Fa l l 2 0 1 0 C o m p a s s i o n at e C o m m u n i t i e s
Possumus We Can
A Publication of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Ministries Foundation
Genuine compassion for others, especially the marginalized, presupposes a compassion for ourselves – a dropping of our own high expectations of perfection, of accomplishing great and memorable deeds, of being in control. We cannot love in others what we despise or fear in ourselves. Compassion is a movement of the heart. It includes sensitivity to what is weak and wounded as well as the courage to allow oneself to be affected by another’s life and pain. Who can take away suffering without entering it? How can we help heal someone else’s wounds if we have not begun to accept our own? Without compassion for ourselves, the one in need only reminds us of our needs and deficiencies. Compassion also demands action – the type that takes time and even makes time – to help change persons and structures that sometimes blindly exclude and marginalize others. This is the ministry of daily living: to find ways of making our own gifts and limitations, our own joyful and painful experiences available as sources of clarification, wisdom, and leadership. Edward Sellner Reprinted with permission from
Sunday by Sunday
Volume 19, Number 43
Possumus is Latin for we can. It sums up the commitment and willpower that identifies the Sisters of St. Joseph as one of the most influential non-profit organizations working in Minnesota in the past 150 years.
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his issue of Possumus takes you on a tour of the heart of the world. It is our hope that these stories of compassionate communities will leave you with an understanding of the kind of universe Sisters of St. Joseph and all who work with them inhabit. This universe is not a “cloistered” place. It is a world of hope, deep longings and often setbacks. In truth, these are stories about finding a way, with one another’s help, to keep moving toward profound love of God and neighbor without distinction. These are stories of people whose experiences range from earthquakes to torture, isolating illnesses and life-changing injustices. They are the stories of men on death row, awaiting execution and refugees who have lost everything and are working to begin again. These men, women and children face challenges that can grind people to dust until someone reaches out and, despite everything, makes a connection. It is that connection made in compassion that makes us one. Possumus. We can! Ralph Scorpio Executive Director Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province Ministries Foundation
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ompassion makes us one. When we act with compassion, we lay the foundation for justice. All over the world – from Minnesota to El Paso, Texas and from Chile to Kenya – men, women, and children reach out to one another and create communities that say, “You’re not alone.”
into a poor barrio in the city of Talca to live and work as members. It was a different way of thinking: to move in as neighbors, to adjust to the Chilean way of thinking, to accompany the people, and to mutually develop needed ministries that would be initiated by the people, not the Sisters.
La Familia de San José (the Family of St. Joseph) is all about spirit and commitment. This group of dedicated lay women and men are the Chilean equivalent of the Consociates of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province (CSJ). They carry out the CSJ mission of caring for the dear neighbor without distinction. Their patience, endurance, and relationships are so strong that even the men feel enticed to join, not wanting to be left out of the work and life of La Familia. The earthquake earlier this year in Chile is just the latest of the challenges that the approximately 40 La Familia de San José members have overcome to serve the dear neighbor without distinction. Their day-today situation includes poverty, fear left over from the dreaded brutality of the Pinochet regime, a Church without resources, the toil of life in the mines, and the end of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Chile as a Congregational mission. Despite these challenges, La Familia de San José is a vibrant community that supports men working in the mines; teaches the Bible to their children; cares for the elderly and people who are mentally disadvantaged; provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and dignity; and enlists volunteers who built and now repair one of the churches that miraculously stands after the earthquake. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet have been in Chile since 1985, when four Sisters arrived, two of whom had spent time in Peru and spoke Spanish. They came not to serve as leaders, but instead moved
The Sisters of St. Joseph have been preparing the members of La Familia to carry on the work when no Sisters remain in Chile. For the past eight years, La Familia in the city of Curepto has been living the example of community without the Sisters. This has never been more evident than in the aftermath of the late February earthquake. The massive 8.8 El Terremoto leveled nearly all of the adobe structures, the old colonial homes, and downtown Curepto. In the cemetery, the earthquake crashed burial niches and upturned the graves. One La Familia member, Menchi Rojas, works to
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identify the bodies from destroyed graves. Sometimes, she sees only clothing fragments, bones, and bare skeletons. The identified bones are reburied, including the bones Menchi found of her own relatives. At the end of each day, Menchi goes to the homes of family members of the deceased to tell them of the new burial site. The loss of grave sites is painful for Chileans; in Curepto, families visit their relatives’ graves every Sunday. When they cannot find their deceased relatives, they feel the loss of a deep spiritual connection and practice. Gladys Sanchez, who like Menchi has friendships with the CSJ Consociates in St. Paul, had started a ministry to the elderly without families. The home they used, although clean, was dingy and dilapidated. Gladys had persuaded their parish pastor to give La Familia the CSJ’s old colonial home. Before the earthquake, they had been remodeling the home to house the elderly. Then the earthquake destroyed all but the façade of the old colonial home. The elders’ current residence was also destroyed, but the residents were all rescued.
