Sister of Charity's ministry has always involved serving the vulnerable

Sr. Mary Beth Moore, standing, coaches women in a literacy program

Charity Sr. Mary Beth Moore
Who she is: Assistant coordinator of Centro Corazon de Maria
Lives in: Long Island, N.Y.

Sister Camille: Mary Beth, you are a recognized leader of Pax Christi on Long Island and a longtime supporter of Spanish-speaking immigrants, many of whom are migrant workers.

Let's start by exploring your relationship with that community, often victims of injustice. How, when and why did you begin ministering to them?

Moore: In 2010, I was invited to join the sponsored ministry of the Religious of the Sacred Heart that was directed to immigrants in Hampton Bays on Long Island's East End. The RSHM have a long history the East End, and they founded Centro Corazon de Maria in 2002 as a response to a congregation general assembly decision. They had no way of knowing that the immigrant population in Hampton Bays would mushroom at that very time (154.7 percent increase between 2000 and 2010). I was delighted to work again with the Latino people. I feel a deep connection with them.

What prepared you to become a successful advocate for this population?

I worked in our congregational mission in Peru from 1982 to 1992. It was a life-changing experience. We had a team of seven -- sisters, priests and lay missioners -- in a crowded barrio just outside the coastal city of Chiclayo.

The Peruvian people are well-characterized by their compatriot theologian Gustavo Gutierrez as a suffering, believing people. The people's warmth, their faith, their persistence, and their love for life remain great gifts for me. The emphasis on empowerment helped me to develop a mindset of advocacy and accompaniment.

What do you have to offer the Latino population?

In my present work, I hope I can offer the people a listening ear. Sometimes we can untangle problems like applying for hospital charity care or clarifying issues related to immigration. But many times, there are no immediate solutions, and the ability to listen compassionately is important. Through our center, we also offer English classes and short-term skills classes, mainly for women. (We don't exclude men, but most work during the day.) We provide baby sitters for all our classes, enabling the mothers to attend.

How have the Latinos you work with affected your life?

I work mainly with young women between the ages of 20 and 40, and almost all are mothers. Now, I am as old as their mothers, or in some cases, their grandmothers! They are a source of hope and challenge for me. Hope because despite so many difficulties, they are full of life and choose life. They give their best to the children and to the few hours they have to study English. They strive to create a happy family and a welcoming home. I simply must share in their hope and give my best back. They challenge me to live simply and to relativize my own doubts and struggles. I, too, try to live for the day and not get caught up in worry about the future.

What are their needs and what deprives them of their fulfillment?

Needs! The basic needs of food, shelter, dignified work, education and health care are under constant threat. It is true that the children born here do have health care and good schools, and everyone is grateful for that. But many families face continual food insecurity. Undocumented adults lack health care. Many are exploited in the workplace -- women are sexually harassed, men are insulted, and wage theft is common. Housing on the East End is truly a nightmare. Whole families are squished into a single room. For those who are undocumented, any initiative of their own to insist on basic rights or to organize for change is impossible because of the fear of deportation. The delay in comprehensive immigration reform is a cause of daily suffering.

Who are your collaborators?

I am so lucky to work for the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. My present colleague, Sr. Mary Lang, was a founding member of the center. Sr. Frances Lane, the other founder, retired just last year. In addition, an ecumenical group, Neighbors in Support of Immigrants, works tirelessly on local advocacy issues such as language access. St. Rosalie Parish shares its facility with us, and we have a warm relationship with the pastor, Fr. Ed Sheridan, and the parish staff.

Do you have role models in this work of mercy?

There are many religious sisters and committed laypeople who work with people living in poverty, and they are my role models. I am lucky to have so many of these as friends. They have set a high bar, and I want to be worthy of their company.

I think the saints, too, are role models. I love the boldness of female saints, such as Elizabeth Ann Seton (the foundress of the American Sisters of Charity), Catherine of Siena and Mother Cabrini. I don't want to exclude the male saints, but my role models are the women who broke new ground and dealt with male dominance with courage, honesty and compassion.

