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Number 172 - March 2017
This year the first day of March is also the first day of Lent. In his message for this time of conversion and beginning anew, Pope Francis chose the theme ‘The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift.’ He offers a reflection on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and comments that while wealth can be ‘an instrument at our service for doing good and showing solidarity towards others’, the rich man, instead, shows us how ‘money can chain us and the entire world to a selfish logic that leaves no room for love and hinders peace.’
The story shows Lazarus as a real person, ‘an individual with his own story...He becomes a face, and as such, a gift, a priceless treasure, a human being whom God loves and cares for, despite his concrete condition as an outcast.’
International Women’s Day is marked on 8 March and celebrates women’s gifts to humankind throughout history and across nations. It is also known as United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace, recognizing the role of women in peace efforts and development.
The 2017 theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030’. The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in 2015, made gender equality for all women and girls the priority of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Achieving the goals...rests upon unlocking the full potential of women in the world of work (UN Women).
That much more needs to be done in this area was indicated by a report by the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO), Women at Work: Trends 2016. It showed that ‘despite some modest gains in some regions in the world, millions of women are losing ground in their quest for equality in the world of work.’
The report examined data for up to 178 countries. It concluded that ‘inequality between women and men persists across a wide spectrum of the global labour market’ and showed that ‘over the last two decades, significant progress made by women in education hasn’t translated into comparable improvements in their position at work.’ The results confirmed previous ILO estimates that ‘globally, women still earn on average 77 per cent of what men earn.’
This day presents an opportunity to celebrate the ordinary and extraordinary accomplishments and gifts of women throughout the world. Surely all of humankind will be richer if the potential of both women and men was achieved and recognized. This will only be possible if they are given equal opportunities in all areas, including education, health care, political participation and protection from violence.
The theme of celebrating gifts continuesin this newsletter. You can read about the Gift Box, which will visit several sites in Ireland to raise awareness about trafficking in persons. There is an update about one of our newest missions in Nigeria, where MMMs recognize the contributions of the young and the elderly in Abajah. In addition, our call to be agents of peace and non-violent living in society was made concrete at a workshop in Brazil.
Thank you for bringing your own contributions to our work of bringing about a world of justice and peace. We remember you in prayer each day.
Sister Carol Breslin, MMM
‘The most important person is the one you are with in this moment’ (Leo Tolstoy, author).
A dangerous gift
If you are near Drogheda, Ireland on 1 or 2 March, have a look at a walk-in public art display, the Gift Box, on the steps of Saint Peter’s Church on West Street. As part of efforts to raise awareness about a growing evil in our midst, trafficking in human beings, Msgr. James Carroll, Parish Priest of Saint Peter’s, has given the use of the space on the church property for this important exhibit.
The Medical Missionaries of Mary are involved in the Church-led project, organised jointly by the Justice and Peace Committee of the Loreto Sisters and Act to Prevent Trafficking (APT). APT is a faith-based group working against Trafficking in Persons (TIP). The Presentation Sisters at Greenhills, Drogheda are also lending their support and local volunteers will help to introduce visitors to the display.
The aim of the GIFT Box (Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking) is to ‘unwrap the truth’ about trafficking. The large steel box is decorated to look like a present, with the outside messages enticing people in with false promises of employment and happiness. Passers-by are invited to spend a few minutes inside the box, which exposes the realities of trafficking using true stories and information. The concept was developed by Stop the Traffick and UN.GIFT (U-tube: Toronto’s Gift Box - Public Education on Human Trafficking).
Ecumenical backing for the initiative was demonstrated in 2015, when the Anglican Cathedral of Saint James in Toronto, Canada displayed a Gift Box on its front lawn. It was supported by fifteen different religious congregations and organisations.
There was another one-day display on 31 January outside the City Hall in Belfast, organised by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice.
Modern-day slavery is not ‘out there’. The 2016 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report said that ‘Ireland is a destination and source country for women, men, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor—including forced criminal activity. Foreign trafficking victims identified in Ireland are from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. During the reporting period, law enforcement reported an increase in suspected victims of sex trafficking and forced labor, forced criminal activity, and forced begging.’
The report continued: ‘Victims of forced labor have been identified in domestic service, the restaurant industry, and car washing services....Trafficking for forced marriage is a newly recognized phenomenon....[and] the Irish government ‘identified the maritime industry as a potentially high risk area for human trafficking.’
The account stated that the government of Ireland fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Nevertheless, ‘law enforcement’s continued failure to identify suspected victims of forced criminal activity and their subsequent prosecution and imprisonment within the Irish court system remained a serious concern.’
The report recommended that Ireland ‘implement trafficking laws to hold sex and labor traffickers accountable through convictions and dissuasive sentences [and] increase efforts to identify and protect victims of labor trafficking and forced criminality.’
Still, progress has been made. The Irish government has established a national protective services bureau, including the human trafficking investigation and coordination unit within the police force. In 2015, authorities hosted a three-day seminar on combating trafficking for 148 members of the police force, and an additional 70 members of senior police management received awareness raising training on human trafficking.
In the area of networking, the report stated: ‘Ireland participates in an international group of senior law enforcement officials and Catholic bishops working with civil society to eradicate human trafficking; and leads a project focused on the fisheries industry in the North Atlantic.’ This group carried out several law enforcement investigations and inspections in 2015. One of these led to the identification of a non-EU labor trafficking victim in the Irish fishing industry.
Ending the scourge of trafficking Human trafficking is ‘the recruitment or movement of a person, by deception or coercion, for the purpose of exploitation. It happens in every country and in almost all industries. These include domestic work, sexual exploitation, construction and street crime.’ The GIFT Box is a wonderful example of how we can work together to raise awareness and eliminate the evil of human trafficking.
After the Drogheda display, the Gift Box continues its tour throughout March at a number of venues in Ireland, including Dublin, Carlow, Kilkenny, Cork, Tralee, Galway, Athlone, Maynooth and Dundalk.
Holding a treasure
On 11 December 2014, Sisters Ifeoma Ifedi, Nkiru Agunwa and Cyrina Ogbebor were warmly welcomed at Abajah, Nigeria, one of our newest missions. Sister Celestina Aganyi was assigned in April 2015, after her first profession. In our August 2015 MMM e-newsletter we described the beginnings of this venture. Now we offer an update on the first two years of the life that is unfolding in eastern Nigeria.
Located in Orlu Diocese in Imo State, Abajah comprises eight villages, with each village having at least four kindreds (a group of related persons living near each other). The Sisters first did a familiarization tour of all the villages to introduce themselves. With the parish priest and catechist they visited the community leaders. They then visited all the houses in each village.
They learned about the existing structures and cultural practices, including times for community gatherings. They discovered a strong belief that most illnesses are caused by the intervention of another human being, so people often do not access medical help. They also found that this low plains area does not have a nearby stream or river. The community depends on stored underground water during the dry season or a bore hole for the few who can afford it, which impacts on village health. The people are mostly peasant farmers, with those at home mainly retired, elderly, and infirm, along with children and teenagers. Adults able to work migrate to the city in search of ‘greener pastures’.
Assessing local needs By August 2015, the MMMs were doing a needs assessment survey in Abajah, keeping in mind that their basic role was ‘to experience and witness Christ, befriending the people and being a sign of unity'. They organized forums with community leaders to discuss what gaps needed to be addressed and how they might respond. Issues included family counselling, advocacy and palliative care for the bedridden and housebound, and care for the elderly.
At one focus group discussion, some women expressed their concerns over health challenges such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, etc. The Sisters listened and then shared some basic information on diet and lifestyle. Though meant to be only a community assessment, health education was starting! The participants said this was helpful and life-giving.
When they did home visits as part of the survey, the Sisters began to realize how they could respond in other practical ways. They found some sick and housebound elderly residents. While the lucky ones were cared for by either a sick or equally old person or a grandchild, others were simply abandoned or visited only rarely.
