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To these sisters, United Nations is think-tank, place of hope

New York

On her first day as an accredited representantive of a United Nations nongovernmental organization, Sister of Charity Marie Elena Dio “just walked in, looked around and kept waiting for someone to say to me, ‘Hey, lady, what are you doing here?’ ”

No one said it, so Dio drew on her years of Catholic experience to get herself involved in committees. “You get there early and help set up the chairs,” she said. “You volunteer to help with registration, little things, and pretty soon people know who you are.”

There’s a bit more to it than that. Women religious, they’ll tell you, “know how to hold on, stay focused, work on a shoestring and bring to all of the women’s agendas a lived experience, the gospel justice message and a preferential option for the poor. As in the church, nothing, they say, gets done by walking away,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Ethel Howley. “In fact the initial problem all U.S. nongovernmental organizations face isn’t U.N. institutionalism; it’s the fact that Americans themselves know little about what the United Nations actually does.”

“The U.N. is not just the Security Council -- but that’s all the media pays attention to,” said Howley.

“The lack of knowledge about the U.N. is really deplorable. That and the skeptical way people tend to look at the U.N.’s work,” said Sister of St. Joseph Carolyn Zinn. “Learning and teaching about the U.N.’s work is absent from American classroom education.”

Added Dominican Sr. Dorothy Farley, who directs the International Catholic Organizations Information Office, “So many things that later happen in national and local legislation -- I’m talking about children, refugees, ecology, food distribution -- come from ideas that began at the U.N.”

One of the NGO nuns’ tasks, said Zinn, is to help find a way to network within each congregation “so the information goes somewhere besides someone’s desk. In other words, how do you engage 10,000 individual Sisters of St. Joseph in an awareness of what’s going on at the U.N. and how they can pass that information on?”

It’s the dual role of understanding the needs of the “third grade Sister of St. Joseph teacher in her classroom and what can be accomplished in the tall building looming over the East River,” she said. “How do you make the U.N. world real to a group of people saturated in real work. How do you find ways to influence some of the conversation at this international think tank and place of hope?”

“The best and the worst part of all this work,” said Dominican Sr. Eileen Gannon, “is that there’s nothing that doesn’t connect to something else. I’m working on the Campaign to Eliminate the Child Soldier. That connects to human rights and the rights of children -- the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And then connects to the Eradication of Poverty group, and that connects you to the world debt, World Bank, [International Monetary Fund.]

“Somehow,” she said, “you have to get a mindset that enables you to put all those pieces together and make the connection -- and communicate this in such a way to your own people you don’t drive them crazy with this multiplicity of issues.”

Working in the slow-moving U.N. bureaucracy, “it can be hard to maintain Easter joy,” said Good Shepherd Sr. Clare Nolan, a social worker, “but it’s not much different from when some kid was running up and down your face. It’s this transformative, spiritual and creative process we’re committed to.”

Their congregations are as committed as they are because they think long and hard before taking the NGO step. It costs time, money and personnel. Yet Maryknollers and Sisters of St. Joseph, Mercys and Medical Mission Sisters, Dominicans and Franciscans, Sisters of Loretto and Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, Sisters of Charity and Presentation Sisters, Good Shepherds and School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Congregation of Notre Dame and Leadership Conference of Women Religious are among those that have made the leap.

There’s no training to become an NGO, a nongovernmental organization, representative to the United Nations. Howley was a math teacher who worked with Central American refugees during sanctuary time. At the United Nations since 1993, she’s one of the senior NGO nuns. U.N. work is committee work. Howley attends briefings, committee meetings, panels and feeds information back to the 5,000 School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States, Bavaria and elsewhere.

“We [School Sisters of Notre Dame] needed a more global way of looking at things,” said Howley, who credits the 1995 Beijing conference of women with the subsequent media attention on abuse of girl children, sex trafficking and female mutilation issues.

Sister of St. Joseph Suzanne Golas was her order’s president -- and took a crash course in ecological issues prior to her NGO work (see NCR, July 30). Sister of Charity Marie Elena Dio was New York archdiocese director of multicultural catechesis. Dominican Gannon, like Zinn, worked at the 26-year-old Global Education Associates when the Dominican Leadership conference decided to apply for NGO status in 1997.

Gannon still teaches -- part-time at Westchester Community College -- and has been the Dominican Leadership Conference NGO representative since the job opened up in 1997. The Sisters of St. Joseph were into U.N. NGO representation early -- 1985 -- but Zinn is brand new to the task. She started officially Sept. 1.

The Sisters of St. Joseph family is huge -- there are 9,000-plus in the United States, almost a thousand more in France and Canada.

The challenge of what the sisters, in aggregate, are attempting can be seen in Zinn’s comments about the St. Joseph order. For more than a century in the United States, she said, the congregation worked to change the “systems of education, health care and social work on behalf of a poor U.S. immigrant population.” Now the thrust is to support systemic change at a world systems level on behalf of poor people around the globe.

And how it affects one congregation can be seen this way. “Our congregation, to a fault probably, has been service based,” said Nolan. “One on one. Program by program. Child by child. Woman by woman. It was as we were seeing the globalization around us that we became more attuned and conscientious regarding the systems that impact us and those we serve.” That’s why they created the slot for an NGO representative to the United Nations.

Loretto Sr. Betty Obal puts the NGO community role in perspective. By fostering things like “a global ethic, an Earth charter, the Values Caucus,” she said, there is “movement away from power politics toward joint spiritual and ethical alternatives.”

Where NGO efforts pay off, said Obal (the Lorettos have a two-person NGO office), can be seen in how the work of the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice was incorporated into the statute establishing the International Criminal Court. “For the first time in history,” she said, “rape [as a tool of warfare] will be treated as a war crime.”

U.N. work isn’t necessarily all downbeat. Many of the sisters particularly enjoy the monthly Values Caucus coffees, which have an ethical focus. “I never realized that the Declaration for Human Rights is looked at as a Western idea by the East. In the East you first have tremendous responsibilities to the group before you think of yourself,” said Maryknoll Sr. Mary Duffy.

Duffy also finds “intriguing” the idea of working toward “a common ethic, a common attitude toward the planet.” She’s deeply involved at the United Nations in sustainable development and indigenous peoples’ issues. She is impressed by how respectful people are of one another within the U.N. structure.

“Working in the Christian ghetto,” she said, with amusement, “we take each other for granted. In this broader, global thing it’s impressive to be present when Kenya is talking to the Arab world about their common Muslim faith in a different cultural setting.”

Duffy finds fascinating “the enthusiasm of the young people [NGO representatives], especially for the environmental questions. But these people are generally from Europe, India and the Caribbean.”

“There is a sort of lack of U.S. presence” among young NGO representatives, she said.

No one’s happy about the U.S. role. “One great challenge,” said Loretto Sr. Nancy Finneran, “is to get the U.S. to pay its arrears.” The Lorettos have been at the United Nations for eight years; Finneran follows aging, disarmament and women’s issues.

“Land mines,” said Howley. “There’s a treaty. My country hasn’t signed it. The rights of children convention --187 countries have signed -- except the United States and Somalia. And Somalia doesn’t have a government.”

But with the growing number of sister-NGOs, the children do have U.S. allies.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999