Reflections from the Christian Tradition

Third Plenary: Reflections From Different Religious Traditions on How Poverty Affects Children
Reflections from the Christian Tradition
Sr. Janice McLaughlin, President of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, USA

The Tonga people of Zimbabwe, where I have lived and worked for more than 25 years, live along the banks of the Zambezi River where there are many dangers. Daily they face the danger of floods, of crocodiles and  hippos,  of  elephants,  leopards  and lions. They have a proverb to help them survive in this difficult and dangerous environment; a proverb that reminds them of the importance of cooperation.

"Simweenda alike kakamulya kalonga." The one who walks alone by the stream gets eaten.

In today's  complex  globalised world, we all face many dangers – a growing gap between rich and poor, crippling debt, corruption, HIV-AIDS, war, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, human trafficking and mass migration, to name but a few.

Children are especially vulnerable. Hunger, poverty and disease stunt their growth, hinder their development and kill their spirits.

Unless we walk together to end child poverty we will all get eaten! Our future will be eroded as our children die young, turn to criminal activities to survive and are recruited as child soldiers or jihadists. Without a coordinated, collective effort to give our children a head start in life, the young will succumb to hopelessness and will fall deeper and deeper into a chasm of despair.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Maryknoll Sisters. We are a diverse, multicultural community of religious women who seek to make God's love visible in 25 nations on five continents. Our founder, Mary Josephine Rogers, was a visionary who saw a role for American Catholic women in the missionary movement of the Church at a time when women in the United States did not have the right to vote.

For 100 years, more than four thousand women "dedicated to the spread of the Gospel of Peace and the alleviation of suffering" have left their homes and families to work to make the world a better place for all.23 From our earliest days, we established clinics and hospitals to build healthy bodies and schools to open doors to a better life.

For 64 of those 100 years, we have worked in Tanzania. Our pioneers on this continent established a clinic in Kowak, near Lake Victoria, shortly after their arrival in 1948 and founded the first primary school for girls in that area the following year. More than 50 years ago we shared the dream of the GNRC to provide children, especially girls, with quality education that would enrich body, mind and spirit and would challenge them to put their learning at the service of church and society. We opened some of the first secondary schools for girls in Tanzania: Marian College in Morogoro in  1957  (now  Kilakala),  Rosary  College in Mwanza in 1961 (now Nganza) and Rugambwa    Secondary in Bukoba in 1965. We continue to work in the fields of education and to promote the rights of women and children in all that we do.

Maryknoll  Sisters  embraced  Mwalimu Julius Nyerere's vision of development. Indeed, President Nyerere addressed our Assembly at our Center in New York in 1971 where he encouraged us to live and work with the people, not as bosses or superiors but   as   companions. "Only by sharing work, hardships, knowledge, persecution, and progress can the Church contribute to our growth," he said. "And this means sharing in every sense as 'members one of another.' For if the Church is not part of our poverty, and part of our struggle against poverty and injustice, then it is not part of us.... The poor and oppressed should come to you not for alms," he stressed, "but for support against injustice."24

This vision of the role of the Church grows out of the belief that each person is a child of God with  innate  dignity  and  that  we are called to work for the common  good not just to enrich and advance ourselves. I think this is a vision that is shared by all faith based groups.

The Catholic Church has a rich body of social teachings that show us how to apply the Gospel message to the pressing issues of the day. These teachings  are based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ who showed us what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves and who told us that whatever we did to the least of our brothers and sisters we did to him.

The advent of the social teachings as a recent tradition that sheds the light of the Gospel on current affairs was Pope Leo XIII's famous declaration in support of the rights of workers in 1891. This was followed by other  Papal  encyclicals  or  letters  on issues such as peace, development, justice and evangelization. Conferences of bishops have also issued important statements about social issues such as migration, racism, economic policy, war and peace.

Fifty years ago this tradition was strengthened and enlarged by the Second Vatican Council when all the bishops of the Church met in Rome to deliberate on the needs of the modern world. In one of the Council's most famous documents, the Church in the Modern World, we are told:

"The joy and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts."25

This prophetic statement underscores why the plight of children is so central to our mission. It explains why poverty is seen as a moral evil, as a sin against the innocent. It  propels  us  to  work  together to create a world of unity, harmony and interdependence.

The bishops of this magnificent African continent, where I have spent most of my adult life, have brought the teachings of the church closer to home. When they meet together periodically, they study the signs of the times and urge their followers and all people of good will to address the social evils that prevent true development and that stifle hope and creativity. There have been two Synods of the bishops of Africa. The first took place in 1994 and focused on the  church as the  Family of God. It highlighted many of the problems on the continent that keep people poor and that prevent children from realizing their full potential. In particular, the bishops highlighted the sale of arms on the African continent that was contributing to violence and armed conflict.

The second Synod of African Bishops took place  two  years  ago  with  the  theme  of Peace, Justice and Reconciliation. Again, the bishops advocated a better life for all and called for an end to war, corruption and other barriers to true development; barriers to the "Fullness of Life for All" that Jesus came to bring.