One of these was Papa John (not his real name), who was living in terrible conditions. He had been splashed with acid while recovering from a motor accident. His family rejected him, fearing they might die if they got involved in his care. The MMMs started visiting him twice a month, helping with bathing, doing dressings and providing a good meal. They also cleaned his room. They are trying to get some of his children involved but only one has joined them occasionally.
Health awareness Some of the elders asked for education on health and life skills. The Sisters now visit schools, kindred groups, and women’s and men’s forums. Celestina said that sessions for girls are held in parishes every month on topics that the participants choose, e.g. personal hygiene, growing up responsibly, teenage pregnancy and peer pressure. They also began ‘Girls’ Talk’ in secondary schools to discuss issues relevant to adolescents. They meet with young people together for sharing life experiences and discussing career choices, self esteem, STDs, etc.
Nkiru commented, ‘We offer our assistance, no matter how small. We met a husband and wife who were taking too high a dose of their medications and spent some time with them explaining how to take their treatment. We helped an elderly woman to chop her firewood and helped another woman pack her fufu (like mashed potatoes) for sale. Cyrina minded a baby so her mother could do some chores. One elderly woman was not able to weed her garden, making her vulnerable to dangerous animals such as snakes, so we help her to keep her compound clean.’ The Sisters also helped people who have little money to access low-cost medical care.
Providing palliative care Madam Elizabeth (not her real name) lived alone in a small hut. She was too frail to take care of her personal hygiene or prepare meals. She looked forward to the Sisters coming so she could have a bath and a meal. They shared the cleaning and food preparation. When they encouraged Elizabeth to eat she was sad that they had to leave. They felt they could do very little but Elizabeth said she received healing by their presence and love. They cared for her for thirteen months before her death.
Cyrina and Ifeoma also provided reflexology for Madam Elizabeth. They discovered a need for this therapy for the elderly and housebound, who found it helped them to relax and reduced physical pain.
The work has extended to three neighbouring towns that were interested in what the Sisters are doing.
They were surprised by the initial reaction of the community to their visits. The people said that it was a new experience to see Sisters visiting homes, becoming friends and sharing in their lives.
‘Search with them for the seeds of the Word’ (MMM Cons.). Nkiru, Ifeoma and Celestina* have discovered many gifts among the people of Abajah, such as their generosity and willingness to share no matter how little it might be. ‘We have gained from the wisdom of the elderly living among us.’
When asked what they feel our MMM presence means in Abajah, the Sisters replied, ‘[It means] being there for the people by our lives of simplicity and humility; showing love and care to the broken-hearted; living and identifying ourselves with those whom society no longer finds meaningful.’
They feel that the people have seen ‘that God can live among us and is not looking down on us from the heavens’ and that ‘they have come to the realization of what being a true missionary entails.’
Celestina said that they have also learned to be compassionate with themselves. ‘These people have taught me to be humble, kind and appreciative.’ Nkiru said she is learning ‘to be at home with the reality of what is happening around me, and to pray and discern before acting, especially in times of helplessness.’ And Ifeoma reflected, ‘They have helped me to keep in mind my need for silence; to be in touch with my realities and still see God as my source of help.’
Perhaps Nkiru said it best. ‘I have learned that the gift of presence is one the greatest gifts I can give to another person.’
*Cyrina has since begun an MA in International Development Studies in Ireland.
Mutual learning from a workshop on violence
Sister Itoro Etokakpan, from Nigeria, is based in Geolândia, Bahia, Brazil. For many people there, as in so many other places in our world today, trauma and violence are everyday realities. Itoro wrote about a programme she attended recently that encouraged the participants look at their experiences in new ways - together.
‘Every year in January, the Centro Ecumênico de Serviço à Evangelização Popular (CESEEP), in partnership with the Pontificia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP), organizes a workshop for people who live and work in the periphery of Brazil. This year the theme was ‘To Educate for Peace in Times of Injustice and Violence’. Some of our staff in Project Consolation were invited to share their experiences of taking care of the mothers and families whose children have been assassinated in Salvador.
