In life, very few people get the chance to turn down a million dollars, and Sister Estelle Demers is among that minority. In the late 1970’s she led an effort to establish a community health center in Edmonton, Canada, and she was quite serious about the community aspect. Sister Estelle, a seasoned missionary, understood the importance of ensuring that the people she served were an active part of her mission work. When a funding group offered a million-dollar donation in exchange for ownership of the health center she wanted to build, she knew that the risk of losing community involvement would be detrimental to the center’s effectiveness.
Ten years earlier, Medical Mission Sisters (MMS) were having serious discussions on how we are to be a healing presence in the world. It had become clear that the old way of doing mission – going into a place and working to fulfill the needs of its people – was in some ways a byproduct of a “culture of domination” in which people from developed countries, intentionally or otherwise, impose their will on people from marginalized societies.
“We had to be liberated from the idea that Westerners have all the answers,” Sister Estelle explained. “What we perceive as the right way of doing may not always be the only right way. There can be many right ways.”
Sister Estelle recalls consulting with African witch doctors who, despite their reputation in some circles, are trusted in their communities for providing effective herbal and psychological remedies. Similarly, midwives are trusted for their wisdom and experience. Instead of disrupting these norms, MMS could help build on their effectiveness by teaching doctors and midwives better antiseptic procedures to prevent unnecessary infections, for example.
“That’s what happens when you are a partner in mission,” Sister Estelle reflected. “The people are enabled to develop according to their needs, their priorities, their potentials and their resources available to them. Their involvement evolves according to their authentic cultural possibilities – their social, religious values, their hopes and aspirations. So, their culture changes as they change, but it changes in a way that matches who they are, not that matches us.”
In the decades since the 1967 General Assembly, our Sisters and Associates have experienced the undeniable fruits of community partnership. The Core Aspects of MMS Spirituality, a booklet published in 2001, includes a reflection that describes the tremendous effect of relationships developed with those of other cultures, languages and religions. The writer says, “Despite visible disparities between the rich and the poor, the “poor” have much to share in their own way and culture: they have taught us how to share freely from whatever is available, how relationships are more important than things, and how to live in trust of God’s providence.”
Beyond merely transforming communities themselves, mission partnership has contributed greatly to the personal growth of our Sisters and Associates. In our next edition of e-news, we will share the story of Sister Joan Foley, who spent ten years working as a lab technician and helping to train people in lab work at Holy Family Hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, before eventually helping to facilitate the hospital’s turnover to the local board. In a recent interview, Sister Joan reflected: “Rawalpindi was my most rewarding mission experience because of the development of people and my development.”