Eight years ago, Pope Francis gave us the now familiar image of the Church as a “field hospital.” He said what “the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.” Sr. Liz Sjoberg’s story and current work on the border in Brownsville, Texas, is a story of that nearness, of encountering the people of God where they live and breathe.
Her ministry offers valuable insight into the importance of collaboration amongst all members of the Church in building up the Kingdom of God.
Before moving to Brownsville, Sjoberg accompanied young adults through campus ministry and vocation work. After mentoring young people and walking with them in their faith, she felt called to pursue further studies in social work. It was a natural flow from her religious order’s charism—their co-founder, St. Louise de Marillac, is the patroness of social work. The Daughters of Charity take a fourth vow of service to the poor which they carry out through social work, education, health care, and campus ministry.
After ministry with young adults, Sr. Liz worked for four years at Marygrove, a residential care facility for abused and neglected children in St. Louis. Her journey of serving the poor then brought her to Proyecto Juan Diego, a Daughters of Charity sponsored ministry where she has worked for two and a half years. Proyecto Juan Diego was founded in 2003 by Sr. Phylis Peters, a Daughter of Charity.
According to Sr. Liz, it is a true gift to be working in Brownsville, a place filled with faithful people where “no one is afraid to talk about God, no one is afraid to talk about faith or prayer.” She said “The faith is a real constant, like the air people breathe.” The basilica in San Juan, Our Lady of the Valley, has a perpetual flow of people coming in and out, lighting candles, worshiping, and praying the rosary. Sr. Liz noted that the faith there is a “source of comfort and consolation born of suffering and need.”
When it comes to collaborating with the laity, Sr. Liz articulated a servant mindset that is essential for collaboration: working with not working for the people of God, learning from the people of God, and empowering the people of God. “Working with, not for” is a sentiment that has existed since Proyecto Juan Diego was founded. It is accomplished through relationship:
The most helpful thing that I can do as a religious person is to be present with people and learn from their experience and offer what little wisdom or what little resources or skills I can offer based on my relationship with them… So that’s where I feel the idea of accompaniment is so critical. Because if I’m coming from the place of ‘I have all these things I want to tell you and give you these resources and teach you these things,’ I’m not learning from them in the context of what would help them move forward.
A prime example of “learning from the people” through relationships includes the origin of the three major areas of service offered by Proyecto Juan Diego: prediabetes education, civic engagement, and family services that include after-school program, counseling, and support groups. The services were not imposed on the people of Brownsville, the services arose from listening to the people and realizing what they needed.
Sr. Liz articulated how an awareness of her social location and background was important. She knows that as a white, female religious from a middle class background she does not understand first hand the struggles she encounters. Yet, her response can be the attitude of a servant and learner of the culture. Not only does she learn from the culture, but she realizes that “it’s just as much about my gifts as it is about recognizing the talents” of those I work alongside.
As an example of the importance of lay collaborators, Sr. Liz pointed to the work of Lupita, one of the directors of Proyecto Juan Diego who works with civic engagement. “She’s someone that “knows far more people, knows who to talk to, speaks the language, has lived in the neighborhood … she is making the real change.”
“We talk about the body of Christ, I don’t know what part I am,” she says, “but I’m definitely not the hands and feet.”
After serving with and listening to the people of God we can move to empowering them and encouraging them. This is a vital role that religious can play:
People don’t realize what’s in them until you help them see what they can do and walk with them in it. The greatest gift that a religious community can offer is to help people to see the graces and blessings and skills that they have and to help that to grow. [Our ministry and service] is multiplied when we share that responsibility with others. When we see it as working as a team and promoting each other and seeing the gifts of each other, we can make far more of a difference versus if I come in and do my song and dance and hope that people listen.
Sr. Liz says we can look to Jesus and the calling of Peter as a model of accompaniment and empowerment: Jesus “didn’t tell Peter ‘come follow me’ until he had actually gotten in the boat with him first. Jesus went to where the people were and then called them to a greater version of themselves.”
Sr. Liz mentioned that she keeps coming back again and again to the image of the body of Christ, explaining how within our primary vocation, whether a religious, a Diocesan priest, married, single, etc., we are all part of the Body of Christ and have a role to play in serving the people of God. She emphasized that although service to the poor is a hallmark of the Daughters of Charity, it is not an exclusive call. Service to the poor is a universal call that no one is exempted from.
After speaking with Sr. Liz about her work with other Daughters of Charity on the border, it was clear that humility undergirds their ministry. Specifically, the realization of their dependence on collaborating with others is crucial to how they understand their ministry.
Humility seems to be the means by which Sr. Liz and her fellow Daughters of Charity actually experience the kind of nearness and proximity described by Pope Francis. This notion of humility and dependence on lay collaborators offers a powerful spiritual parallel:
I can’t pretend that there is an easy answer, but what I can do is be who I am and meet people where they are, cause that’s where the change is, that’s where the transformation is, in that relationship. Isn’t that a parallel with our faith? I may want to change some things about myself or address certain areas, but I can’t do that by myself, I need God.