Members of La Familia de San José in Curepto, Chile carry on the work of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Gladys found a small house in town to temporarily shelter the 25 elders. Since the earthquake, Gladys has secured a government grant to build a new home, but she needed to provide the funds to clear the rubble. The Sisters of St. Joseph from the United States secured donated funds from the Hilton Foundation, but more was needed. Gladys raised additional money from families in Santiago who have elders in Curepto. Currently, Gladys is monitoring the government paper trail to make certain their house does not fall through the bureaucratic cracks. La Familia in Curepto felt supported when Sisters from the United States and La Familia members from Talca visited them a few weeks after the earthquake. The Sisters and Talca La Familia members held listening circles in the town center, giving presence and meaning to what the people in Curepto had experienced. The work of Menchi, Gladys and other members of La Familia in Chile demonstrate that they have been preparing and are leading efforts to do what needs to be done to care for the dear neighbor – right now. ?
Epicenter: Magnitude 8.8
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The Lives of Refugees A woman in a flowing white habit strides through an urban neighborhood. That woman in white is Sister Gretchen Reintjes, CSJ, and she is on a mission. She is headed off to a donut shop to meet the president (the Imam) of the local mosque to discuss the problems that the new arrivals from Iraq are facing. Greensboro, a city of 250,000 in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, has been a prosperous place for most of its history and a logical settlement area for refugees. Sister Gretchen has spent years serving the Montagnard people of Vietnam who came to Greensboro in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. But with the downturn in the economy and the closing of most of its textile mills, jobs have been hard to come by and agencies are stretched to serve the flood of new people. Last December, a local newspaper printed an article about how the heating system in an apartment complex was not working, and there was no one to help the mostly Iraqi residents. It caused a great groundswell of help from the general population. Many people rose to the occasion and helped them out. No jobs, a shortage of cash, inadequate support, unheated apartments in bad neighborhoods – America in 2010 is not what immigrants imagined. Some people want to end the influx of refugees, until the local economy can absorb them better. A recent newspaper story told how Iraqi refugees, driven here by Baghdad death squads, are now petitioning to go back. That’s how bad things are. “During the Bush administration, the country actually closed our doors to refugees,” Sister Gretchen says. “Now they are open, but the economy is the pits. Funding is down, and services have been cut back, leaving families confused and isolated.” In addition, Sister Gretchen sees people in Greensboro becoming increasingly more negative toward refugees, and so she responds in any way she can. “When I see the Iraqis and other refugees, I’m drawn to them. I spend most of time helping them feel more comfortable and welcome here,” she says. “I see their uneasiness and fear and reach out to them.” Sister Gretchen Reintjes, CSJ, center, Sister Gretchen is not some big agency; she is just one woman, working is a living 9-1-1 call for refugees. out of her apartment. For many families, however, she is the one face they know and trust. “I’m their go-to person and their go-for person,” she says. “I’m like 9-1-1 for them. People call me and tell me they need help – filling out a form, getting a housing application, needing a ride to the doctor – whatever it is. I help connect them to the right people. But mostly I’m their friend.” Born in Big Lake, Minnesota, where her mother served as postmaster, Gretchen is unabashedly, joyously political. “I was baptized Catholic,” she laughs, “but I was born Democratic.” She came to Greensboro when her mother retired there. There is no CSJ presence in the area. Transplanted to Southern soil, she grew wild as its kudzu and began to serve refugee populations in the area. She works with Muslims from Iraq and Somalia, Hindus and Buddhists from Bhutan and Nepal, Christians from Vietnam, Congo, and Burundi. For her, it is not about the refugees’ particular faiths; it is all about getting discouraged people through another rough week. ?
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Adopt a Kenyan Grandmother Three years ago, Mary Lieta, a retired Kenyan school principal and a Consociate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Paul Province, ignited a fire in Lois Minaeu. Mary told her stories of Kenyan grandmothers in Homa Bay who defied tribal tradition. Lois responded by helping to organize a group of people here in the United States called the Grandmothers Circle to support the Kenyans. When a man dies in Kenya, his wife is transferred to a surviving brother to be his wife. It is a custom that has been an insurance policy for Kenyan women. But these women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, pondered the pluses and minuses of being assigned to a new household and said, “No, thank you.” In African tribal terms, this refusal constituted a declaration of independence. The patriarchal leaders in Homa Bay decided to deprive the women of tribal citizenship and forced them to live apart and to fend for themselves.