Where and with whom did you grow up?

I grew up in Nassau County, N.Y. -- Albertson, to be precise. I am the oldest of five children and the only daughter. Three of my brothers are married, and I have five lovely nieces and nephews and one great-grandniece. My four best friends from grade school and I still see each other at least once a year.

Where were you educated?

I went to St. Aidan's grade school in Williston Park; St. Mary's High School in Manhasset; Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and New York University.

What led you to enter your religious congregation?

I wanted to be a nun from my earliest years. I know that my desire was immature and in some ways unrealistic, but a sense of call was very real and never left me. My brother John, who was two years younger than me, had a very severe handicap. I think my relationship with him carved a path in my heart to consider what I wanted my own life to mean. I joined the Sisters of Charity of Halifax because they taught me in grade school, and I became friends with them through our parish activities during my high school years. It seemed logical to join them when I graduated from high school.

What ministries have you pursued as a Sister of Charity?

I've sort of hopped around in many jobs, but my ministry has always involved serving people who were vulnerable in some particular way. My training is in rehabilitation counseling, a profession very like social work with an emphasis on disabling conditions. I worked as a rehab counselor in several settings, including six years in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens in a bilingual program for people with mental illness. I also served on my congregation's leadership team for six years.

I know you spend some time assisting your father. What can you tell us about him?

My father is a great role model for aging. At 92, he is alert and very engaged with life. My mother died in 1997, and he has lived alone since then. But he always toasts before sharing a meal and says softly, "To a great lady," meaning my mother.

I've learned from him that the secret of aging well is a spirit of gratitude. He had a serious health crisis last winter and was in and out of hospitals for four months. He never complained. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it is true. Every time he left the hospital, the nurses and aides came out to say they'd miss him, and he laughingly replied he hoped he'd never be back. He loves an Irish coffee when we eat out on the weekend, and he usually gets served for free. Go figure!

What brought you to a leadership position in Pax Christi?

I rejoined Pax Christi after 9/11, and an important motivator was finding a way to cope with terrorism. I had experienced firsthand the terrorism of the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru, and my defense was, "This is not my country, I can always leave." But when this scourge came to my beloved city, I could no longer say that. Would I live in fear, or would I find a way to combat it?

The Gospel came to my rescue in the form of Pax Christi Long Island. The group was welcoming, active and challenging. The truth is that Pax Christi is a bit anarchic. I wasn't elected coordinator; I was asked to take that role, as no one else was clamoring for it. I was coordinator from 2003 to 2008. It was a great privilege, and I am still very much involved with the Pax Christi community. We do our best to highlight issues of peace and justice. Last year, several Pax Christi members organized a wonderful exhibit of children's art that challenged gun violence. The exhibit has traveled to many places on Long Island.

How and with whom do you pray?

What a question! Let me start with the second half. I belong to a prayer circle created by the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. There are perhaps 100 nuns, laywomen and men across the country who have committed to sitting in prayer for at least 20 minutes a day. That's it. There are no meetings, no check-ins, no criteria -- just that promise made on the honor system. We get a beautiful email of encouragement each month. Of course, I was praying anyway, but it is a wonderful support to know that others are similarly pledged to this humble, unseen exercise of prayer.

I pray in common with the sisters most evenings. I pray with the parish community at the Sunday Eucharist.

How do I pray? This is very hard to put into words, but maybe an analogy would help. I am a singer, and music is very important to me. All my life, I've sung here and there, and it is very important to me to do it well, on pitch, expressing the words and music the best I can. But a good singer always knows that the song is more important than he or she is. After practice, while singing the song, one is an instrument, enabling the song to be.

Prayer is a bit like that. I want to do it well, and yet, I know that's not up to me at all. God is the song, I'm called to just sing it. Lots of times, I think that my "sitting prayer" is like listening to an exquisite symphony on a bad radio. The static is horrid, but the music is so wonderful, you keep listening. And once in a blue moon, the static ceases, and it's worth the wait.

What religious experiences energize you?

