Three Nigerian nuns taught me something about wealth and poverty on a recent dark, icy evening at their convent in South Anchorage. The sisters don’t have much, but they came to Alaska to bring us something we were missing.
“There are a lot of people who are struggling from loneliness,” said Sister Angela Omoareghan. “Because of that individualistic way of life. I come from a culture where we have communal life.”
In her village in Nigeria, homes didn’t have water or electricity. Rather than using electronics for entertainment, families visited.
Sister Angela was astonished to learn that Alaskans call ahead before visiting their own parents.
“In Africa, I don’t have to make a call before I visit,” she said.
“Sometimes, there is no phone,” said her colleague, Sister Genevieve Osayame.
“In our poverty, we share, and there is that joy and contentment,” Sister Angela said. “Here, I discover, there are people who have a lot of things, yet that loneliness is there.”
The nuns took a vow of poverty as members of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. The money they earn at Providence Alaska Medical Center pays for the simple housing and chapel where they pray four hours a day.
Sister Genevieve said their work is to be present and to listen.
She pioneered the mission to Alaska after she came here for a retreat. The inspiration came above the mountains on a plane headed north. Sister Angela and Sister Mary John Oworu (whom I didn’t meet) followed her.
The move from Africa to Anchorage was as big as it sounds. After almost a decade in Alaska, Sister Genevieve still misses food from home.
Sister Angela said her family feared she would die of the cold.
“It is so cold, it is the land of no return,” she recalled them saying.
The first time Alaska friends took her hiking, she was confused. She was excited to try a new activity. But when they arrived at the trailhead, she didn’t want to get out of the car. All she could see was a path into the bushes like where she used to collect firewood.
She told that story on herself with a huge smile and laughter. Sister Angela said much of her mission is accomplished with her smile.
But the differences from life in Africa go deeper than wealth or food. Worship there is filled with singing, dancing and joy.
Sister Genevieve said leading African children in spiritual education was spontaneous and open. “They lived their youthfulness,” she said.
But here children spend much of their time in the car going between planned activities, she said. Teens who want to climb a mountain with their youth group first need a series of phone calls and permission slips.
“That’s really stifling. It is stifling on so many stratas of life. It sometimes makes life unnatural,” she said. “If, as a young person, you don’t know how to be spontaneous, I don’t know who you will be.”
The sisters are troubled by the prevalence of drug use and suicide in Alaska society.
Sister Angela said, “That actually spoke to my heart. That made me have compassion for these people.”
Her helping work is in the hospital, where she meets with people who are sick or alone.
“I go about and smile with people, and sometimes I dance. I sing with people. Just to be living joy and hope. Let them know there is hope,” she said.
The nuns wear traditional white habits through their days around town. They said people stop them to say they have never seen a nun before.
Some greet the nuns with anger. Sister Genevieve said she has talked with Alaskans who were angry about the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal or were angry with God about family deaths. One directed a racist epithet against her.
When that happens, she listens and tries to help the person understand his or her anger.
“It takes grace to just hold the person,” she said. “So there is that aspect of just being present. Our life isn’t so much about talking and doing. There is so much doing in the world. It is just being present for people.”
I listened to a few moments of their prayer as photographer Bob Hallinen took pictures of the two nuns in their chapel. They read a psalm with singing voices, in harmony. They use drums in their services to recreate the joyful worship they remember from Africa.
The nuns seem truly happy to have given their lives to the work they do. In large part, their work is simply to show that happiness.
Sister Genevieve said Alaskans need to see devotion in a way most Africans already recognize. Back home, a sense of awe and reverence for life is ingrained in culture, she said.
“You rationalize everything, and you do not have the sense of mystery,” she said. “The kind of feedback we get, ‘Oh you’re so spiritual.’ But it is not just because we get down and pray.”
“We believe in a celebration of life from birth to death,” Sister Angela said. “We believe everything is celebration, and we give thanks to God.”
I asked a question — perhaps a foolish, materialistic one — but it’s one that counts in our world. How will they know if their mission is a success? What is the measure of this work?
“There is no measuring. Sometimes you do not even know you have made any difference, or if you have touched someone,” Sister Genevieve said. “If you go by human standards, some people would say, ‘What a wasted life.’ People have different ways of measuring. ‘What a waste that you have not married.’”
She continued, “We do what we do believing we have done the best we could, and let God do the best with it.”
Their way is not the way for everyone. But the need is real.
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