Finding God in Nepal

Julie Filby

UPDATE APRIL 29Mullen High School students launched a fundraiser April 29 to support relief efforts in Nepal,  devastated by an April 25 earthquake. Students are selling ice cream bars donated by Salti Sweet Ice Cream Factory in Littleton to raise funds for Shoes For Sherpas  and for clean water through Edge of Seven. Checks can be dropped off at the school at 3601 S Lowell Blvd. in Denver. Contact teacher Barb Figg with questions: figg@mullenhigh.com or 303-761-1764.

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Editor’s note: Twenty-one students from Mullen High School traveled to Nepal last month with social studies teacher Barb Figg to teach and work at a girls’ hostel in Solukhumbu, south of the Everest region; deliver more than 500 pairs of Shoes for Sherpas and 80 Kits for Kids filled with medical supplies; and work at an orphanage in Kathmandu. One student shares her perspective below.

When we left Colorado for Nepal, I knew my perspective wouldn’t be the same, yet I didn’t realize how deeply I would be affected. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to travel and see the world, to experience other people, other cultures. This trip was a chance to start my dream, though I didn’t know my dream would lead me to find God in places I never would’ve thought to look.

Our mission was to go to Solukhumbu, help build a hostel for girls, help teach at secondary schools, and see rugged Nepal through trekking along the way. Looking back on the journey, the most impactful realization for me was the respect gained for the girls living in developing countries.

Through the activities and experiences, I learned about life outside of privilege, especially from a female point of view. Girls in Nepal and many other developing countries have just recently gained the right to education, and even then usually only till eighth grade. They are not provided with the tools to acquire a job or make a living on their own. That is why we build the hostels—they allow girls to go to school an extra three or four years. There they learn how to get jobs and make it on their own. The hostels make an education possible for these girls, and an education means a future.

Knowing that I gave a small contribution to help build a hostel was an amazing feeling because by doing so, I was helping to provide a future for someone. Yet, this feeling became much deeper when I saw the girls in both the hostel and the Himalayan Hope Home. Their culture was alive and their happiness was infectious. They welcomed us with open hearts. Knowing firsthand the people we were serving was a privilege. I will never forget when a young girl grabbed my hand and said, “Let me show you my home, sister.”

The more I got to know the girls, the more respect I gained for each and every one of them and the struggles they face every day. They clung to one another, demonstrating their sisterhood and the value and dignity they place on each other. The girls are so talented and achieving something great in a place where greatness in women is not expected by the culture.

As time passed and we created relationships, I was proud to say I had made friends. Yet, as I left Solukhumbu, I realized I wasn’t leaving behind friends, but I had gained new sisters. It’s a unique thing when people half-a-world away, differing in language, tradition and religion can open their hearts to each other and create connections. That is where I found God: in our differences, in the relationships I made, and in the simplicity of being kind and open to the people in front of me. I found God in the hope that arises from a place of hopelessness, in the work I did for others, in the face of each and every girl standing up for her right to a dignified life.

Sarah DeLine is a sophomore at Mullen High School.

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.