By Heidi Cerneka (’96 Brazil)
“Good travelers take care of their weary companions. They guess when they lose heart. They take them as they find them, listen to them. Intelligently, gently, above all lovingly, they encourage them to go on and recover their joy in the journey.” Dom Helder Camara, Bishop of Brazil
15 years ago- I came in the door to Maryknoll Lay Missioners- compelled to do something different- to move beyond familiar and boundaries and try to participate in the building of a better world.
I still believe that 15 years later- I believe that it IS possible- but a lot harder and a LOT more work!
These 15 years have been amazing, grace-filled, frustrating, hilarious, rewarding, inspirational, and heartbreaking.
I would not be where I am today, if not for all these years of support from family and friends- as well as from Maryknoll Lay Missioners. I am constantly humbled by people’s generosity – gifts to me, donations of computers, sweaters, etc., financial support, and prayer.
What I have learned is immeasurable- and what I have contributed is also literally immeasurable.
I joined Maryknoll because I believe that the organization takes seriously the call to be a part of the construction of the Kingdom- to believe that everyone has the right to a safe, healthy and just life!
Over the years, I’ve been able to work with many individuals who have touched and affected my life, and while I am often able to offer help and support, I know that we have all grown from the interaction. Elisa- who recently told me I’m going to be someone someday!”; Sueli- who despite her hard life on the streets, has raised 4 kids- who are actually still in school or working, and Sueli never loses her sense of humor; and Angela- who is a constant reminder of limitations and powerlessness, but our stubborn resistance and refusal to give up in the face of a system that only sees her as one more case, and not the person she is.
At the same time- we’ve raised the question of women in prison at national and international levels- participating in UN conferences, debates, and the Commission for Human Rights of the Organization of American States. I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from some incredibly committed people- and fearless at that.
And finally- we debate issues related to crime, violence, mental health, and drugs. Prison is not an effective response to all of this (just look at the global average of 70% recidivism)- and so we keep debating about how to address all of this differently, more creatively and make the world a better place for all of us!!
In a world that often seems rife with injustice and our own powerlessness to do anything to change it- we always go forward. We won’t give up- we can’t give up, because if we do, it’s the inmates, their families and society that loses.
Frustrating as it is- I know that God is always right here among us.
As time passes- my family grows older (good thing I don’t grow older- haha!); my friends have kids in high school and college- Yikes!! And Maryknoll and my work in Brazil continue to stretch me, to challenge me, to humble me. I have learned lots of great Brazilian music, have NOT learned to samba, or dance with my body painted for Carnival, or play REAL soccer!!
And so I say “thanks” for all the friendship and support that so many folks have always been for me!