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Issue No. 121, July 2012
Acting with reverence
The MMM value for July is Reverence. In our documents it says: "Reverence is sensitivity to people's beliefs and values, and respect for the sacredness of life and creation. As Medical Missionaries of Mary, "in the world of health and medicine where we are situated, Christ-like, and mindful of his reverence for each person, we are committed...to promote the health and wholeness of persons and communities and to proclaim the sacredness of life and the dignity of each person." This is a value that relates to self and in community.
In this newsletter, MMMs in Angola and Brazil describe their ministries to prisoners and women affected by violence, respecting the dignity of these often marginalized people. Commemorating fifty years of service in Kenya, two MMM pioneers recall their missionary journey in Turkana.
Practices directly contrary to the promotion of the health and wholeness of persons and communities are described in a recent study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal1. It notes the problem of fake drugs in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. "Poor-quality antimalarial drugs lead to drug resistance and inadequate treatment, which pose an urgent threat to vulnerable populations and jeopardise progress and investments in combating malaria." The study describes how resistance to drugs for treating malaria on the Thailand-Cambodia border makes crucial the protection of an effective drug supply.
Studies of antimalarial drugs were reviewed. "Of samples from 7 countries in Southeast Asia, 35% failed chemical analysis and 36% were classified as falsified. In surveys of drugs from 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 35% failed chemical analysis and 20% were classified as falsified." The researchers urged the use of multiple approaches "to eliminate criminal production, distribution, and poor manufacturing of antimalarial drugs. Empowering of national medicine regulatory authorities to protect the global drug supply is more important than ever."
These results seem borne out by the 2011 annual report from our mission in Fuka, Nigeria. "Malaria resistance has been a very central issue for us. This issue was compounded with more children presenting with malaria symptoms who also showed severe life-threatening anaemia." How much of this was due to genuine drug resistance and how much was a result of fake drugs?
Worldwide there were about 216 million cases of malaria and about 655,000 deaths in 2010. Most deaths occur among children living in Africa, where a child dies every minute from malaria. World Malaria Report 2011
1The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Volume 12, Issue 6, June 2012: Poor-quality antimalarial drugs in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa
When everything is said and done, the human heart is never healed by power or by authority or by ideals, or by rules or discipline, but only by the presence of other human beings who know how to understand human pain. Anthony Padovano
To proclaim the sacredness of life
Sister Therese McDonough, from the USA, describes the MMM ministry to prisoners in Angola.
"Comarca Prison is located on the outskirts of Huambo. It was built during the Portuguese colonial period to accommodate about 250 people. A significant portion of the compound was destroyed during the recent war, but it now houses approximately 800 men, 250 women, and a number of babies with their incarcerated mothers. Prisoners come from Huambo and other province; a few come from neighbouring countries.
"For the past four years MMMs have been visiting two weekends a month. We arrive on Saturday as the inmates prepare for the Sunday liturgy and are on hand if anyone wants a chat. We return on Sunday for the Eucharistic celebration, usually held in the courtyard under a majestic, clear blue sky. I am always in awe of the joy-filled harmany that bursts from their burdened hearts.
"As a recent arrival to Huambo, I was quite taken with the reverent, simple, and discreet presence of the Sisters. The most common requests seem to be rosary beads or a book to read. A few months ago, through the generosity of donors, we were able to obtain a pair of crutches for a man who had lost his leg in a mine field. Many of these mines, horrible remnants of the thirty-year war, are still with us. Previously this man was getting around on sticks that had been badly damaged from many years' use.
"Sister Jacinta Akonaay (pictured here), from Tanzania, is one of the pioneers of this ministry at Comarca. She is preparing for a long-overdue leave. At a recent Sunday liturgy she said 'goodbye for now'to the inmates and guards at the prison. This provided an opportunity to revisit and reflect on the significance of the MMM presence over the years.
"Father Zeca, the chaplain and celebrant of the Mass, shared some experiences like the ones I mentioned above. he went on to say that this presence does indeed 'proclaim the sacredness of life and the dignity of each person'.
"One of the prisoners said, 'Well, it's like this: on the days we are expecting the Sisters, all eyes, with heartfelt longing, are on the door, waiting for them to walk through.'"