the stories of young people who do not have adults who care for them. “I think of the grandmothers’ hands all of the time,” she says. “I think of the work they do with what little they have. They are the elders. They are supposed to be sitting in a place of honor in the village. Rather, they are relegated to the outskirts. One grandmother cares for 13 children. “It’s easy, when you first get excited about helping, to put a little ego into deciding where the money should go – say, a chicken coop or solar oven. Instead, the Grandmothers Circle organization wants to stand in solidarity with the grandmothers and hear from them what help they need.” The Kenyan grandmothers get up everyday doing the work they need to do, feeding the children and getting them off to school. “The grandmothers are trying to strengthen the girls with education so that they have more options and not fall through the cracks of society,” Lois says. “As important, they are teaching the boys a new way of being in the world.”
These women are called the Kenyan Grandmothers, and they include younger widows who were inspired by the elder women. At first it was just a handful of women, eking out survival outside the city, pooling their few chickens and vegetable seeds to stay alive. But the group grew as they reached out to orphans as well. Today there are four little communities of about 200 grandmothers and more than 200 children, most of whose fathers have died from AIDS. Lois Mineau, a Consociate candidate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, works in Minnesota at a county juvenile detention center and county home school. She knows
Lois and other consociates and Sisters from St. Paul traveled to Homa Bay this summer to connect with the grandmothers, listen to their stories, and build relationships that will transcend the miles. Their goal for their Grandmothers Circle is to stand in solidarity with the grandmothers in Kenya — to share experiences, to find hope and inspiration in the efforts on both continents, and to give small measures of support when asked. With that objective in mind, members of the Grandmothers Circle have held a series of garage
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sales and raised a couple thousand dollars. But it is more then being able to send a little money. It is the relationships that matter. Lois Mineau admits it has been both a daunting and gratifying experience. “I would never have stepped
on this path if others had not stepped on the path with me. And one grandmother would not have taken her independence of tribal custom alone without others joining her.” To learn more, visit their website http://grandmothercircles.org. ?
Sister Althea Johns' Jigs for them. Even building a small jig can help make them as independent as possible.”
At a factory in Mounds View, Minnesota, a van is just pulling up. Out of the van climbs Sister Althea Johns, CSJ and four people eager to start their jobs. The four workers are from Midway Training Services (MTS), a St. Paul-based day program for more than 200 people with disabilities, and they have worked together for more than ten years. Despite their disabilities, they are people who have a lot of ability. With Sister Althea’s help, they have become a close knit group at the Colonial Craft factory. “Their closeness has allowed them to be very helpful to each other,” she says. “I try to share with them what I have learned from my experience of being in a community of religious women and how we rely on the love of God and neighbor. They get it. I see them lend a hand to each other. Even those who have lost the ability to use their own hands because of a stroke are always reaching out to each other.” Sister Althea has been working as a job coach at MTS for more than ten years. “This is where I’ve learned about justice,” she says. “My team works so hard, and they are so grateful for the chance,” she says. “So I fight for them. And they teach me a lot. I’m dyslexic, and I see being dyslexic as a gift. I’m able to figure out some problems, because I’ve had to do that for myself. “The people I work with don’t always have the voice to be able to express what they want to say,” she says. “But I sit and listen to them. Patience always seems to pay off, and it’s worth it. Sometimes, I simply have to write the words down for them to make their work easier
Sister Althea Johns, CSJ, (back row, second from left) helps her work crew solve problems.
A jig, she explained, is a device a woodworker comes up with to solve a production problem. “We had a problem with bagging our parts, so I built a jig so the bag could be used to help bag our parts. Now it is easier for my team to get the job done well. My job is to make them shine. They do – and they do it well. They are a team that has learned to work together, and they are the longest job site crew from MTS. “I say, if you can’t come in the front door, then use the window or try the back way.” ?
