Last November, Sister Lynne Smith, Sister Paz Vital and I headed up to Milwaukee for a conference on the future of religious communities in the United States. The theme of the conference was Encuentro, and the focus was around the great diversity of cultures in this country and the changing face of religious communities as greater numbers of women and men born outside the US join American religious orders. The keynote speaker was Sister Teresa Maya, president-elect of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious. A native of Mexico City, she is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and lives in San Antonio, Texas. Encuentro literally translated is a meeting, a conference, even a sports match, but in Spanish its meaning is dynamic. It is used to reflect two parties coming together and being transformed. As Sister Teresa said, “the call to encounter is a call to journey beyond ourselves…it’s not encuentro if it leaves you unchanged.”
The community of sisters at Holy Wisdom Monastery has certainly changed over time in response to engagement with people of varied backgrounds. Regular visits from the monks of Taizé in the mid-sixties, meetings with clergy members of different denominations, and conversations with members of Madison Interfaith Dialog—all of these experiences prepared the sisters for their encuentro with Lutheran missionaries and their families in the 1970s. It was living, praying, and working side by side with people of different backgrounds that deeply changed Sisters Mary David Walgenbach and Joanne Kollasch and inspired them to ultimately open their Catholic community to women of any Christian denomination. This paved the way for the community to receive Sister Lynne and other Protestants like me.
Sister Paz and I experienced desencuentro—clashes—during our time as Sojourners as we discovered how utterly differently we see and engage with the world. I have since discovered what it means to experience the United States as an immigrant and to experience American culture as a person of color and a Mexican woman. This was not easy to hear. At first I listened, (or rather, didn’t listen) with my defenses up. But with the help of numerous blog posts, online articles, and podcasts by black and brown people, my hard shell softened enough to be able to hear “with the ear of my heart” (Rule of Benedict), and it changed me. It was only over time that we began to truly listen to one another’s experiences and see the world as the other sees it.
Our community has become interested in the ways we all see and experience the world differently based on our upbringing and our culture. At lunch some weeks ago, Rev. Al Heggen happened to mention a book his church group had read called, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by theologian and activist Drew G.I. Hart. We meet every other week to discuss a chapter, reflecting on what struck us as new, significant or challenging. In one section, Hart names the problem and presents hope for transformation: