Awakin Calls » Sister Marilyn Lacey » Blog
Sister Marilyn Lacey: Mercy Beyond Borders & Relationships Beyond Boundaries
Nuggets From Sister Marilyn Lacey's Call
Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Sister Marilyn Lacey.
Sister Marilyn Lacey is the founder and director of Mercy Beyond Borders, a non-profit that partners with displaced women and children overseas to alleviate their poverty. For 25 years, she has worked with refugees in the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia, and spent time in war-ravaged places, including the Lao-Thai border, Sudanese and Somali camps in Kenya, and with internally displaced persons in the Eastern Equatorial region of Sudan. She has dedicated her life to making the world a more welcoming place for persons forced to leave their homelands because of war or persecution. In 2001, Lacey was honored by the Dalai Lama as an "Unsung Hero of Compassion” for her life of service with refugees. “I didn’t set out to be a leader,” Sister Marilyn says. “I just saw what needed doing and I did it. ... God waits."
Below are some of the nuggets and stories from the call that stood out for me ...
- Sister Lacey had just returned from a trip to Haiti. Her encounter there was fresh on her mind. "I have the privilege of walking with the people on the margins who don't matter in polite society, left without names or influence. Our lives go on busily without even knowing the strangers."
- On a home visit in Haiti with the refugees/displaced persons, she sees the roots or lack of love of the women in the groups. The roads are quite poor and you can only go part-way in a four-wheel drive vehicle. However, they are always welcomed with great warmth. The families always share what they have. They sit with the families and listen to them, who tell them what it means that their daughter now has a chance for an education, what it means for them to visit. The visit that stayed with Sister Lacey was with a 16 year old girl. When she was 13 years old, her mother died and her father had a mental breakdown. No one knows why. When Sister Lacey visited, he was motionless on the bed. He turned to see who was in his hut at the invitation of his daughter. She greeted him by name and asked him if he needed anything. Finally he mumbled, "photocopy." She asked the interpreter if he was waiting on some kind of document. The interpreter said, "No, he is saying, ‘You are looking at me, but you are not seeing me. You are seeing a photocopy of me.’" Sister Lacey said she can't express what that did to her. His life is so empty now he's a photocopy of what he used to be.
- She was thinking there are a lot of people walking around now who are empty, flat, unrecognized, unnamed. As a Sister of Mercy, a person who tries to live within compassion, what can we do to show people their own value, who have given up under the crush of the weight of what's happened of them?
- She is of the more blessed people in the world in terms of upbringing. She had loving parents, 4 brothers, a happy household and only in retrospect does she realize how extraordinary that was and what a solid foundation that provided for moving outward.
- She was sent to the butcher on her bicycle at age 5 alone. When asked what to get if they didn't have what she needed, her mother said to use her own good judgment. When that happened, her mother never told her she'd bought the wrong thing. She may have suggested what to buy next time, but never told her she was wrong, which gave her the sense of being powerful in the world, that she could do things. “It makes you fearless. To move in the world beyond your comfort zone is more fear than more people can do.”
- She stumbled into the world of refugees in 1980. At the San Francisco airport, "boat people" were transiting to connecting flights. She stumbled into being a volunteer there like Alice in Wonderland through the rabbit hole: everywhere around her it was chaotic, upside down, powerless. People were upended, torn from their roots and it was nothing like the suburbs of San Francisco where she grew up. But, she says, “This is what the Scriptures are talking about when it says God hangs out in the margins.”
- A long as she can remember she’s felt a friendship with the Divine. Her earliest memories are of playing baseball. She got her first mitt when she was 4 and lived and breathed baseball. When she was very young, she would stand in the outfield and talk to God waiting for the ball. She’s never felt alone in her life. She doesn’t know how much is due to the solidity of the family she grew up with or her interaction with the Divine.
- When you make vows as a Catholic sister, you get to choose the motto which is inscribed in the ring. She chose "mecum" or “with me.” She always felt God was with her. “Me and God or on your good days, God and me.”
- It wasn’t a communal structure. She came to that working with refugees. Mostly, we experience God in our interactions with others and mostly with those who are "other" than we are, not our close friends that we've chosen. The ultimate other is God. When we go beyond our comfort zone, that's the meeting place, where we come to understand a broader sense of God. This narrow tunnel vision falls away.
- We need all the views, the angles to view God.
- As a young child, she always had this companionship with God. She wanted to be a major league baseball player and was scouted when she was about 10. The scout told her father that she was good, but couldn’t use her and then asked if he had any boys who played that well. He did not. Sister Lacey realized that all the baseball players were men.
- As she got older, there was a deeper sense in wanting to surrender to something bigger and more profound and the question was how to do that. There are many paths. She was attracted to becoming a Catholic sister. She doesn’t know why. It seemed a way of life to frame a relationship to God.
- She became a mathematics teacher. She got into the convent and began to study the Scriptures and there was a very evident call toward the edges. “Pay attention to the poor among you.” She was teaching in a suburban high school and went to the sisters and asked them to transfer her to the very poorest school and they did.
- She moved to the SF area and curiosity took her to the airport and to step out of the safe corner in which she had grown up. It became a magnetic thing and she knew it was what she was meant to do. She hasn't looked back and that was 1980.
- The history of Sisters of Mercy began with works of mercy: visiting the sick in their homes, taking in abandoned children, starting hospitals, doing schools and always among the poor. They came to SF in the 1850's and started a hospital. The quality of mercy as they understand in their congregation is a practical response to an immediate need and that's what they did for over 100 years.
- What they know now is that while that is good, they also need to look at the systemic reasons why there are poor.
- Her work in South Sudan was where she first went and saw ghastly scenes of starving people. “Your immediate response is, ‘feed them,’ but then you have to step back and ask ‘why?’ It's happening because of oil, of greed for that oil, of powerful men fighting each other.
- Their understanding of mercy now is mercy and justice. The root word in Hebrew is the same word for holiness because it isn't something external that you do, but out of our deep understanding of our connectedness.
- A big part of their lives is contemplation: silence, prayer, and sinking back deeply into who God is and how that Spirit moves through them to demonstrate that everything and everyone are all connected, “we are all kin.” She is horrified by the way we are treating migrants in our country at the southern border, and all around the world. It's as if they are threats. “Certainly they are other, but God is other.”
- It's when we welcome the other that we have the best chance to welcome and experience God. It's the initial surrender to the otherness of God that allows the openness to interact with the otherness in others. Even quantum physics is teaching us the exact same thing. If you interact with subatomic particles in San Francisco, it can affect one in China that will also wiggle. Those particles are entangled.
- That's a great word, “entangled.” Christians say the mystical body of Christ. At its root it means that we don't understand, but we are all connected. “A woman is dying in South Sudan and suffering, I cannot be at peace. I cannot be at rest.” Once you believe that, you are energized to do something to alleviate that.
- It's all interconnected. We're all interconnected. The fact that we want to build borders is backwards. The world is going to be safe when we get to know people, not try to keep them out. “I understand it's fear, but we are really on the wrong path.”
- Regarding the situation in South Sudan, “It shook me to my core, that level of suffering and ignorance in the world. Eventually I got the opportunity to start Mercy Beyond Borders, our mission to work with women and girls to learn, to read, to pull themselves out of poverty. It is a leadership program because war has been seen as the answer. It is never the answer.”
- You do not ever want to be born female in a place like South Sudan. Historically and to the present day, they do not really believe that females are human. It sounds harsh and almost unbelievable, but it's real. Girls are told by their parents who love them that they are worth less than cows. Their hierarchy of understanding is that God is top, right below God is men, right below men is cattle and lowest of all females. So in the culture, females are used as domestic servants or slaves or sold to other families for cattle.
- The Bishop decided to start educating girls. He said that for 50 years they educated boys and what did they get? War. Now, he's going to start educating girls.
- His school was haphazard, but it was a school where girls were learning, girls from different tribes learning together, living together and learning together. She recognizes that as a seed of great hope for the country.
- The war ended in 2005 and in 2011 there was a referendum ceding from the country so South Sudan started and that's when she started Mercy Beyond Borders as an international nonprofit that could change the lives of young females. The Bishop was doing a wonderful thing in this school, but no one ever graduated from 8th grade. The girls were married off in exchange for cows.
- At least those girls knew what education was and would fight for their daughters. They decided to give high school scholarships and families did allow some of their daughters to come. They did begin to get a pipeline through the school. Girls saw there was hope and started studying to get a scholarship and get into the school.