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A Friendly Word to Death Row
“I’ve done many things in my life, but this is the best,” says Sister Mary Mark Mahoney, CSJ without a hint of immodesty. She was talking about her work corresponding with prisoners on death row at various prisons across the country, which she has done since she retired 15 years ago. Sister Mary Mark is 99 years old. She was born the year Taft replaced Roosevelt. At an age when most of us are no more, she is still at work, helping others with their problems. She didn’t seek to become a letter-writer. Fifteen years ago she was asked to send holiday cards to a group of prisoners, most of them in jail in Duluth, Minnesota. She wrote short notes inside the cards, in her steady hand, and sent them out. Since Valentine’s Day was just around the corner, she wrote again. And Easter wasn’t that far off. So Sister Mary Mark kept writing. It wasn’t until later that she answered a call in the National Catholic Reporter Sister Mary Mark Mahoney, CSJ and directed her letters to prisoners on death row in penitentiaries corresponds with men on death row. across the country. Over the years she has corresponded with nearly a hundred men e so in the bleakest of circumstances. Their mental health is ecaus gin b e b o y, t so ere t spotty. Many have been abandoned by their own families. r Mar me no ow wh Siste od so ’t kn o n g o Dear d y I e ver Some don’t even have the comfort of watching TV. ings! , som Greet ately l d e “Prisoners are looked down on,” says Sister Mary Mark. appen t has h ID ge much , I D d e s s gue “They are treated so badly. Their own families often disown anged have .. as ch much. might I’m ife h u l o y y that M them. We all need to hear a friendly word sometimes. That’s es, o say zing! t a So, y m e a f It’s ’s sa ated” job. really all I do.” .. It liber lerk f it. c d o n e a e h s t cau leged ly be She once traveled to Oklahoma to visit one man, named ... privi tical ight? ost “ m e drama h an ca. R t i r t e b m u re th A o Charles, before his execution. “I had been asked to testify on no mo l of t a d l u e a o v h i n t wi rece ner i ed to priso like, his behalf, and I did. Charles assured me he was innocent of allow -row ight h m t a a e I d k I m n : i s h k nd t you r boo ent a murder. In prison he studied the Bible. When I spoke to him, As fo tainm tever r a e h t w n So he e ime. all t he reached out his hand and said, ‘I want you to know, I love ou. t a t ciate ank y e r two a p p e a e. Th v I i g . I hav d God, and I love you.’” now. essly e sen l s r f a e l e t e l s p et ll uch b ou so ketba You can tell from the faint smile playing on her face that it ing m hip y y bas be do iends o pla blows her mind as much as it does ours. She laughs gently when she rises from the sofa, pulling herself upright. Others have made it to her age. But few have reached it still able to work for others the way Sister Mary Mark does. ?
An excerpt from a letter to Sister Mary from a condemned prisoner.
t e ms to sire e com g see or de s hav e d i My le s t l day u l o a b b o o to g new j ve my urge n my belie o r n a I e d l t ha bu and k ever, e in a wee say n settl king r o o t w n Never la only as . I p the l After end.. than ties. r i e l to an t i t b a rom ch be t of man f as mu e bes emned e I w d m to th n o d c l ’t k er to a non I don offic here, main ” and r king e r t o t w re ad y “be ve mo hey h lread impro a s m guy t i ’ I o can d So if ng I ine. y thi mainl l n o the much, .. that s me. xcite e l l it a
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Seeking Refuge and Security
and one house in Juarez, Mexico. These houses provide temporary shelter, food, and services for those in need. Many of the people they serve are fleeing persecution, political repression, and uncontrolled violence. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security does accept asylum petitions from people fleeing the violence in Mexico, but lately very few have been granted. And so thousands of them have sought refuge in El Paso and other cities and live in hiding because there is no safe, legal place for them.
Crows sound off in the linden trees alongside the Rio Grande, the river dividing the two cities of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. The birds just might be commenting on the movement of people from one side to the other, and back again, and the human misery that migration can be. One block from the border, on the U.S. side, stands a two-story building that has been sanctuary to many from Mexico. Whether you call them refugees of violence, undocumented illegals or just visitors, their plight is the same – they are in a strange land, with scant means of support. The place is called Casa Vides, and the people who have sought sanctuary there have every kind of story to tell. One group is 100 percent legal but still face a battery of hardships. They are Mexican citizens – often widows of U.S. citizens – who are legitimate beneficiaries of U.S. Social Security benefits. Until recently there was no way for them to obtain their earned benefits. The loophole is that they must come to the U.S. every six months – and to stay on U.S. soil for 30 days – to claim them. The United States has signed agreements to allow payment by mail with nearly every Western nation, but Mexico and Central American countries have not been extended this courtesy. As a result, obtaining benefits they are entitled to can be a hard bargain for many Mexicans. Social Security visitors to Casa Vides often travel many miles to get to El Paso, and they could easily spend the amount of the check staying in a motel for the required month. Casa Vides and its parent organization in El Paso, Annunciation House, seek to shine light on the struggle of all Latino migrants, focusing special
At Casa Vides, volunteers provide shelter, food, and safety.
