Social justice? Legal and political justice? Distributive justice? All of it. We work, as the song says, “for a full and equal sharing of the goods that life affords.”

And how do we, who are not oppressed people, live in solidarity with the millions upon millions in our world who are oppressed? By believing, ever more deeply, that no one is unimportant to our loving God, and insisting, therefore, that no one can be unimportant to any of the rest of us.

We work for justice by our community witness? Yes, by letting every life matter to us. We intentionally and communally and humbly act ourselves to learning — in all the ways we can — what daily life is like for all God’s other children. We court the memory of some of our “fifth Gospel” sisters and associates who really did embrace diversity and whose sense of fairness was particularly clear to us. Then, we pray to be transformed by what we learn.

In the early 1800’s, rural Americans didn’t much use terms like “social justice” or think about “doing justice.” In the hardscrabble life of the Kentucky frontier, everybody struggled mightily. Everybody worked hard.. Some seasons, everybody went hungry. That’s just how things were.

Our early SCNs came together to serve the church in one area of a huge, very young, backwoods diocese. Their ministry was to help out wherever, whomever and however they could. They spun. They wove. They prayed. They gardened. They taught. They offered shelter. They helped sick neighbors. They reached out to the needy and the oppressed.

Teresa Carrico, one of these founding members, seems to have strongly nurtured the practice of “full and equal sharing.” She took care of the house, plus whoever was in it and whoever came to the door. She was, one might say, “directress of first impressions,” and the impression she gave was simple welcome. Teresa lived that welcome. She very quietly held herself responsible to provide food, warmth, encouragement, prayer, solace or a good night’s rest for all who ever lived in, boarded at or visited the little log cabin home. The flame alight in her continued to be shared and passed, shared and passed, shared and passed.

Decades and decades later, very much in the tradition of Teresa Carrico, along came Sister Thomas Elizabeth Smith. Ordinary as mud, comfortable as an old pair of shoes, open and cheery as a patch of sunshine.

What she did was feed people. She ran the kitchen at the old SS Mary and Elizabeth Hospital in Louisville. She managed the food service at several other SCN hospitals and, most remarkably, for years, she happily managed Nazareth’s Little Kitchen, which prepared meal trays for the infirmary sisters.

What she had for staff was a rotating crew of novices, unskilled labor at its most pious, never assigned long enough to become reliable. The multitude she fed were the infirmary sisters, many of them physically frail, some handicapped, some elderly and toothless, some withdrawn or reclusive or reluctant to eat and a few dangerously combative when presented with the wrong spoon or the wrong color Jell-O.

Sister Thomas Elizabeth cherished the infirmary sisters and she tried her best to make their meals varied and palatable. (In those days, the infirmary sisters ate alone in their rooms.) She valued their prayers and their years of ministry. She respected her novices, too, no matter how they bungled things, no matter the barrage of complaints she got about them. She was staunchly fair-minded. She would have lamented Orwell’s comment that “some are more equal than others.” Not in her world.

Later still, Sister Thomasine Kottoor was one of our first India-born SCNs. Even though she had done her nursing studies with the sisters in Mokama, it was enormously challenging for a timid young woman from Kerala, a Christian state in South India, to join a foreign congregation in the northern missionary territory of Bihar. Thomasine was remarkably gifted. She wasn’t the valiant sort. She was stalwartly generous and caring. She was a skilled pediatric nurse and she gave nursing care from the bottom of her heart.

The poor — and anybody who came to the Mokama hospital was poor — could see that Thomasine didn’t love boy babies more than girl babies or clean patients more than ragged ones or grateful families more than suspicious or hostile families. It hurt her heart to see the effects of malnutrition, to see children die of preventable diseases, to watch women and infants die in childbirth because ignorance and superstition had prevented their being brought to the hospital on time.

Her skills and training seemed feeble against the disease, poverty, filth and violence that afflicted the people around Mokama. Thomasine accepted her own struggle and embraced the struggles of her patients. She, healthy, clean, professionally trained, Christian, “foreign” — and caring — embraced and was embraced by the sorrowing women of Bihar. This short, round woman of the Church, this healing presence, labored gently for the reign of justice.

Sister Julian Griffin was the first African American member of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. She “happened upon” the sisters — and the Catholic religious tradition —as a high school freshman when she and one of her brothers commuted daily from Columbus, Georgia to attend the Mother Mary Mission School in Phoenix City, Alabama. She became a Catholic during her junior year.

Although she trained in social work in college, her first job after college was as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. What really “formed” her was living in D.C. during the Kennedy administration and seeing new hope for African Americans.

Instead of joining the civil rights movement or signing up for Peace Corps, she dedicated her life to service in another way: she entered religious life with the VSCs in Pittsburgh. She found welcome there, but she endured painful culture shock. Not only was she the congregation’s first black member, but she was a recent convert among women steeped in very traditional Catholicism. She was from the deep South. Everybody else was from the North and most were Slovak. She came as an independent, professional woman and was trained for community life in a religious institution.

Following profession, Sister Julian was assigned to teach high school in Montgomery, Alabama. Like many sisters, she taught almost every subject: religion, history, sociology, economics and physical education. After school hours, she promoted voter registration and taught literacy to adults. She became deeply and publicly involved in pushing for local civil rights legislation. Diocesan authority (Birmingham) disapproved of her public activities: Sister Julian was dismissed from her teaching position and “shipped” back up to Pittsburgh.

She convinced the VSC Council to assign her back to the South, to a parish position of social organization in Columbus, Georgia. Within a year, the Savannah Diocese invited her to work for its Social Apostolate. Her college training in social work had prepared her well for leadership, organization, direct services, assessing and addressing needs and issues (housing, adult education, health care, hunger, street lights…) Her life experiences continually trained her to work to “undo racism.”

Sister Julian soon became Director of the Diocesan Social Ministry Office and served seven more-than-challenging years in the position. When bouts with cancer began to erode her health, she “downsized” her responsibilities and spend her last years of ministry organizing the Savannah Diocese’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry. She explained her focus clearly: “I am not taking on this ministry as something to do for Black folks. I want to bring forth what is already there so the total Catholic community can share it.”

Sister Julian died twenty-five years ago, beloved in Savannah and in her VSC community. She most likely never met an SCN and never heard of Teresa Carrico. Nonetheless, she carried and tended and passed on the same flame of Christ’s flame of justice and love. It’s ours now because she passed it on to us. It’s only ours to tend, in our turn, and only ours to share it and to pass it on.

Questions for reflection and sharing:

  1. If I would want to study the “fifth Gospels” around me, where must I look? How must I listen?
  2. Share the story of a “fifth Gospel” who has inspired you.
  3. In the years to come, as materialism follows development throughout the world, how can Teresa Carrico’s non-competitive lifestyle be of any use to us in our ministry?

Upcoming themes:

Theme 8: Our mission is to express our preference for those who are poor.

Theme 9: We are committed to work for justice in solidarity with oppressed peoples, especially women.

We are grateful to the many others besides subcommittee members who contributed to the reflections.

From the Bicentennial Monthly Reflection Committee:

Bridgid Clifford, SCN Joetta Davis, SCNA
Charlene Jacobs, SCN Maureen Daugherty, SCN
Dorothy MacDougall, SCN Rita Gesue, SCN
Jane Karakunnel, SCN Shirley Kocinsky, SCN

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