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: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”