“It is difficult for them, and we hear a lot of hard stories,” says Katy Brandes, a second-year participant in the Sisters’ St. Joseph Worker volunteer program from Minnesota who works at Casa Vides. “I think of a recent visitor, an 83-year-old widow who traveled 24 hours by bus to get here. It was no small thing for her and a family member to spend an entire month to get what they were entitled to by law.” Even though there is much suffering, it is a place of joy, too. “Our Social Security guests provide stability to Casa Vides and our other houses because we get to know them well,” says Brandes. “They are familiar faces who come for one month every six months. They help us show other new arrivals how the houses work,
attention on the fact that people crossing over often do so because they are fleeing violence in their own countries. Altogether Annunciation House runs three houses of hospitality on the U.S. side of the border
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NetwYrking to Heal In Minnesota’s northern woods, along the shallows of the Willow River, boys and girls in orange life-vests are queuing up in canoes for the morning paddle. They chatter like birds while they splash, tease, and laugh. Their excitement is like music in the air.
and often they take on more responsibilities around the houses. They aren’t looking for work or arranging for day care or applying for food stamps, so they have time to contribute.” Building a community is hardly ever easy, but Katy Brandes emphasizes that at Casa Vides the relationship is truly reciprocal. “The volunteers keep the houses running day-to-day; we learn stories and lessons and feel both difficult and beautiful emotions because of the relationships we have the honor to form with the guests,” she says. “The Social Security women and their families are so interesting because they come from all over Mexico, and they are all in the same boat. They need the benefits that they are entitled to survive. We provide a roof, a bed and basic food staples; they pitch in, along with our other guests, to make it through the time they need to be here. “It is a unique population, but one that everyone can relate to, because everyone in the houses is here not out of desire, but out of need,” says Brandes. “Need may bring us together, but we do the best we can to have fun and be joyous, too. We celebrate birthdays and holidays and turn on the radio to dance while washing dishes. It is really a beautiful home.” Casa Vides does not accept funding from the government or other institutions. The founders of Annunciation House, five young people seeking a way to live out the Gospel in the late 1970s, decided on this deliberate act of solidarity so that they could live and experience the vulnerability of the people who are poor and need shelter. This philosophy has helped them remain true to their mission without having to comply with rules and regulations that often come with government or corporate funding. “But we are so grateful because we have incredible community support,” says Brandes, “and I, for one, hardly ever think about money. As a result, it helps me to not lose sight of who we are working for.” ?
Many of these kids have never seen a squirrel before coming to camp, much less a golden eagle circling the treetops overhead. Many come from neighborhoods known more for their crime rate than their wildlife. All have been dealing with depression and anxiety, because every one of these kids lives with or is affected by HIV or AIDS.
Patrick Kindler, right, uses social media to connect campers all year long.
The purpose of Camp Heartland at Willow River, and its companion camps in upstate New York (Birch Family Camp) and Malibu, California (Camp Pacific Heartland), is to give kids with HIV and their families a breath of clean air – and the comfort of mixing it up with other families struggling with the same difficulties.
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Many parents with HIV don’t tell anyone. It’s not denial: they’re worried about losing their friends and family. Often, their own children don’t know what’s going on or why mom or dad seems so different. Patrick Kindler, Executive Director of One Heartland, the umbrella organization that runs the three camps, says the group’s main focus is the camp experience. The one-week experience in the woods is indeed dynamic. However, One Heartland has found a way to leverage that week-long experience in the woods so that it lasts year-round. The concept is social networking, Kindler explains – people finding out about each other, sharing information, supporting one another, shattering the isolation that can grip people who suffer from the stigma and fearfulness that still surrounds HIV and AIDS. “Being able to rely on one another – that’s real people power,” Kindler says. Mothers who once felt isolated become good friends with other mothers, so that if one gets sick for a week, another mom will step in and help. This is enormously important because the child services system is empowered to take children away when a parent becomes too ill to function. Having a reliable “backup” diminishes the fear of losing your child because you’re having a crummy week.
of St. Joseph of Carondelet Ministries Foundation board.
For some families, attending one of these camps is the only vacation they ever get. In New York, the old camp in the Hudson Valley was only 40 miles from the city – but the kids had been out in the world so little, they wondered if polar bears and penguins lived there. Camp Heartland makes kids who are already pretty street-smart world smart as well. Lately One Heartland has been developing programs for other populations as well – families and kids with Type 2 diabetes, kids living in foster care, and GLBTQ youth. “Our budget has gone down $800,000 over the past couple of years. But our programming is actually expanding,” says Kindler, who also serves on the Sisters
An added benefit is what happens once kids leave the camp. “In the past when they went home many of them stayed connected via phone and mail,” Kindler says. “However with Facebook and other social media sites, we now see our campers and clients connecting much more frequently, which enables them to support one another more often. Social media also helps us connect with our youth and families because it is a more permanent form of communication. Phone numbers and addresses change more frequently than Facebook and Myspace pages do. This has enabled us to reach out to campers, clients, volunteers, and donors with whom we’ve lost touch and re-engage them in the program.” ?