"Children are a gift of God to humanity," the bishops proclaimed. "They must be the object of particular concern on the part of their families, the Church, society and governments, for they are a source of hope and renewed life." (Africae Munus, 65)

The Synod Fathers reiterated the love that Jesus had for children, making the child a model, even for adults. "Unless you turn and  become  like  children,"  he said,  "you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Children who are loved are open, trusting, spontaneous and full of goodness. However, many children are wounded early in life by various social evils. The bishops referred to many of these evils, including unwanted children, orphans, albinos, street children, abandoned children, child soldiers, child prisoners, children forced into labour, children sold as sex slaves, children ill treated on account of physical or mental handicap to name only a few. (Africae Munus, Propositio 49)

The bishops urged us "to see the face of Christ  in  the  face  of  children,  the  sick, the  needy  and  those  who  suffer."  (Ibid,49) They called on the followers of Christ "to be present wherever human suffering exists and to make heard the silent cry of the innocent who suffer persecution...." (Ibid.)

These are words of compassion  as well as words of exhortation.  We ignore them at our own peril and the peril of the future. I witnessed  the  suffering  of  children  as well as their resilience during the war of liberation in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. I worked with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, documenting the war crimes of the colonial regime of Ian Smith. Thousands of children fled the country to escape persecution  and discrimination, with the hope that they could become freedom fighters.

The liberation movements at that time (1970s), ZANU and ZAPU, wisely counseled  these  young  men  and  women that there was another way to gain freedom and that was through education. "The power of the brain is mightier  than an  AK  47,  they  were  told."  They  also learned that mental decolonization was essential  to  liberate  the  mind  and  spirit from a position of inferiority that would continue to enslave them. Therefore, the liberation  movements  set  up  schools  in the refugee camps to teach the youth basic subjects and to prepare them for leadership roles in a new Zimbabwe. I had the great privilege to teach in these camps and to witness the ability of the youth and their teachers  to  withstand   many  hardships and deprivations. Sometimes there was no food; malaria was prevelant and there was also the danger of attacks by Rhodesian forces by air and by land in both Zambia and Mozambique, where the camps were located.  The new Zimbabwe  was  being born in these camps amid suffering and danger but also with much joy and hope for the future.

I continue to have confidence in the resilience  of children. Our role as adults is to keep alive the flames of hope and tocreate the conditions  where children  can thrive.  We  have  seen  some  examples  of such initiatives right here in Dar es Salaam (Dogodogo Center, etc). Our role is to combat  dehumanizing  poverty  by calling for a more just economic order. This new order  will  entail  a radical  change  of life style for all but especially  for those from the  industrialized  nations  who  consume the lion's share of the earth's resources.  It will demand that all people learn to live sustainably on this planet, using only the resources that are necessary rather than depleting  them. We cannot  walk alone if we hope to realize this new vision.

As we  meet  here,  leaders  from  around the world are gathered in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Maryknoll Sisters  will  be  present  at  this  conference and will call for a new model of economic development, one that is designed to meet the basic needs of all people and one that fits within the real, physical limits of Earth.We call this a model  of sufficiency. "The new  economy  will  be  measured  not  by GDP; evaluated not by unending growth, but by improved well being and a better quality of life for all people and the whole earth community."26

Maryknoll Sisters  also  support  the challenge of Pax Christi and other faith based   groups   that   we   tackle   poverty by reducing military spending. Global military spending reached an all time high of US$1,531 billion dollars in 2009. Each dollar  spent  on weapons  means  a dollar less for genuine development that will improve the lives of children worldwide. General Eisenhower aptly summed up this reality in a much-quoted speech in 1953:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched,  every  rocket  fired  signifies, in the final sense,  a theft from  those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold  and  not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."27

His words are as true today as they were more than 60 years ago. Secretary-General Ban  Ki  Moon  himself  has  declared  that "The world is over-armed and peace is under-funded."28 Can we urge the world to change its priorities? Can we faith based groups advocate for a switch in priorities– away from spending on weapons and soldiers and a boost for spending to halt climate   change   and   to   provide   global public goods? Again, we cannot walk alone if we wish to reduce military spending. This issue cuts across all nations and demands a global response.

One of the great  role models  and heroes of  this  continent,   Archbishop   Desmond Tutu of South Africa, calls the gap between the haves and the have nots, between the powerful and the powerless "a new kind of global apartheid."29  He also expresses his belief  that  change  is possible.  In fact,  he tells us that transfiguration  is a reality in the world and that we are God's partners in creating a more human and just world.

I end my reflections with his encouraging words:

"God  is transfiguring  the world  right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.... And as we share God's love with our brothers and sisters, there is no tyrant that can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled."30

Let us continue  to dream  of a better life for all our children and to walk and work together to make it happen!


23. Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, 1947, quoted in Constitutions, p. 2.
24 Nyerere, Julius, Freedom and Development, Oxford University Press: London, 1973, pp. 213– 228.
25 Abbot, Documents of the Second Vatican Council, pp. 199-200.
26. Dennis, Marie, Address to Maryknoll Centennial Reception, Washington, DC, May 17, 2012.
27. Eisenhower, Dwight, D, address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953.
28. Moon, Ban Ki, Speech at the annual UN DPI/ NGO Conference, Mexico City, 9 Sept. 2009.
29. Tutu, Desmond, God Has a Dream, Rider, Johannesburg, 2004, p. 67.
30. Ibid, p. 128.