Spiritual Reflections

An Intercultural Sisterhood

Sisters Mary Elaine Anderson and Elvia Mata Ortega explore living in an intercultural sisterhood.

Intercultural Sisterhood… hmm… what is that? When we look at the phrase, four root words immediately jump off the page: inter, culture, sister, and hood.

Let’s start with “hood,” which is slang for neighborhood, a word that is familiar to us. “Hood” conjures up feelings of belonging, and the neighborhood where we grew up was probably a place where we felt comfortable interacting with our “neighbors,” people who most likely were of the same socioeconomic background and perhaps looked very much like us. Every neighborhood has its own peculiar “culture” or way of interpreting life’s events and relating to God, the world, and other peoples. As children, we drank from the cultural well of our “hood,” and we relied on it to make judgments about what is right and wrong, who can be trusted and who is not to be trusted.  

In a similar way, each religious congregation has its own culture which is expressed through traditions, food, music, beliefs, thought patterns, myths, and behavior. Joining a religious congregation entails moving beyond the culture of one’s personal family and close-knit neighborhood to form a “sister” hood with others who have similar values and a common mission.  A “sisterhood” might be considered “intercultural” when its members not only embrace what they have in common but also recognize and celebrate their differences.   

Mary Elaine Anderson, IHM, Elvia Mata Ortega, IHM, Carmen Armenta Lara, Rose Patrice Kuhn
Sisters Mary Elaine Anderson, Elvia Mata Ortega, Carmen Armenta Lara,
and Rose Patrice Kuhn

In July 2022, the OSP-IHM Board invited Oblate Sisters of Providence and IHM sisters from Monroe, MI, Immaculata, PA, and Scranton, PA to form an “intercultural sisterhood” at the US-Mexico border where they would minister to migrants in McAllen, Texas, and Reynosa, Mexico. Four sisters volunteered to be part of the core community: Carmen Armenta Lara (Monroe), Rose Patrice Kuhn (Immaculata), Elvia Mata Ortega (Scranton), and Mary Elaine Anderson (Scranton). Two of the sisters are from Mexico, and two are from the US. 

Living and ministering intercongregationally and interculturally is an intentional choice to go beyond congregational and cultural borders and to widen our understanding of sisterhood and neighborhood. One of the greatest gifts of making this choice has been the opportunity to minister collaboratively with other women and men religious in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and in Reynosa, Mexico.  

In truth, sisterhoods and brotherhoods extend far beyond our immediate religious communities. Outside the walls of our convents, religious residences, or monasteries, many of our brothers and sisters live on the margins, oppressed, rejected, and stereotyped.

Trying to explain something about intercultural sisterhood, the words of the biblical scripture from Genesis come to mind: “Where is your brother/sister?” and Cain’s immediate response: “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)

Most of us have the experience that when we were little, we used to argue with our siblings. When one of us was upset because we had lost an argument, our parents would ask, “Why is your brother/sister crying?” or “What did you do to your brother/sister?” Our knee-jerk response was always, “I don’t know why he/she is crying,” or “I didn’t do anything to him/her.”

The question, “Where is your brother/sister?” takes on a deeper meaning when reflecting on the living conditions of our migrant sisters and brothers. During a recent visit to the Casa del Migrante in Reynosa, Mexico, we were struck by the number of different nationalities present in a space no larger than 1,500 square feet. People from sixteen different countries were gathered together in that small space at the border amidst chaos, confusion, and pain. They were in a type of limbo situation where everything was uncertain. But there we were, united by our same faith and humanity, celebrating life and our similarities and differences. Seeing the diversity of all the people who were there was a reminder of those arguments when we were children. A reminder of the disagreements we still have with our brothers and sisters of other nationalities because they are different from us, because we do not have the same skin color, or because we think somehow, they are different, because… because…

It’s a time for transformation, a time to open our eyes and broaden our horizons regarding who forms part of our sisterhoods and brotherhoods. It’s a time to celebrate the fullness of our cultural diversity by fostering atmospheres for others to be themselves and to work to create equal opportunities for justice, respect, and equality. It’s a time to create spaces for everybody to awaken and be liberated by beginning to transform sociocultural structures of xenophobia and inequality. Our call to awaken to our common humanity goes far beyond just the walls of our convents and beyond the territorial walls of national borders.

We live in a very diverse country where different cultures coexist, but there is still a long way to go before we become truly an intercultural nation. As we journey together, let us ask God to grant us the grace to expand our understanding of living into the fullness of our sisterhoods and brotherhoods. May God stretch our minds, open our hearts and awaken in us a desire to truly embrace others as our brothers and sisters.  When we hear that scripture question, “Where is your brother/sister?” may we not answer like Cain: “Am I my brother’s and my sister’s keeper?” May we never answer as we did as children: “I don’t know why he/she is crying,” or “I didn’t do anything,” but may we be able to respond sincerely, “Here we are trying to care for each other and create a common home.”

Sister Elvia is a graduate student in the Social Work Department of the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

Sister Mary Elaine is the Director of Formation for the Scranton IHM Congregation.

Sisters Elvia and Mary Elaine are members of the OSP-IHM core community in McAllen, Texas, an inter-congregational initiative that accompanies asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border.   

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