At camp and throughout the year, Kindler witnesses the hope of community. He recalls one family from Queens, New York. The dad was HIV positive; his family disowned him. The mom was HIV-negative, but her family disowned her as well. The family came to camp and made friends who now have become their new extended family. “One of the main purposes of our programs is to help create and foster social networks for our campers and clients,” says Kindler. “We work with families and youth who are isolated in society and bring them together to eat, sleep, cry and laugh together for an entire week.”
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uilding an atmosphere of trust.
Pat Casey is no stranger to people in the St. Paul area, or to the Sisters of St. Joseph. Retired since 1997, Casey was one of the most prominent educators in the state, having served in executive roles at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, and Benilde and Totino high schools in suburban Minneapolis. His last full-time job was headmaster at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. He became a Consociate of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 2001. We asked Pat to tell us what he has figured out over the years about the power of community, where it comes from, and what it needs from us.
the school and with the Brothers, and how I should go about it. What I was doing apparently was not working. I decided to build on the strong community spirit that already existed with both the Brothers and the school. How could I accomplish this? I looked at the example of the administrators I admired and discovered the traits of good community builders. They were good listeners; they paid close attention to what others contributed to the community; and they built an atmosphere of trust. I decided to try this approach. I spent a lot of time in the faculty room talking with the faculty, listening to what was happening in their lives and work. I ate my lunch with the kitchen and office staff. I made it a point to get to know and visit with the maintenance staff. I did my best to let everyone know I supported them and thought they were doing a good job. The faculty at Benilde was not used to having open discussions. Before me, the teachers operated from a strict agenda; there was no chance to speak your mind. So, at faculty and community meetings I encouraged everyone to participate, be open and express their ideas and suggestions on how things were going and how we could get better. It was understood that whatever decisions we agreed upon we would all take ownership of and support. By my words and actions, I tried to let everyone know that I considered them all professionals and I knew and expected they would do their best. I would try to not micro-manage them, but I would always be available to help and support them should they need it or request it. They in turn all helped and supported me. It worked! They bought into the effort and we all grew together as a community. We built a strong sense of loyalty to each other – administration, faculty, staff and students. ?
I spent 21 years as a Christian Brother. My first job was in 1958, at Benilde High School for boys, before it merged with St. Margaret’s Academy for girls, which was started by the Sisters of St. Joseph. At age 31, I was made Director of the Christian Brothers’ community and Benilde. I had been on the faculty there for the previous five years and was familiar with the school and its operation. Being younger than most of the faculty and staff wasn’t a problem because Benilde was such a new place. Some schools are very settled in their ways, as I learned later, so change there comes much harder. But Benilde was still learning what it was. I looked around and it seemed to me that people at every level needed to feel like they owned the place. So I told the principal, a former classmate of mine, that the academic side was all his – he owned it – and I wouldn’t be butting in. I was young and thought I knew how everything should be done. Not long after I was appointed, one of the older Brothers called me into his room and said to me, “You think you have all the answers, but you really have a lot to learn.” Of course, I was surprised and hurt, but he was right. This caused me to reflect on what I was doing and what I wanted to accomplish at Benilde, both at
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e got through it.
Not many of us could say our lives have taken us down a straight, linear path toward compassion, and Father Kevin Kenney is no exception. Possumus asked Father Kenney, pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul and a member of the St. Joseph Worker Advisory Board, to tell us about one of the main turning points in his life.
I did promise to meet a committee from the parish, and I figured there would be three or four people wanting to talk to me. I arrived late, and when I entered the room there were 30 people waiting for me. Thank goodness, the meeting was in English, so I could not make a fool of myself the very first day. The group tendered to me a list of things they expected from me if I accepted the post. It was a very tough list. Basically, I was to be on call 24 hours a day and not have any kind of life for myself. I heard the list, and I told them I didn’t think I could meet all their criteria. I said “You know, I’m not sure Jesus Christ could do all that!” The first year was a little rough. During my first homily, I don’t think they understood a single word I said. But you know, we got through it. I learned to set my pride aside, and everyone was kind and patient with me. Within a few months, my confidence just grew. I’ve learned that the Irish and the Mexicans have a lot in common. They both have a devotion to Mary. They are both emotional, passionate peoples. They both know how to throw a great party. One thing I have had to teach people is to lighten up. Culturally and historically, Latino people put their parish priest on a pedestal. They do not expect him to tell a joke in a sermon, which I am obliged as an Irish person to do. So now I have them laughing, and that’s very good. I also take some pride – the good kind of pride – in knowing that the people of our parish feel good about themselves. And why shouldn’t they? They have great families, everyone works hard, and the neighborhood looks terrific. Our Lady of Guadalupe was founded 80 years ago, and in our minds, we were always the “poor Mexicans.” We had low self-esteem. I think I’ve got everyone turned around on that now. We’ve got the fiesta spirit. It’s ours. And we’re feeling good. ?
