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May 29 2014

Peacebuilder Series

Winifred Doherty, RGS guest

In the peacebuilders series of Living Room Dialogues special guests are invited to reflect on influences in their lives that led them to the path in life they have chosen.

Winifred Doherty, RGS, the guest in a dialogue at the end of May, grew up in a remote rural part of Ireland where people had little contact with the world outside their tight, traditionally Catholic community. However, sisters would sometimes visit her school and give out literature. Missionaries would also occasionally visit. Winifred specially liked the white habits worn by some sisters.

When she was 16, she told a priest that she was thinking of becoming a sister. He immediately said, "It's Good Shepherd for you!" When she inquired at home she found out that her grandaunt on her father's side had been a Good Shepherd and had died in Sri Lanka, and her cousin was also in the order and a missionary in India. The link to her family proved decisive: It was Good Shepherd for her.

In her first job as a social worker, she became interested in disadvantaged girls and began going to Cork city at night to talk with girls involved in street prostitution. These relationships and later spiritual insights showing her deep connection to people in vulnerable circumstance became crucial to her understanding of her mission.

After traveling in the Philippines and in Asia, Winifred spent 16 years in Ethiopia. There she engaged in some outreach work in Addis Ababa. A moment that thrilled her occurred very early one morning when she was spending time in a park. Some women involved in prostitution who were returning home from work came along. A passer-by warned the women, "Be careful. She is trying to convert you!" Both women replied simultaneously, "Don't worry. She is one of us." This was a wonderful confirmation for Winifred of her common identity with the women.

In Ethiopia, Winifred was able to enter into the heart of the Christian church which was present there from its earliest days. This experience was very different and enriching. She also witnessed poverty so extreme that she had never seen anything like it, but she also observed a graciousness with which these Ethiopians led their lives.

In 2008, she came to New York where she has represented her order at the United Nations. She said that engaging the UN in policy can be very tedious but nevertheless it is the only place where issues of women living with war and poverty at least are being brought to the table.

In the dialogue that took place after Winifred's talk, some people reflected on an inspiration or call to action that is mysterious.

Some Reflections

  • I once decided to teach in a jail. It surprised me that I wanted to do that.
  • My "calls" keep coming. In mid-life after working towards peace and structural change I became a caseworker with women at the bottom level of life. No matter what you do, you can't get away from what God wants you to do.
  • I have been looking for an inner purpose, something bigger than myself. Members of my family are very right wing but my ideas are left wing. I don't know where they came from. This person now works with special needs children and interns at the UN. He would like to be involved in finding peace in the Middle East.

Other participants reflected on experiences where they learned to accept people whose lives were very different from their own:

  • Nobody recognizes what real poverty is until you are inside it. I have seen people with no water, older women giving up food so that younger ones could go to work. I heard of people who were being condemned when they were seen stealing from a shipment of food meant for children but I wondered, "Is theft a sin if it is going to help your family survive for a day?" You don't know what starvation is really like until you hold one of those babies with extended stomachs.
  • I have seen more generosity and more sense of community from those who don't have very much than I do here where we have a high material standard of living
  • I grew up in a poor family and have always had a feeling for the underdog. There is such a thing as inner poverty. Material things might not be what people need most. I'm working in a senior center where we are making a video bringing generations together. We have 9-12 year olds who are dealing with a lot of sadness. Young people know so much about negativity already and can't see anything better in the future.
  • In Nigeria, I met nurses who were in polygamous marriages. I was shocked but they said, "How do you manage all by yourself? My sisters help each other and they are as important to me as my husband."
  • I make frequent trips to the Bronx in neighborhoods of the working poor and as an older woman I am frequently offered a seat on the bus. This never happens to me in Manhattan. Sometimes I am very judgmental, but then the very boys with their pants hanging down that I'm critical of are the ones offering me a seat.
  • In a hospital I worked where there were grossly deformed children. It was hard to look at them, much less touch them. You have to go beyond what you can see physically.
  • My oldest friend had CP. I was never able to get beyond that and be really close. I think there's an innate repugnance to physical disability.
  • I have met families who concealed mentally or physically disabled children and did not let them out of the house. I brought into a program a man who was 35 years old and had never left his house. We tried to teach the parents to take pride in these children.

At the end of the evening people expressed appreciation for the stories that were shared and the ways participants in the dialogue had learned to combat prejudices in themselves.


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