Spiritual Reflections

Spirit of Ubuntu: A Measure of Our World’s Emotional Wellness

I believe that the situation at our US-Mexico border is an invitation to put into practice our spirit of ubuntu and give witness to the emotional wellness of our society. It takes great courage and deep faith for families to leave their homes and loved ones to cross the border (wall, river or desert).

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — I am who I am because we are who we are. 

Zulu phrase

“Ubuntu” is an African concept based on the Zulu phrase above and can be interpreted in this way: Who I am is deeply connected to who you are. Ubuntu is about our interconnectedness, not our separateness; our rich diversity, not our divisiveness; and our capacity for compassion, not our fear of vulnerability. Ubuntu is about who we are becoming together! 

In his book, No Future without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu stresses the importance of having a spirit of ubuntu. He writes: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he/she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.”1 Tutu’s descriptors— open, available, affirming, self-assured and not threatened—are similar to those that we might assign to a person exhibiting emotional wellness. 

One’s level of emotional wellness or spirit of ubuntu can never be measured in a vacuum. An emotionally well person not only understands her/his emotional needs but also has the capacity to attune and respond appropriately to another’s emotional state. Individual emotional wellness is intricately connected to the emotional wellness of others and to the community as a whole. 

Our world today is indeed in need of a spirit of ubuntu! When so many of our brothers and sisters are suffering from hunger, oppression and exclusion, how can we continue to ignore and isolate them, deny our common bond and build walls around our hearts? We believe that we are protecting ourselves and what is rightfully ours, but we have forgotten that we belong to a larger whole and that our emotional wellness is connected to that of the other, whom we can choose to love and respect or hurt and humiliate. 

I believe that the situation at our US-Mexico border is an invitation to put into practice our spirit of ubuntu and give witness to the emotional wellness of our society. It takes great courage and deep faith for families to leave their homes and loved ones to cross the border (wall, river or desert). They often walk hundreds of miles without adequate food, clothing and medicine, and they endure numerous assaults and abuses along the way. No one embarks on such an arduous journey unless she/he is running from a situation of desperation— political violence, a death threat, extreme poverty, hunger, unemployment and/or lack of healthcare—and is searching for a place and a community where she/he can survive and thrive. 

The plight of asylum seekers is real, and we cannot compartmentalize their stories in our heads and pretend that they do not affect our hearts. During the summer of 2021, I was one of 33 IHM sisters and associates who volunteered at the border in El Centro, California, with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of San Diego. All of us were greatly impacted by the stories of asylum seekers and humbled by the trust that it must have taken to share those stories with us. 

In one of my first weeks in El Centro, I met Alminda, a 65-year-old woman fleeing from Venezuela where her husband and she were unable to work because of their age. They had no way to survive in their own country, and their daughter urged them to come to the US and stay with her. Alminda’s joy at being reunited with her daughter and grandchildren was tempered by the memory of those she had left behind. She told me that I reminded her of her mother-in-law who was 98 (30 years my senior). I was confused at first because I looked nothing like the woman in the photo that she showed me, but then I realized it was not about physical resemblance. I still am not quite sure what quality she saw in me. But I do know that she loved her mother-in-law and that somehow my presence was reassuring for her. Alminda had few possessions with her, yet she gave me a mask that she had embroidered and asked me not to forget her. I pray that my remembering of Alminda each day will help her know that she is seen and loved unconditionally and will give her the hope she needs in the difficult days ahead. 

The faces and the stories at the border continue to haunt me. I can still hear the sobs of a mother, a father and their 15-year-old son whom the Border Patrol had released to Catholic Charities so that they could travel to their final destination in the US. The parents were distraught because their 18-year-old son was separated from them and sent to a detention center. In the US, an 18-year-old is considered a single adult and no longer a dependent of his parents. This family, reduced from four to three, was devastated, and yet they were expected to continue their journey. How does a grieving family move on and leave a son/brother behind without knowing where he is and how he will fend for himself? 

I heard quite a few stories of families being separated at the border. All of them were sad, and most of their endings are unknown. On one of my last days there, I met a young woman who was traveling with her husband, their 5-year-old son and her two younger sisters, who were 12 and 14 years of age. The woman told me that while she was in the border patrol holding station, an official came and took away her two sisters. There was no time to say goodbye or to pass them their mother’s phone number or address in the US, which she had written on a small, folded scrap of paper. No one even communicated where they were being taken. I will never forget the woman’s eyes, which were lifeless. It was as if she, like her sisters, had disappeared and vanished into an unknown place. 

Sometimes there were happy endings to the sad stories. I remember a woman crying tears of relief when she found out that her elderly father, who had been separated from her, had already been released by the Border Patrol and had safely reached their extended family in another state. Her joy warmed the hearts of all of us who were volunteering. Her tears and smiles gave hope to every asylum seeker who was longing to reach the journey’s end and to be welcomed into the arms of waiting families and friends. On that day, we all felt the great Spirit of Ubuntu, a deepened sense of our interconnectedness and our potential to impact the emotional wellness of our world. What I learned from my months of volunteering at the border is expressed in these words of Dr. Mmatheo Motsisi: UBUNTU is fueled by the Spirit of Oneness. Therefore, the notion of Separation or Divisions is an alien concept, for Oneness knows no Separation. There exists a common bond among us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.2 

May the Spirit of Oneness fill us with compassion and love and make us vulnerable and soft! May our stories and human experiences find a home in one another’s hearts! May our collective heartbeat bring balance, harmony and emotional wellness to our world! 


  • Lewis, Jacqui. Center for Action and Contemplation: Daily Meditations (February 7, 2022): 

A licensed mental health counselor and dance movement therapist, Mary Elaine currently serves as Director of Candidates and Novices for the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton, PA. She participates in the OSP-IHM Committee for Collaboration at the US-Mexico Border. 

  1. Tutu, Desmond. No future without forgiveness. Center for Action and Contemplation: Daily Meditations (February 8, 2022). ↩︎
  2. Motsisi, Mmatheo. Spirit of Ubuntu. ↩︎

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