Helping others find their voice

October 17, 2017

From Global Sisters Report, Handing the pen to sisters: Uganda, October 2017

More than 20 sisters participating in an administration and leadership course take part in a Global Sisters Report writing workshop Sept. 9 in Kampala, Uganda. (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

“I don’t know how to write!” the sisters usually say when they hear about GSR for the first time and we encourage them to write for us. But that’s no excuse.

For the eighth time, GSR is once again handing the pen to African sisters, proving that every person is a writer, and every person has a story to tell.

More than 20 sisters participating in an administration and leadership course take part in a Global Sisters Report writing workshop led by Melanie Lidman, in patterned skirt, Sept. 9 in Kampala, Uganda. (Sr. Germina Keneema)

This is the second time GSR has presented our writing workshop to sisters in Uganda who are studying with the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative, a program from the African Sisters Education Collaborative.

These sisters, who are studying administration to become the next generation of leaders through a three-year program, shared touching stories of joy, challenges and leadership.

Do you want Global Sisters Report to run a writing workshop for your congregation via Skype? Email [email protected] for more information.

A sister to all

There was one elderly man, over age 60, and I spent more time with him. Before I left, he told me he wished to share something with me.

“Sister, I look at you as my daughter,” he said. “You know, it’s because of my family. I was working and doing everything, and poverty was killing me. So I stole something from my neighbor’s house. That was the end of my life. I was put in jail. In the beginning, my family used to visit me, but now it’s been so many years that no one is coming. I am now 65, and I’ve been in jail for decades. I was waiting for my family today, but you have come to visit me in the form of my daughter. God bless you, and continue your good work. Thank you for listening to me.”

Sr. Anisha Fernandes (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

He held my hand and asked me to bless him. The tears rolled from my eyes, and I raised my hand to bless him. He was so happy, and I felt that he had shared so much with me. I left my family to be a sister, but I have family in the world. That’s why I joined this congregation, to serve the vulnerable people. To be a sister, mother and daughter to all people.

— Sr. Anisha Fernandes, Missionary Sisters of Queen of the Apostles, born in India, serving in Uganda

Journeying toward positive

One thing that has been challenging for me as a sister is working with people who are HIV-positive in Kirinda, Uganda.

I started to work with people who are HIV-positive in 2007. This was an area where people had never been tested for HIV/AIDS. So my first job was going to churches, sensitizing people to the information and telling people about HIV, what it does, how we get it, and how we can prevent it.

Sr. Edith Tumuhimbise (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

We started a small circle money-lending contribution group [also called “table banking” or SILC groups] and a drumming group. We would go to markets and other places to tell people how they can avoid getting HIV. Many people said that it was the organization of the sisters that helped them get started.

Although I am no longer working there, the group has grown even stronger in the village. They support each other in many ways, and last I heard, it had grown to more than 500 people educating their community about HIV.

— Sr. Edith Tumuhimbise, Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Cross, Uganda

Gathering a family

I joined the Medical Mission Sisters in 2009 and made my first vows in 2012. I look forward to making my final vows next year, God willing.

I have experienced real joy in community living as a sister. It is very interesting to find people of different cultures, background, tribes and nationalities coming together as sisters, and indeed, together, we make one family.

Sr. Suzan Asinde (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

In the beginning, I felt it was strange. I wondered, how is it possible we can all live together? But I realized it is part of the miracle, a witness to the oneness we are called to live in Christ.

This has filled my heart with pure joy. It doesn’t come so easily, but the moment it is achieved, it is joyful to be able to receive love and care from people I did not grow up with. Creating a family with people who are not connected by blood relationship is a true miracle and fills me with joy.

— Sr. Suzan Asinde, Medical Mission Sister, Uganda

Sharing faith, practically

I have always admired pastoral work, and when the chance was offered to me, I seized it. I was in Kazo-Mbarara District of Uganda in 2010, and my job was to teach catechism to young people who had not been baptized. I also instructed couples for their marriage, how to live well and faithful to each other.

Seeing these people come to church on Sunday, I would say to myself, “At last, I can share my faith with the rest of mankind practically and not just in words.”

Sr. Justina Kebirungi (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

People came to share their problems with me, and although I had not much to give them in terms of money for school fees for their children, I advised them how to try to raise the money themselves. I encouraged them to use their lands and cultivate for both home consumption and for selling cash crops.

After some time, I was transferred and went to serve as a bursar of the secondary school at St. Catherine Girls School, but memories of my joy to work as a catechist remain in my heart. I would love to go back and do this work again. These happy moments add value in the work I will always do, and for this, I thank God.

Finding my voice to advocate for those who have none

I learned to be a leader from working with young students who are deaf or blind. These are youth who are talented in many ways. But often, after these young girls and boys finish primary school, they are unable to continue with secondary school.

At the time, I was working as a staff member at a vocational school, which teaches professional skills.

