Guyana, Guyana


The last time I blogged, I was in the middle of my three month experiment in Guyana. I’ve now been back for nearly a month, and embroiled in the process of applying for my first vows and being interviewed, as well as picking up my volunteering in York and Leeds, settling back into life here, and preparing for my next experiment in Germany.

It’s been hard to know what to share about the experience of Guyana, partly because it was such a huge experience, and I am aware that its lessons and graces will continue to unfold for years to come. I have already shared something of the experience on the CJ website here, and the Tablet reflections I was writing while I was there. Here –without much coherence- are two of the other discoveries of Guyana. I’ll add more when I have time.

  1. Mary Ward’s mission: education. Guyana was an opportunity for me to connect with the mission of Mary Ward herself. In an era where few thought women were worth educating at all, Mary Ward saw that education was key to women’s human dignity and flourishing, and key to the health of the Catholic faith in Europe.

Guyana showed me, for the first time, how much education is key to human dignity and flourishing. The Amerindian populations of the interior, with whom I was living and working, are failed badly by an education system that ignores their language and culture. Roughly 1/3 of Amerindian children never pass the exam that gets them to secondary school, and those who do get there struggle. Lack of education means Amerindian communities are fractured, as people emigrate to seek unskilled work in Brazil, further accelerating the erosion of Amerindian cultures and languages. Amerindians communities struggle to find trained teachers and medics, and leaders and role models for young people are few. Lack of education means these communities are all but defenceless in the face of rapid social change, and the predations of mining companies. Lack of education exacerbates social problems, including early pregnancy, alcoholism and domestic abuse.

I have always taken education somewhat for granted, and in fact my background in university research and teaching means that I typically associate work in education with wealth and privilege. In Guyana I could see the desperate need for education as a human right, as the key to communities’ survival and flourishing. I could see how much the education system failed indigenous peoples. And I could see many, many children who were beautiful and bright, and who deserved the world.

The Jesuits, together with a team of teachers, cultural experts and concerned citizens, are piloting bilingual education in three primary schools from this September. For the first time, children will begin education in their mother tongue –Wapishana in this case- and have the opportunity to learn with culturally relevant materials. Please, please pray for the success of this project.

  1. Mary Ward’s mission: pastoral care. Mary Ward and her ‘English Ladies’ divided themselves between two apostolates. On the one hand, there was the work of education for women and girls in mainland Europe. On the other hand, there was the underground mission in England, supporting the work of clandestine priests by catechesis, visiting, and anything women could do to support the faith in an environment where Catholic institutions were banned, and priests were hunted.

Guyana is not a hostile environment for the Catholic faith, and yet in many ways the situation is similar to that faced by Mary Ward. The shortage of priests is acute. Most communities will see a priest four times a year; the rest of the time, laypeople conduct communion services. The lay leaders are magnificent, and it is wonderful to see how vibrant the church is in Guyana. Yet, as in Mary Ward’s time, the lack of pastoral accompaniment from priests and sisters causes difficulties. Other denominations, preaching against the Catholic church, cause confusion and division. People lack guidance on pastoral and moral issues, and many lack anything more than basic formation in their faith.

In this kind of situation, it would be possible for a sister to feel like second best. A bit like turning up in a small rubber dinghy to rescue people in a flood,when what is really needed is a large ship, when what you need is the sacraments, a sister is not that much help. But in Guyana I experienced just how much sisters can do, and just how indispensable they are. When priests are peripatetic, sisters do so much of the vital work of pastoral accompaniment and education. In one sense, the lack of sacramental power brings us closer to the people, and helps us to share their burdens. It reminded me all over again that Jesus himself ministered from this place of powerlessness. He was not a priest or a Pharisee, and he did not hold any position of power that compelled people to listen to him or guaranteed him an audience. He had an authority that came from the Spirit, and he gathered people by attraction, not by force. It’s not that sisters lack all status and authority –historically perhaps we have had rather too much– but that our nonclerical state is, at the very least, an invitation to minister as Jesus did, from a position of deliberately chosen powerlessness, drawing others by attraction and by the authority that the Spirit gives.

More anon.