Reverencing the past
This year marks fifty years of MMM presence in Kenya. Mother Mary Martin had received a request for Sisters to serve with the nomadic Turkana people. Their way of life had been disrupted in 1961 by torrential rain, which followed two years of drought. Loss of human and animal life was devastating.
In 1962, the first MMMs, Sisters Elaine Campbell and Andrea Kelly, travelled to their new home. Their assignment was to start a dispensary at the Nadapal famine camp.
Sister Andrea remembers:
"It was Saturday, 24 March at 5.00 a.m. Crammed to capacity in a Volkswagen Beetle, with Father Paddy Cullen, SPS, driving and Sister Assumpta, OSU, we left the coffee plantations of Kitale. Our journey was long and the increasing heat was nearly unbearable. We were in full habit and there was limited space to move our legs. Only the thrill of adventure, knowing we were responding to a stricken people's call for help, and the sense of God's call to be missionaries kept our hearts up.
"On the way we saw people drinking from muddy pools. Unable to help now, we had to pass on with a more determined resolve to do all we could to ease their suffering.
"When we arrived we deposited our baggage at our 'convent': corrugated iron sheets held together with wooden beams. The roof hovered over it. Then we walked over to the camp site.
"The first sight of Nadapal famine camp was emotional. The people had been told we were coming to help them. As we approached they came running. The sounds of greeting were deafening. Were we afraid? No, it was the realization of a dream."
Sister Bernadette Gilsenan arrived four months later.
"I first went to Turkana in September 1962. The famine camp was about two hundred yards from our house. Little beehive huts were provided for the people. Some had to walk several miles to reach the camp. Children got separated from their parents. Some were never found. Some were so weak that even the food and milk were no help.
"My task was to care for the children and see that they got at least one cup of milk a day. Soon their little stomachs began to shine and they grew stronger. The challenge was to find some way to keep them occupied so I started to teach them how to write their names in the sand with their fingers and little sticks and to count with stones. Soon the first school became a reality. It was a dream come true because these were the first children to be educated. I was their first teacher.
"Our days were very full. Several hundred attended the clinic each day. Sister Campion diagnosed their illnesses. Sister Andrea gave the injections. When I was free I gave out the oral medicines. Every evening we gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and after supper we would play cards or have a sing-song. The weeks and months passed very quickly and we grew to love the people. We worked with many wonderful priests, Sisters, volunteers, and lay missionaries. They were happy days without doubt."
At present in Kenya, MMMs provide preventive and curative health services, HIV/AIDS support care, and awareness-raising and training to combat human trafficking. Seven MMMs, all with mission experience, are based at our House of Studies, preparing to continue their lives of service.
I have set you an example
In 2011 MMM opened a House of Consolation in the city of Salvador, northeast Brazil, to accompany families bereaved by violence. In this city, more than 15,000 people were victims of homicide in the past fourteen years. The MMM team with Rita Silva, an Associate MMM, work to address many of the needs of victims' families.
Sister Sheila Campbell describes how reverence was recently lived out in a practical way for the women of Salvador.
"We had begun a support group for the mothers of Projeto Consolação. These were women whose children had been assassinated. Some were assassinated because of involvement in drug trafficking; some were not involved, but were killed by mistaken identity; some were just killed by the police as they stormed through the area trying to çlean up'the streets. No matter the cause, the pain of losing a child was the same and the women had come to value these afternoon sessions in which they could find understanding and mutual support.
"Sister Itoro Etokakpan took this photo of the women looking at a wall hanging that they created. On it are hand-written 'psalms' that they wrote themselves, speaking of their present pains and struggles.
"It was a terrible afternoon. The wind was gusting wildly and the heavy winter rains had begun. It wasn't the gentle, soft rain of Ireland but heavy sheets of water pouring from the sky amidst thunder claps. 'Today they won't come,' I thought. 'Who in her right mind would leave her house in weather like this?' Yet, one by one they came, each clutching a small umbrella that provided little protection and a packet of biscuits or a small cake to share with the others.
"Where was the reverence? Rita Nascimento Silva, our co-worker and MMM Associate, met each one at the door with a dry towel. 'Come in,' she said. 'Let me dry your feet so that you will not sit here wet all afternoon!' Down Rita went on her knees and towel-dried each woman. She was reverencing each person, telling her that she was important, and that the women, too, would reverence each other in their stories and with their pain in that afternoon group."