Sr. Fausta Ktomuhendo (GSR photo / Melanie Lidman)

Many of the students who are deaf or blind are very talented at craftwork. So I went to the head teacher of my vocational school and asked him to admit some of these students. He listened to me and then agreed. We helped teach them how to make woven baskets, doormats, placemats and large mats. In this way, they were earning a living and acquiring new knowledge.

After graduating, some of the students set up their own workshops. Others got vacancies in other people’s workshops, and others have remained on the school premises to teach weaving to a new generation of deaf or blind students.

In the beginning of 2017, there were 47 deaf students at the school, and it is still growing through the hard work of the students and staff.

— Sr. Fausta Ktomuhendo, Sisters of Our Lady of Good Council, Uganda

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]

“Water is life, it’s sacred, so it’s got to be our way into making any moves in terms of equality and human rights,” said the Congregation of Notre Dame sister from Montreal, one of many women religious around the world employing creative measures to make those moves concrete in their communities.

With clean water scarcity affecting nearly half the world’s population, the United Nations’ sustainable development goal on water and sanitation aims for universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.

Sisters work toward these goals on the ground, providing water filters to locals or organizing communities to construct piping. Others pursue sustainable development behind the scenes, focusing on responsible usage at the corporate level, such as with Campbell Soup Company and Tyson Foods. (The latter recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges for water pollution in Missouri.)

Using money to hold the powerful accountable

Wielding their power as shareholders to challenge corporations, sisters from a number of communities are teaming up to ensure the companies are water-conscious in their corporate practices.

Dominican Sr. Judy Byron is director of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment. The coalition is a member of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which includes more than 300 shareholders internationally and uses that leverage to work with companies on social, environmental and governance issues. Most of its members are congregations of women religious.

“At ICCR, we look at the priorities of the members and then decide, OK, the human right to water is a priority of our members, so we’re going to address that with companies,” Byron said. “So then the communities who have that as a priority and hold shares in the company then collaborate.”

“If one person is speaking to a company, that’s one thing, but sometimes on some of these issues, we get 10, 15, sometimes up to 30 members working on the issues. When you come to the company, and you have 15 shareholders who are concerned about the issue, it makes a difference.”

Campbell has recognized that water is a critical resource for both life and its business and “has been a leader” with the company’s implementation of the U.N.’s goals, Byron said. Through a water stewardship policy, the company tracks and publicly reports its use of water and holds contracted farmers to the same standard by setting requirements that encourage conservative methods of watering.

“If they don’t comply, then they won’t be a supplier for Campbell,” Byron said.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility was the only stakeholder to ask Campbell to take a stance on the human right to water, said Dave Stangis, vice president of corporate responsibility at Campbell. Stangis, who is also the chief sustainability officer, is the liaison between the sisters and the company.

He said the fact that the sisters are shareholders of Campbell and not just an activist group makes a huge difference: They are invested in the company with a view for the long term.

“It’s a refreshing conversation to talk to people who are interested, aligned, and who happen to be investors in the company,” he said. “They really do want to feel good about what they and their institutions own.”

From left: Dominican Sr. Judy Byron director of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment (Provided photo); Dave Stangis, vice president of corporate responsibility at Campbell Soup Company (BusinessWire)

“They’re tough, they know their stuff, but most of our conversations are two-way,” he said of working with the coalition. “They’re looking to learn from us what the real challenges are, trying to really understand some of the concepts that they might only hear bits and pieces of from other companies and stakeholders. It’s been a positive conversation for many years now.”

But when dialogues prove not to be enough — as is the case with Tyson Foods, a poultry company based in Springdale, Arkansas — the interfaith coalition files a shareholder resolution. Shareholders must hold more than $2,000 worth of stock for at least a year before they can file a resolution voted on at the company’s annual meeting.

Tyson pleaded guilty Sept. 27 in federal court to two criminal charges of violating the Clean Water Act in Springfield, Missouri. Discharges at its slaughter and processing facility led to the death of about 108,000 fish in Clear Creek in the city of Monett. Along with a $2 million fine, the company will have to implement environmental compliance programs.

Tyson declined to comment for this story.

A majority of those supporting the resolution are religious communities: Adrian Dominican Sisters, Daughters of Charity, Felician Sisters, Monasterio Pan de Vida (Benedictine Sisters), Sisters of Providence (Mother Joseph Province), Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, and Good Shepherd Sisters.

In August, the group led by American Baptist Home Mission Societies filed a resolution for the fourth time since 2014 at the company’s annual meeting. Tyson has not yet adopted a water stewardship policy that the group has put forth, but Mary Beth Gallagher, executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment (also a member of the interfaith coalition), said more investors sign on to the resolution every year.

When the first resolution was brought to the annual meeting in 2015, only 10 percent of shareholders supported it; now, about 15 percent do, Gallagher said. However, Tyson Limited Partnership, which is primarily Tyson family members, owns more than 70 percent of the shares. (Without the family’s votes, the resolution would have gone from 15 percent to 59 percent in support, Gallagher said.)

Despite the disparity in control over shares, Gallagher said, “investor pressure is growing to have the company take steps to manage water in a more proactive, systemic and responsible way.

A truck filled with chickens is seen passing the Virginia Eastern Shore, where some Tyson contract farms are located. (Mary Beth Gallagher)

“There’s growing consumer interest around sustainable food and how food is grown, so there’s reputational risk for Tyson to be associated with poor water management, poor community engagement,” she said, noting how in September, Tyson had to suspend its plans to build a poultry plant in Tonganoxie, Kansas, after the community protested, citing pollution as one of the main concerns.

“So this is relevant to their core business and their ability to continue to grow their model,” Gallagher said. “If they’re not looking at sustainable business practices in a comprehensive way, then their social license to operate and community engagement will start to have serious issues.”

Through the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Sisters of Mercy also use their power as investors to hold mining companies accountable — namely Freeport-McMoRan and Newmont — as mining affects both contamination of and accessibility to water.

“Some of the mines are in water-stretched areas [such as Africa or Central Asia] where there are precious resources to start with,” said Pat Zerega, director of shareholder advocacy for Mercy Investment Services.

Confronting the corporations can be a challenge, she said, as those living in the region might lack a go-to representative in the company with whom they can have a dialogue.

“One of the things we can do as shareholders is make that jump,” she said, noting that they help raise voices by making sure the locals have access to a company representative on the ground.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility also plans to address leather tannery issues in Bangladesh.

Common practices in Bangladesh include companies regularly dumping wastewater rife with acids and dyes into the same rivers where people bathe and wash their clothes. In addition, workers in the tanneries don’t receive proper equipment to protect themselves from the chemicals.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility plans to engage with companies like Macy’s, Coach, Sears and Kate Spade that acquire leather from Bangladesh and work with them to encourage their suppliers to improve their practices.

“Sometimes the immediate reaction is to pull out and not use them as suppliers, but that doesn’t help the people in Bangladesh who need jobs,” Byron said.

Attuned to the importance of water

In Canada, members of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), a department of the Canadian Religious Conference that has local contacts in communities to facilitate social justice issues, met over the summer to contemplate the vitality, scarcity and spirituality of water.

The theme of this year’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation national gathering, held June 6-8 in Toronto, was Sacred Water, drawing community coordinators and women religious alike to share their missions and reflect on water’s worth.

Catholics are especially attuned to the importance of water, said Apraham Niziblian, national coordinator for the Canadian Religious Conference and associate director of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.

Those who attended the Sacred Water conference may focus on different aspects of social justice, including working on environmental causes or ministering to the poor, and “when you bring it all together,” Niziblian said, “you realize water is at the heart of all of it.”

Sisters who minister in developing countries, including Bolivia, Haiti or throughout Asia, “come back and realize how important water is for the development of women in general,” Niziblian said. Those who don’t have access to water have to give up time for work or education to find drinkable water, keeping them “in a cycle that continues to hinder their development,” he said.

He added that although Canada is a developed country with 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, it’s not immune to these issues, either, as developing regions with the country’s First Nation tribes also lack potable water.

“That’s how [participants] really connected at the conference,” Niziblian said.

Members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario, Canada, pick up their supply of drinking water. The Grassy Narrows water system is considered contaminated by mercury so local residents rely on bottled water. (Newscom / Toronto Star / Todd Korol)

McGrath, who also attended the Sacred Water gathering, said it served as a jump-start, encouraging congregations to network among themselves — a practice they carried out before the conference, but this time with water ministries in mind.

The conference’s two speakers demonstrated different ways to call attention to the issue in their communities. One was Elder Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe grandmother and water walker. For 20 years, Mandamin has hosted water walks, in which she walks hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles between bodies of water, praying at each stop at a body of water and using the opportunity to educate others on the importance of water.

The second speaker was Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians who also led the U.N.’s recognition of water as a human right. Barlow spoke of a project called Blue Community, a joint initiative for coalitions that adopt a framework to provide water to the public, and said her dream is for every community and city to belong to it.

McGrath said the speakers reminded her “to do my best to see what we could do as the Congregation of Notre Dame, becoming part of Blue Community.”

She said this was the first time she remembers religious communities coming together to discuss solely water.

McGrath recalled a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that Barlow invoked in her speech, that laws “may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

“That helped me in the sense of knowing that there’s no way out of it,” she said. “We have to try to push our lawmakers, those whom we elect,” to pass “laws that protect all creation.”

“There’s no question that the state of water is dire at this time, so it’s incumbent upon us to protect it.”

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @soli_salgado.]