On August 9th, I climbed into a shiny, blue minivan with Sister Mary Swain. She must have seen the fear in my eyes, because she immediately met me with an embrace. She was taking me to the Loretto Motherhouse where I would embark on a year-long journey with the Loretto Volunteer Program. I was terrified.
The fear, however, quickly faded. From the moment I stepped into the peaceful abyss that is the Motherhouse, the Sisters of Loretto accepted me into their family. There was always a listening ear, a warm hug, and a friendly face with cookies. Despite the fact that I was in a wholly unfamiliar environment, I never felt like a stranger. Sisters shared their life stories with me and invited me to share my hopes and dreams with them. They welcomed me into their community.
On my second day at the Motherhouse, I was invited to Mass. I had not been to a church service in well over a year. I was uncomfortable with the idea of going to church, let alone going to Catholic Mass. On the few occasions that I had attended Mass, I felt confused and unwelcome. I decided, though, to give it another chance. I knew things were different when a woman was invited to share during the homily. Not just any woman, a Mennonite woman was meaningfully engaged at a Catholic Mass. This made me feel at ease. Not only did I feel comfortable, I also felt a sense of belonging. The Sisters repeatedly invited me to participate in ways that I had never been asked to participate before. These simple, albeit radical, acts demonstrated openness, solidarity, and unity. It showed me what welcome really means.
When I think of the concept of welcome, I often think of it in a superficial way. However, welcome is so much more than a smile accompanied with a warm greeting. It is an ongoing way of life that requires acceptance and openness. Welcome is disrupting the exclusive systems in which we live.
My experience at the Motherhouse also taught me that an environment of welcome is an essential component of community. The Sisters of Loretto do not just practice welcome once in a while. They live it out every day. The Loretto Community is made of people with different beliefs and different passions. Yet, they all have woven their lives together. They have accepted a responsibility to each other and truly understand that they are united. If one person falls, they all fall. If one person rises, they all rise.
I have been thinking a lot about how to cultivate a community in St. Louis, where I am serving, that reflects this spirit of welcome. How can we look out for one another? How can we weave our lives together? I, of course, still do not have the answer. However, I know that it involves working to abolish the systems that profit off of division. It requires us to recognize that we are all deeply and intricately connected.
Human beings were created for togetherness. Even while political leaders encourage exclusion and division, we must choose to be welcoming. Sometimes welcoming looks like embracing a terrified, young woman. Sometimes it looks like offering a listening ear and an Oreo. However, welcoming always looks like challenging oppressive systems.
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Gabriele Eissner is a volunteer with the Loretto Volunteer Program and a CVN Serving with Sisters Contributor. This blog series is sponsored by our VOCARE Initiative, thanks to the support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.