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Embracing Diversity in Religious Life with Boldness and Beauty in Communion

Sister Thuy Tran, CSJ

A month ago, 80 of us gathered in St. Louis, MO for the Giving Voice National Gathering (GVNG).  The title of the gathering was Boldness and Beauty in Communion.  I am reminded by Pope Francis’ words: “Architects and painters, sculptors and musicians, filmmakers and writers, photographers and poets, artists of every discipline are called to make beauty shine, especially where darkness or drabness dominate everyday life.  They are custodians of beauty, heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity, as my predecessors have repeatedly stated.  I invite you, therefore, to care for beauty, and beauty will in turn heal many wounds that mark the hearts and souls of men and women today.” Here are some of my experiences of being surrounded with boldness and beauty in communion.

On Thursday afternoon, each sister slowly arrived at Fontbonne University, and I noticed the diversity of Congregations coming together. My thought, “How beautiful to see the diversity of sisters that are here.”  For our prayer service, Sister Lisa Perkowski invited and guided us into an artistic prayerful reflection using paint on a large piece of paper on the floor. I thought, “Oh gosh, I do not like painting, and here we are painting together.”  In the end, I talked myself into the prayerful activity. I noticed sisters were taking this art thing seriously and the beauty and diversity of artistic skill captured all of us.  That same evening, we had a talent show of sisters sharing their gifts and talents, including singing, juggling, playing instruments, acting, and reciting poetry.  We laughed hard and admired our talented sisters.  Again, I thought, how beautiful to be surrounded with such great talents and giftedness.

On Friday, we listened to stories by sisters from various Congregations, shining light into our hearts by their boldness to stay in communion with our broken and wounded world.  During Mass, Sister Romina shared a beautiful reflection of her experiences at the border in El Paso, TX.  I was inspired and amazed at her ministering to the people at the border.  After that, three sisters shared their personal experiences of being a religious and being able to respond with boldness and beauty at a particular moment:  Sr. Heba shared about living and ministering in Egypt, a country with divisions between Christians and Muslims.  I was speechless to hear the bravery of our sisters willing to risk their lives to be God’s healing presence and love for the people in Egypt. Sr. Nicole shared about being on a train with a woman who had been hurt in the past by the Catholic Church.  Sister Nicole’s compassionate listening provided a healing experience for a stranger on the train.  Sister Tracey shared her experience of leadership as a community organizer bringing other like-minded partners to be a voice of justice for our marginalized brothers and sisters.  Other sisters also contributed to help us understand our world so that we are informed as women religious in the church. That whole day, I was informed of global realities and inspired by what our sisters are doing in their boldness and beauty to shine light for the people of God in our church and world.

On Saturday, we had new rounds of workshops by our sisters.  Christa Parra and I had been invited to present on intercultural living.  A few weeks before the conference, we called each other to process the presentation together.  During our first phone call, we had three questions to think about: 1) What is life-giving about intercultural living?  2) What is draining about intercultural living? and 3) What is the gift of intercultural living in community life? We each shared our experiences regarding the three questions and allowed the spirit to guide us.  We ended the phone conversation saying, “Lets pray, and in a few more days see where God takes us.”  The image that stood out for us was the photo of Andrei Rublev’s interpretation of the Holy Trinity as intercultural persons at the table.  From there the Holy Spirit guided our thoughts and prayers to share with our sisters our wisdom and experiences on intercultural living. 

Christa and I went to the supermarket on Friday afternoon, the day before our presentation, and bought breads that represented different cultures.  For our presentation, the group broke bread together and shared with one another our experiences of intercultural living.  Imagine after the resurrection, Jesus at the table with his disciples after all they had experienced with one another, and he came back and broke bread with them.  That was our experience as we were with one another.  Christa and I each shared an excerpt from the book of which we were a part, In Our Own Words: Religious Life in a Changing World.  Christa and I realized that our experiences of intercultural living have been moments of struggles as well as joys.  My chapter in the book was coming from a place of struggles, pain, and joys, and I wanted sisters from other cultures to know that they are not alone in their struggles and challenges.

As we broke bread with one another, our conversations were deep, honest, and safe.  The participants had such a worthwhile time that they requested a Part 2 of this workshop.  Christa and I agreed to do a Part 2 workshop.  This time more sisters shared their experiences of intercultural living.  The breaking bread with one another allowed us to enter into the broken places with each other.  Meals are important for bringing cultures together.  We listened and carried each other with sacredness in a safe environment.  Our time ended, the group asked us to do a Part 3 Intercultural Living Workshop.

After three rounds, we still had bread left to be shared, so we continued to break bread and also break open with one another by sharing our pains and challenges. Other sisters spoke up and shared about their own personal journeys living in an intercultural community.  We shared how we had been misunderstood, judged, and disappointed; we also spoke of our joys, happiness, and support.  Suddenly, something remarkable happened.  After listening to sisters sharing their challenges and struggles in religious life, one sister shared, “As a white woman, I live such a privileged life that every morning I wake up and I go about my day. I do not have to worry like what you all go through. What you go through breaks my heart.”  Then her tears interrupted her words.  A sister wanted to chime-in, and I asked her to allow time for us to process what our sister just shared with us.  What this sister was experiencing was prophetic empathy, she was sharing in our pain as her pain.  Prophetic empathy was something I learned the day before from Sr. Erin.  That sister’s tears became a healing point for others and me.  Somehow her tears became a healing point for me to allow my heart to heal from the burden that I had been carrying in my heart.  Perhaps, other sisters and I have been carrying the pain in our hearts for a long time, and we needed someone to acknowledge our pain and challenges.  Somehow, her tears and acknowledgement were the beginning of the healing process for me.  Members of the group left that breaking of bread experience more healed, aware of the paschal mystery in our midst.  

At the end of the conference, a sister/friend came up to me and said that during a prayer ritual a word that came to her was “tenderness.”  I experienced God’s tenderness with us from our ‘breaking of bread’ at daily liturgy, to being with one another as a group, to breaking bread with each other in our workshops, to embracing the richness of our diversity of coming together.  In the end, I am grateful to the Giving Voice National Gathering planning team for their leadership and vision for the conference.  The words from Pope Francis rang true for all those attending the event.  The beauty of Pope Francis’ words was experienced throughout the weekend because we had poets, musicians, painters, architects, photographers, writers, filmmakers, and disciples from all walks of life embrace each other with love and tenderness.  The sisterhood that we experienced together created new awareness of possibilities for us in the world: by embracing our diversity, we can go into those dark places and shine God’s healing presence with boldness, bringing beauty of communion into our communities and world.