- It is very common for a girl of 12-16 to become the wife of a man of 60. She isn't his first wife. The scholarship was an opportunity to not get into that life.
- It's so amazing because all the odds are against them. They would rather study than eat and that's what they do. There's no brain drain. All 55 of them are back in South Sudan.
- There is tremendous devastation. Millions upon millions of people are no longer in their own territory or homes. Mercy Beyond Borders has moved with these refugee camps. They try to be where the need is greatest.
- "Sometimes our board of directors shake their heads and say, 'Marilyn, couldn't you have come upon easier places to work?' Well, of course...but, Mercy needs to be with where the need is greatest. So we're never going to scale. We are never going to get the attention of the Gates Foundation or anything like that, but what we are doing in these very difficult local places is making a tremendous difference. Among that, a few thousands that we work with and that's enough for me. I'm not out to be in the limelight. What I want to do is is see the light in the eyes of a girl or in the eyes of a woman who suddenly understands 'I am worth more than cows. I do have talents. I am going to make and forge a future for myself and my family.' That change is one by one. I am no longer thinking I'm going to save the world. It is a blessing just to be with these people."
- She’s worked with 70-75 nationalities and is constantly brought up short by how narrow Americans are in their worldview and thinking. "We measure our progress in how rich we can become, our gated communities, where we think we can have everything by keeping other people out." Sister Lacey’s experience is the opposite.
- Success is different in other cultures. She was coaching one of the lost boys of Sudan in how to behave during an interview. He began slumping in his seat, and she asked if he had eaten that day. She was annoyed with him, and told him he at least needed to eat breakfast. He said he wanted to, but his roommates were not fast enough. He wanted to have breakfast, but it was time to go. Finally, he explained that he could never eat alone. “Welcome to fast food America where even families don't eat together. Because his roommates weren't up yet, he wouldn't think of eating alone. Food is precious, a gift, you share it.”
- This flowing toward me (the title of her book) is the story of God arriving in strangers. The title comes from a Sufi poem she was introduced to by a coworker.
- When asked about the difference between the students she works with now and students in American she explains that “If you're dying you’re going to do anything to get that pill. And that pill is education.”
- Research has proven it in country after country. The single most effective intervention against extreme poverty is female education. Education is the strongest predictor of global health. This is rigorously scientifically proven.
- Many of the girls in primary school risk their lives in Sudan. It is a culture that denigrates and dismisses the value of girls. It really isn't helpful to go to a mixed gender school where girls are ridiculed. In a Mercy Beyond Borders school, the girls are treasured. They pay the salary of that whole school. It's a boarding school where they are safe, but they have to go home over Christmas and many don't come back. Girls run away from home and walk for weeks through the bush -- very dangerous. And they come to school ragged and bleeding and they hide them in the school.
- There are 55 women who have graduated college - the first educated women in the country.
- In the beginning they did accept some volunteers in South Sudan, but it has become so dangerous with the resurgence that they are no longer taking volunteers there. In Haiti, they have leadership and English camps in the summer for high school girls. They have the scholars for a period of seven years. Poverty oppresses females because it causes early death and forces early marriages, but it is not an intentional cultural denigration of females.
- There are currently some long-term lay volunteers who pledge to stay for two years.
- Because high school takes seven years, they just had their first graduate last year, who is now in medical school.
- They will be awarding their next scholarships this September. The most important way someone can help right now is to talk to friends and neighbors about the blessing of strangers. Pray for those who are doing the work on the ground. If you are able and know people who are able, tell them about Mercy Beyond Borders and make a contribution.
- 1 in every 7 women in Sudan dies in pregnancy and childbirth.
- The medical care, as you might imagine, is very incomplete and sporadic. You can’t do vaccinations when the population is on the move, or treat people when clinics aren't staffed or doctors pull out of the country.
- Many of their women are training as nurses because they have seen their mothers die.
- Sister Lacey's book is "This Flowing Toward Me," which I highly recommend. It is especially resonate now as we struggle with our own refugee, migrant, immigrant situation. "Imagine how different our world could be if we opened doors in the reckless hope that the unknown outsider standing a bit beyond our threshold of comfort just might be the Holy One for whom our hearts long."
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.