives the necessary grace, for he is fully in charge of what he wants to achieve through us in spite of our limitations.

Thomas LimacherThomas Limacher is a Sister of the Holy Cross of Menzingen, Switzerland. She ministered in South Africa during apartheid and later worked at a famous pilgrimage shrine in Switzerland. She now does development work in an intercongregational nongovernmental organization that supports missionary work.

Lately, I notice — the wisdom of old age? — that my life always is on the move. Not through global travel, although that did have an impact on me: Meeting fellow sisters with their different upbringing, culture and spirituality changed me a lot.

No, I mean my inner journey.

I came from the "after 1968" student generation that questioned everything — and I still belong to it! I almost lost what I had learned from my Catholic family and school.

After entering religious life, I chose the name of the unbelieving apostle, and I binge-read all the books on negative theology, which describes God by focusing on what God is not.

Then the first change came. I lived in a remote community in Transkei when a little boy in my custody made me aware of how interesting Bible reading is. Every evening, he lay on his bed and read stories about Jesus from his own Bible in a noisy bedroom with 20 other boys.

I started to keep a pocket Bible with me. After returning to Switzerland, I had the chance to attend a Bible school in Israel. I grasped the opportunity to go deeper, especially from an "indigenous point" of the Jewish understanding of the Bible.

For a decade or two, I read anything written about the Book of Books. Through this self-instruction, I became a real scholar with an ever-changing attitude about Scripture, accompanying the ever-changing methods of exegesis. It was an interesting time.

But then — step by step — I had to let it go. From being so focused on my head, I wanted to go deeper, more into my heart. Luckily, my assignment to our fundraising office for community ministries gave me the chance to meet my Asian sisters.

My friends in India and Sri Lanka act and react from their heart-point, in contrast to us "brainy" European people. I felt they had the missing link for my life chain. I started anew.

I hope it was not just a temporary, outer shift in my ongoing search for new ways to reach out in relationship to God. I tried and I still try to meditate, to contemplate and to search for the stillness of life, and to go deeper into my heart.

It gives me lots of joy, though, and it is the longest journey I have ever made. It is like searching for a spring in the desert to find the living waters of the indwelling God.

Cynthia MathewCynthia Mathew is a sister in the Congregation of Jesus. A social worker and lawyer, she worked in India with the Dalit people, prisoners and women, and practiced law in the Patna High Court with juvenile delinquents and victims of rape and domestic violence. She is now a nongovernmental organization representative to the United Nations for her congregation.

I have cherished my vocation since I became a member of the Congregation of Jesus in 1996. Even as a child, I dreamed of becoming a missionary, and when I joined the congregation's Patna Province, God fulfilled that dream.

I loved my years working there among the Dalit women, children and youth in Bihar, a northern state in India. ("Dalit" is a term used for castes in India that have been subjected to untouchability. Dalits are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, and despite protective laws, they still face widespread discrimination in India.)

It was a poverty-stricken area, and the people living in this area had no access to proper housing, land, education, health system or justice system. It was challenging to work among them, especially as I worked on justice issues affecting girls and women.

Working there, I learned many good things from them. I remember one lesson in particular. Another sister and I were going to a village. We had to walk a long way to reach the village. After walking for an hour and a half, we were very hungry and could not find any shop to buy anything.

Suddenly, we saw a woman coming toward us. Seeing our weariness, she asked us to go with her to her house and have some water. She took us to her house and gave us not only water, but a share of the food she had prepared for her husband and children.

What a great and generous soul. She belonged to a very poor family. I was so touched by this gesture of love and care by her sharing from the little she had! Even now, I remember it vividly.

People who have very little are often generous and understanding of others. Today, besides the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer, it seems people are becoming more and more selfish and greedy.

I have come across many women and girls who are victims of violence and who struggle with daily life. It puts my own worries in perspective and makes me grateful for my own life.

As a practicing lawyer, I used to represent victims of sexual and domestic violence; it is very painful to listen to their stories.

I was blessed to become a channel of peace for many and to get justice for women and girls suffering injustice.

Kathie SheaKathie Shea is a sister of the Medical Missionaries of Mary. She served her congregation's financial needs at the local, area and congregational levels in the United States, Ireland, and Kenya. She is the congregation's business administrator for Brazil, Honduras and the United States in its Chicago office.

A lesson I have learned during my life as a religious sister is that the important thing is often not what you can do for someone in a large or grandiose way, but what you bring to another, most especially with a genuine expression of care and interest.

Living for number of years in Kenya and traveling to a number of our missions in Angola, Nigeria, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, I met some wonderful, extraordinary (and ordinary) men, women and children. Despite our occasional lack of ability to communicate, they touched my heart with their joys and, yes, with their needs to be healed and helped.

Children with their wide smiles and ticklish laughs always touched me. They let me see beyond the immediate circumstances and enjoy the present moment with them. Or the mothers, fathers, grandparents who walked miles for the basic needs of a loved one and yet often would stop to chat or share the little they had with me, the stranger.

One such mother and child lived in Rwanda. I met them while visiting our sisters and instantly fell in love with the young child. Despite having some serious physical limitations, the young boy had a huge smile.

His mother was clearly devoted to him, and they obviously did not have a lot of physical resources. Yet after I had spent a few minutes each day with them on several occasions, the mother brought me a live chicken to thank me for spending time with them. The chicken in turn proceeded to lay an egg in my hands!

How easy it is for me to say they did far more for me than I ever did for them with my brief visits.

Their smiles and generosity remain with me to this day, not to mention my surprise at the chicken laying an egg.

Read more in Global Sisters Report's The Life series.