Enlightened self-interest is a priceless reward for an individual and society; in serving others we serve ourselves. Win-win. The act of giving of yourself to another in the name of service reaps innumerable benefits that can empower an individual and reap benefits that can change the world.
Seemingly obvious, every now and then we need to be reminded of this simple reality. I can hear the gospel strains of Bob Dylan, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It’s inescapable.
What amazes me is the lengths that some people will go to serve; risking life and limb to be an instrument of progress and lessen the burden of others. I recently received a book from my friend Sr. Renee Rushton, RSHM, in Los Angeles. Renee spent fifteen years establishing a mission in the jungles of Columbia, Guacamayas, in particular, in the Amazon region. “The area was home to about 200 families” in the Andes Mountains.
The journey on horseback to this destination was a two-day trek and dangerous “not only because of the terrain, but because of guerrilla fighters who hid in the region and attacked passers-by.” People risk their lives to do it.
Rushton notes that a small community was formed because farmers were driven from their land in the midst of war by rich landowners taking over large swaths of land. Families had no choice but to make it in the jungle. In the process they met Amazon tribes whose lives were threatened due to deforestation and war, and the groups were forced to live together.
I worked with Sr. Renee on JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) committee for the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM). She told me stories, but to read about them in this book brings to life what missionaries truly experience in the throes of creating community for the sake of the poorest of the poor among us.
Sitting in the comforts of my home with electricity keeping me warm and lighting my reading, I can’t help but think of those willing to live on the fringes in solidarity with the poor. These are the true heroes of the Christian mission in bringing together community for the dignity and triumph of solidarity, while standing up to corrupt politicians who were lining their pockets and flaunted broken promises to assist the sisters.
After three years of living there, the nuns’ lives were in danger, as the FARC guerillas threatened them. Three villagers in town went missing and were found in unmarked graves, decapitated by machetes. Rushton notes that the families “feared one of them had been recruited by the guerrillas, which would’ve been a horrible situation because he would’ve been forced to kill his own friends and family.”
This region became too dangerous for the sisters so they found a new place to establish a mission. By the end of the 6th year and beginning of the 7th year they found a place in Rionegro.
This region, too, had challenges. At one point, Sr. Renee was awakened from sleep to “find two puncture holes on her leg about an inch apart” and blood running down her leg. Was it a poisonous snake? Was it a vampire bat? She never learned, but she’ll never forget the fact for that time she thought she would die from the bite.
She tells the stories of women who had to take up prostitution to feed their children. When a soldier came for a prostitute’s daughter, her daughter ran to the convent seeking the protection of the sisters. They took her to an orphanage to ensure her care and safety.
Sr. Renee writes about many instances where poor families have to leave their children for the sake of their own survival. Imagine a day where you have to give up your child to save its life. This is what the poor face daily when they encounter the depths of abject material poverty in developing nations.
Rushton documents a country in the process of change. She notes firsthand accounts of the developments of roads, schools, hospitals and communities that thrive as a result of people coming together for a common cause, so there is hope in her story.
The great Simone Weil once said, ““Always do what will cost you the most.” Implicit in this statement is the understanding that we gain the most through sacrifice of self. Sr. Renee understands this. She writes about hardship and how “precious” that time was in her life and those who ministered in Caqueta.
She notes: “I often ask myself why this is so, and I find it difficult to explain; however, I am certain that it has to do with love. Leaving all and everything for God and being stripped of all security and possessions, and learning what is truly essential in life, we know and sensed that God was truly present. There was no need for anything else and no need to fear revolutionaries, spiders, snakes, or the lack of a doctor, hospital, telephone etc. the love we shared with Sisters, priests and all those we ministered with as well as all the people in the jungle, and continue to serve among us now – strengthens us to build the Kingdom of God as did Jesus’ first disciples.”
The cornerstone teaching that the RSHM abides by comes from the Gospel of John 10:10. “So that all may have life and have it to the full.” The RSHM lives by this quote and Jesus, the shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15: 13
There are saints among us, friends. Recognized and unrecognized who implicitly live by the tenet of service as salvation. Where would we be without this enlightenment? Thank God we have them.