‘This workshop brought together 501 people from different parts of the country and beyond as participants or facilitators. Only 7% were Religious, indicating how small our involvement is in the war against violence. Because the organization is ecumenical, people were from a variety of religious backgrounds, such as the Espiritas, Bandas, Candomblé and traditional African religions. Mapping out the reality of violence in the country with our different cultural backgrounds was a time for celebration, which turned out to be one way of dealing with the trauma caused by violence. We ritualized most of the activities. CESEEP uses the popular education methodology to transmit information to communities. The participative approach fosters mutual learning.
‘The people who participate in the Curso de Verao, as it is popularly known, usually do not have lots of money to pay for accommodation in a big city like São Paulo, so the communities in the outskirts helped to provide hospitality. CESEEP divided the participants among different families and communities. I was in a group of 53 participants who stayed in the pastoral center of Nossa Senhora Aperecida Parish, Cantadeira. We were very lucky that mattresses were supplied. We all slept on the floor in the hall and had the use of two bathrooms and two toilets.
‘There was so much to learn. The simple fact of sharing what was available and finding that there was always enough for everyone showed that the wealth of the world could be shared with all. There will be an end to poverty. The simplicity of heart and living was pronounced. Lining up to receive food brought back a lot of good and cherished memories of my days in the School of Arts and Science in Uyo, Nigeria.’
Itoro said they were also reminded about the poor who have to wake up very early to get to work on time. They cannot afford to live in the centre of the city, where their jobs are. The workshop participants left their lodgings hours early to get to the city centre, where PUC is located and arrived home late each of the nine days. All the same, ‘depending on how animated the participants were, sometimes we could go on singing until 2 a.m.!'
She explained that CESEEP is also the body that animates and trains the poor to fight for their rights as a group. It built on the theme chosen by the Church in Brazil for the Campaign for the Fraternity for this year: ‘Care for the Earth’.
Learning from group work Itoro continued, ‘We were divided into smaller groups called "tents". We learned so many things about violence in our different tents. Mine was on creative dance. We shared our personal experiences of coming face to face with violence and formulated ways of dancing that really shake the body. When we meet, please remind me to show you a little bit of it!
‘I was very surprised to learn how to greet in African traditional religion, which all the others present thought I knew because I am an African. To their astonishment, I had to come to Brazil to learn that in African traditional religion the greeting is axé. The greeting of the indigenous people of Amazonas, Brazil is awere. These have a similar meaning to the [Hindi] word namaste, which means: “The God in me recognizes and greets the God in you.”
‘I became more aware of the vastness of Brazil when I met one of the adolescents from Amazonas. He described how he travelled for five days by boat to get to Manaus, where he could get a flight to Sao Paulo with the help of one of the priests who paid his airfare.
‘It was scary to learn that one person is murdered in Brazil every nine minutes. Between January 2011 and December 2015, Brazil registered 279,567 assassinations, which is more than the number of people who died in the Syrian war between March 2011 and November 2015. It was therefore understandable why 76% of Brazilians fear being killed. Another shocking statistic on violence was one on rape. There were 45,460 cases in 2015, or 125 victims per day.
‘The most important learning was about making contacts - connecting and reconnecting with people and sharing ideas and experiences with like-minded groups and individuals. These include people who have fought all their lives in small but very meaningful ways to preserve their indigenous land, like Casique Baiara from Minas Gerais, in the photo. In many of our discussions we learned that the media, the police, injustice, corruption, drugs, impunity, etc. help to increase the level of violence.’
Itoro concluded, ‘Someone asked which religion was the best in helping to reduce violence. We decided that God is found everywhere and the best religion is the one that allows someone to be human, to do good and be in solidarity with their neighbor, to be just, to be compassionate, to be merciful, to be sensitive, to be honest, and to love unconditionally, with a spirituality that produces internal transformation. These are the measures with which each of us will be judged. If we all put them into practice, violence will be reduced.’
Those who are interested can read more from the CESEEP website: www.ceseep.org.br
‘We call ourselves to be agents of peace, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and of non-violent living within our communities and in the wider society’ (MMM Chapter 2015).
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