A life has lots of turning points, not just one. Before I became a priest I worked with the Claretian priests and brothers on Chicago’s South Side as a lay volunteer and then directed their lay volunteer program. I worked with youth, I taught English, I did leadership training with people. The Claretians are very much a missionary order, with a special calling to Spanish speaking people. I very much liked working for them. As time went on, I felt the call to the priesthood. I studied with the Claretians for five years and then came back to St. Paul, where I finished in the diocesan seminary; and that’s how I got to be Father Kevin. I have ministered at St. Olaf Church in downtown Minneapolis, Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, and Our Lady of Peace in South Minneapolis. I’ve had my share of turning points. But the one that sticks out came right here at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on St. Paul’s West Side, where I was sent six years ago. Because – how shall I say this? – I didn’t want to be here. As bad as that sounds, this will sound worse: I didn’t want to be in a largely Spanish-speaking parish. I need to explain. I speak Spanish. I majored in Spanish in college, along with business. I spent time in Mexico and Guatemala. But I knew in my heart that my Spanish was second-rate. It embarrassed me. I thought it was a kind of insult for me to go into a parish like Guadalupe with my schoolboy Spanish. They deserved someone better. That’s it. It wasn’t that they weren’t good enough. I was the one who wasn’t good enough.
Father Kevin Kenney
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pening our eyes.
Own – verb; A word that should be stricken from our language. Definition from Common Sense for Common Good.
Can we truly act compassionately toward one another if we fail to treat the Earth with compassion? Science educator, sustainability expert, and Consociate Karen Olson talks to just about anyone who will listen about ways all of us can “do the right thing” environmentally. This is her passion; and as she launches us into this issue, she uses plastics as her core example. “True sustainability, the kind that can move us forward, is about who we are with one another,” she says. Karen’s book, Common Sense for Common Good, is available at www.itascabooks.com and www.ebooksforpleasure.com.
Q How do you connect spirituality with
pledged to make Vatican City carbon-neutral through the use of carbon offsets, restoring an ancient forest in Hungary. Throughout the church there is a deep grassroots desire to do better. But to be successful, I think we all need to undergo a conversion experience – a moment of deep change, a moment in which we see ourselves as part of, not apart from the environment.
A Spiritual beliefs and environmental policy inevitably converge. We can think that either God gave us the planet for our exploitation or God appointed us its stewards to teach us to love it and care for it as we care for ourselves. The attitude we embrace shows up in the way we choose to live.
Q Have you had a conversion experience? A Yes. I’ve not talked about this much, but early in
I think the environment is fundamentally a spiritual issue. If we love one another, we take care of one another. We don’t hurt one another with the way we live. We stop denying what is happening with the environment, for one another’s sake. We open our eyes. We stop blocking our own willingness to understand. Living together within environmental concerns invokes the Golden Rule. Cain was wrong, we are our brother’s keeper.
my career I was on a fast track of success, and the way I lived reflected that. One day in 1988 I was driving on a two lane highway near Brainerd, Minnesota and was forced off the road by a driver under the influence. My car rolled six times and landed upsidedown in a swamp. I lost the ability to speak and lost the use of the left side of my body. It took a number of operations and years of various types of therapy to put me back together.
However, we are making strides. There are solar panels on the roof of the Vatican. The Catholic Church has
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It was years after the car flipped that I realized this was my conversion moment. I couldn’t go back to those hectic, work driven days. The accident opened my eyes to the way I needed to live now, that the choices I was making were having a profound effect on me and those around me. Without sounding arrogant, I want to suggest that we all need to have what I had – an experience that jars us out of our denial, or despair, about our relationship to one another.
this toxic, that we can’t keep out of our bodies, is not a good thing. Next time you are offered a plastic fork, think about that. Pack your own stainless fork in your bag. We can see from space the Great Garbage Patch spinning out in the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas. It is made up of our trash, mostly plastic. We know that buying water in plastic bottles and tossing them in the trash makes no sense – but we still do it, a billion bottles a week. Why the disconnect?