Walking outdoors, my private "sitting" prayer, the Eucharist, and the prayer of petition and gratitude within a day's work. When I hear the women's stories, I am often called to pray -- that they be protected, that they have the courage to go on. I also pray in gratitude for the faith they share with me. These are silent little prayers wedged in between work that, like any job, has its moments of tedium.

What do you think would draw more people to our church?

A face: a public discourse of compassion in each local church and in the universal church.

In answering this question, I struggled to remind myself that "church" is the pilgrim people, saints and sinners, women and men. Any of us are frail and foolish at times, but each one is struggling to bring the spirit of Jesus into our daily practice.

The Catholic church is hamstrung by its official stance toward women. Yes, women teach most religious education classes the world over, wash the altar linens, and comfort and forgive. But doctrine has been elaborated for centuries without women's voices. The moral understanding of sexuality has been promulgated without women's experience, and this had led to an understanding of human sexuality that is incomplete, if not to say distorted. When women become equal partners in the Catholic church, it may be that many will be able to access the riches of its spirituality for the first time.

Do you think Pope Francis is causing us to think differently about how we live our faith?

Yes. I rejoice that Pope Francis is emphasizing compassion and joy and love for people living in poverty. He has begged for a nonviolent response to the tragedy of war. I love his sense of coherencia -- a very Latin American notion that one's personal behavior must match one's stated point of view. He takes the bus, he's done away with those red papal shoes, he's washed the feet of prisoners. (OK, I realize that these acts are not equally important!) He is modeling that a leader has to really live the way she or he is urging others to live.

What is your image of God?

As a follower of Jesus, I am always grateful that I have the model of God's compassion and mercy in human form. In one sense, I feel invited to let go of any image of God. I call upon "Holy Mystery," "God of Mercy," and since my days in Latin America, I call upon the "God of Life," "Dios de la Vida," who champions all who suffer and condemns idolatry: the worship of money, the market, success, security, what have you.

Do you have a favorite Scripture passage or Gospel story?

I love the story of the road to Emmaus from Luke's Gospel. There is humor in the setup: The two pilgrims don't recognize Jesus, and he, the mysterious third party, appears ignorant of "all that happened in Jerusalem," which was his very death. Then the mysterious one explains the Scripture -- what a talk that must have been! They recognize him "in the breaking of bread," a code for Eucharist, and then he vanishes.

This seems like such a common experience. We simply can never explain suffering and the cross -- neither our own nor that of Jesus. The passage to resurrection is something we plumb for a lifetime, but Jesus walks with us. Just when we think we've got it, he disappears, but the joy remains, and there is a deep inner urgency to be his witnesses.

Why is it important to you?

I think this is a paradigm of a life of faith.

What would you say to someone considering religious life?

I would say: Be committed to a journey of self-knowledge and daily prayer. Seek out a very few trusted guides to accompany you as you discern whether this lifestyle is the best way for you to become a loving person. No other motivation suffices. If the person were at an early part of their adult lives, I think I would also suggest he or she find a group that has at least some members that are age peers. Religious life can be lonely, and it is important to have a community you can relate to.

Can you share an experience or two that made you grateful for becoming a religious?

I think I have had the privilege of loving all sorts of people in a unique way, and that my availability as a religious was what made this possible. I have friends on four continents: North and South America, Europe and Australia. I know that these friends love me, and I them. Of course, some of these friends I see very infrequently, but email and Skype have made it possible to stay in touch. I rejoice at all the choices I made that led me to them. The root of those choices was becoming Sister of Charity.

What makes your heart happy?

Being with friends and family, walking under the sky or swimming in the sea, having the time to pray, singing, reading, savoring a glass of wine and a delicious meal with a friend.

What saddens you?

Ah, I try to keep in my heart the many who are suffering from violence: the people of Syria, Palestine, the Central African Republic; the neighborhoods of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Their suffering is something that is humanly possible to end, but too many hearts are hardened. This is what saddens me.

What else would you like us to know?

I am very grateful for this chance to share my faith and a little glimpse of my life. Thank you!

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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