Patna, Bihar, India — There comes a time in one’s life, when one begins to ask serious questions of what life is all about, questions of where we are going. It was at this juncture of my personal journey that I realized something: the restlessness within me that sprang from my own inner journey for a relevant way of life. What does one give up to achieve something of greater value, once you have said your “Yes,” to trust and walk the unbeaten path?
My story of moving out from an institutional setting to an Incarnational way of life has been a faith journey. What can I compare this to? At times it has been like Mary asking questions, at other times like the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, aware of limitations, yet trusting God’s providence. I know one thing: The day the restlessness began within me, the day I knew I could not continue in the institution was the day of liberation. It was a new baptism.
I had been teaching at a prestigious higher level school for girls in Delhi. I loved teaching and being with the young. But the restlessness began and continued to grow as I set foot on the soil of Northern India, Srinagar-Jammu, later attended a social analysis workshop and then worked out with my students a three-act dance drama on the life of the foundress of our congregation, the Venerable Nano Nagle.
When I walked into class one morning, one of my students – Rajni Vij who was acting in the play asked me simply, “Sister, what was that play all about?” I was shocked because during the three months of being engaged with them, I overheard their conversations about who Nano was and how they must best live their role. But it was the next statement of Rajni’s that really jolted me: “If that is what Nano did, then what are you doing here?” That nailed it.
Moving out of this institution meant moving out of security and safety, moving out of recognition to become a nobody, moving out to be part of the “scum” of society. This is something we sisters very nicely put in and decorate our documents with; we spend hours on deciding what words should be written. But all that is only for documents, not for living. I struggled to understand that what is written has also to be lived.
Being young and enthusiastic, I thought that someone who expresses her desire to live what we profess would be encouraged, accepted and given all the support. However, this really did not happen. I realized that we were all expected to be round to fit into the mold. This was not very comfortable for me. I searched for ways and means to live my truth.
I realized that what I was grappling with was the story of some other religious women and men who were in search of answers. At last I found an oasis in this great desert of religious life. The Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, as we are known in India, was the group with whom I associated. The language we spoke, the deeper questions we searched for, the different journeys individuals made and a new spirituality which we evolved all began to resonate within me. The late Fr. Thomas Kocherry, CSSR, entered into the struggle of the fisher workers. Sr. Philomena Marie, MMS, joined hands with the fisher workers movement. The late Sr. Marie Tobin, MMS, gave up her ministry as a surgeon in one of their renowned hospitals in Delhi and threw her lot with the rural women in Bihar. They were all sources of inspiration for me – people who dared to move out for a cause, people who were willing to gamble with their lives to make the Incarnational story real.
My new baptism journey continued when I joined a community of our sisters for two years in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, Basuriya, and pitched my tent among the indigenous people who are called Gonds. It was a real insertional experience – a one-room mud house was our abode; we dressed and lived like the people. Slowly I was being prepared to engage people on the periphery. These two years have been the most enriching ones of my life. A new formation began to take place. The many values which I had imbibed from home became real to me. These are the years that I would never trade. They prepared me to be with people, to listen to them, to learn from them, to live life on their terms. This formation has been priceless.
I have been directly engaged with the people on the margins for 25 years now. My passion for the urban poor has taken me to new paths. They have taught me a new theology. They have given me a new spirituality. They have formed me. It is experiencing what Jesus said: “Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. . . . yet my Heavenly father takes care of each of them.” The people have nothing to store. They live each day with faith and confidence that at the end of the day there will something to put in the pot to melt; there will be a meal to provide for the hungry members of the family. They have taught me how to resolve conflicts by addressing the problem in the community, and the wisdom they have come up with has astonished me. These are illiterate people who have never been to school; they have learned from the Book of Life what they believe to be significant.
I am indebted to the countless women, men and youth who continue to keep me on track, who make my life meaningful and who in many ways tell me what it means to throw in your all. They are the ones who continue to form me. I am also grateful to the One who has instilled in my being this passion for the people on the margins. I know without the hand of God, without the inspiration that comes from God, I would never be able to respond to incidents of human suffering.
The journey continues as I believe that I am called to be a searcher. I know not where it will lead me but all I ask is:
God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
[Dorothy Fernandes a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary from India. She presently serves as Vice Provincial of the Indian province while continuing to be deeply engaged with the urban poor of Patna, Bihar.]