Q What is the biggest obstacle you see to
Q So the environment is really a justice issue? A Exactly. Last year the Earth Partners working group
A I’m struck by how often we use money as a reason not to do something. My retort is: “Why don’t we find the money? Why don’t we just make the right choices?” Sometimes our lack of action has nothing to do with money. It has to do with the simple day to day choices we make. Sometimes it’s as simple as ordering coffee from a ceramic cup, not a Styrofoam one. Think how often you are offered plasticware when you are out. We think, “It’s cheaper.” But it’s not cheaper – we pay for what it’s made of, how it’s manufactured, where it goes when we throw it away, and what it does when it stays inside our bodies.
of the CSJ Justice Commission had a presentation for the Sisters of St. Joseph. We collected permanent shopping bags and energy-saving light bulbs; we even had a tree donated by Bachman’s. That was a conversion experience for a lot of us. We learned that the collective use of the CFL light bulbs translates to the equivalent of fewer cars on the road. Knowing that little things like light bulbs translate to big effects around us is empowering. Now translate that individual action into effective community-wide action, like a city voting to ban the sale of bottled water, or placing limits on Styrofoam – can you imagine the effect that would have? And it will happen – change is coming. If Bangladesh could summon the will to ban plastic bags, don’t you think we could?
We spend billions treating water in this country, and we have the safest drinking water in the world. Yet pharmaceuticals flushed down the system, in many ways, are finding their way back into our bodies. People say it’s just a little bit, and we’ve lived for years with this – but we haven’t, really.
We’re moving from the attitude that, if your bathtub is clean and your life is right because you use Scrubbing Bubbles, to the idea that you are responsible to other people for everything you send down your drain. Scrubbing Bubbles cleaned your tub, but what did it do to the water downstream and the animals in that river? We owe it to one another to think about these things.
The Centers for Disease Control has a spotlight sheet on phthalates – the chemicals that make plastic soft and malleable. The EPA has made a direct connection between phthalates and cancer. It’s very hard for science to measure the impact of this one variable, this plastic, against everything else we encounter in our lives. But common sense tells us that something
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Q But many still think the claims of global
Q How do you keep from going crazy, knowing
warming are bogus. How can you help people “get” it?
all you know?
A Good question! I am always reading, and talking
A Though people are turned off by scientific lingo,
up a new way of living with people, parishes, and various groups. A lot of people are deeply interested, and that sustains me. Some people are just learning about this now – and they light up with understanding. That encourages me, too. It makes a real emotional connection with some people, it reorients their universe. It makes everything holy and special. I get to see this change happen, which is special for me.
because words like phthalate shoosh over their heads, they do fundamentally understand the ideas. We accept that “new car smell” is from the newly manufactured plastic in your vehicle. You can take a new Ziploc bag and put your nose in it, and you get the same thing. We know intuitively that placing meat on Styrofoam trays and wrapping it in plastic eventually gets the plastic into us. Likewise, we have an idea that there is a reason for the epidemic of cancers that have taken so many loved ones.
Q You have a book coming out – a scientific text?
The task now is to connect these intuitions together, be honest with ourselves, and undergo our conversions. It needn’t be dramatic, like Saul on the road to Damascus. You can do it in incremental, minor steps. Not everyone “gets it” right away. But eventually, enough people will get it, and that’s when big change becomes possible.
A Nope. I worked to keep it from being that. The book is for absolutely anyone. It’s called Common Sense for Common Good, and it’s a series of teaching stories. Each one is a real-life situation that has to do with sustainability. One is called “Lucy’s Coat,” about a woman who profoundly understands this principle of connection we have been speaking about.
Q Environmental consciousness seems almost
The book highlights that this debate is not about plastic forks. It’s about who we are to one another. True sustainability, the kind that can move us forward is about how we are with one another. It is a test of our love. ?
like the stages of grief.
A You’re right, it’s a process of understanding that we have to go through, that starts with denial, then it makes you crazy with anger and depression and bargaining. But when you arrive at acceptance, then you are seeing the world as it really is – a place you can’t deny any more, that doesn’t belong just to us.
call to bring the world together.
When theologian Karen Armstrong, author of more than 20 books on comparative religions, was awarded the TED Prize in February 2008, she knew what she wanted to do with it.
Charter for Compassion
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an annual conference that brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers and awards the TED Prize to three exceptional individuals who each receive $100,000 and the granting of “One Wish to Change the World.”
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there; and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
She wished for a Charter for Compassion — “based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule.” Since then, she and TED have parlayed the Charter into a movement of political and religious leaders, as well as, through its website, thousands of people around the world. The Charter for Compassion continues to build its partnership network with 120 partnering organizations around the world.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain.
The Charter, Armstrong says, shows that “it is really possible for us to work together because, despite our interesting and revealing differences, we all know that compassion and the Golden Rule — ‘Do not treat others as you would not wish to be treated yourself’ — is at the core of every single one of our traditions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian.”
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.
Imagine how the Charter for Compassion can become more than a piece of paper. Practice the Golden Rule. Live it! Read more about the Charter at http://charterforcompassion.org and discover ways to get involved.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.
Contributors to this issue of Possumus include Mike Finley, writer and Ann Fleck – Periwinkle Concepts, design
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