Coming full circle leaves powerful impressions. This was certainly the case when Carolyn Heggen and Elizabeth Soto-Albrecht co-led the Mennonite Women USA Sister Care seminar in Puerto Rico. Carolyn spent her formative years as a girl in Puerto Rico—the island where her American parents met while they both were serving with different Anabaptist mission organizations. Elizabeth was born in Puerto Rico, came to live in the states when she was a baby and returned to the island when a 12 year-old. After receiving her undergrad at University of Puerto Rico she immediately started at Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico then transferred to and finished her degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Carolyn lived and worked in Puerto Rico post-college so returning to the very town she knows and loves this time as co-presenter of Sister Care was energizing. “A friend and classmate from my middle school years at Academia Menonita Betania, Eileen Rolon, was the local organizer of this event, along with her assistant, Mim Godshall, another long time friend. Mim is a nurse midwife from Pennsylvania who has worked in Puerto Rico for 53 years. Other friends and several of my former students were participants. It was a joyful time of reunion and reconnection.”
Elizabeth, too, felt the love and welcome from the friends and leaders who helped form her own leadership, “For me it was a way to give back to my people, for them to see me as a pastor and a leader and to thank them for all they have invested in me.” She was reminded while during the seminar of the significance around her home church’s trust in her as a young woman, sponsoring her attendance at seminary when that was not a typical avenue for young women to take at the time. “My overwhelming impression after revisiting these women is that we cannot afford to leave young leaders behind. We need to give them space for their leadership to develop. There is both a lack of women and young people as leaders in the churches of Puerto Rico and I’d like to see that change.”
In reflecting on having spent her 4th-8th grade school years in Puerto Rico, Carolyn was deeply grateful for having the opportunity to have acquired a second language and live in a different culture during her formative years. She believes these early experiences helped equip her for her work with international Sister Care by teaching her that the North American understanding of reality is just one of many ways to make sense of the world. It also taught her the limits of language to encompass and explain reality.
Over fifty years later she still remembers returning to the US and trying to convey an idea to her cousin, only to realize there were no English words and no way to effectively communicate what she wanted to share. “It was an important life lesson to realize that our experience of reality is significantly affected by having words to name and communicate that reality. When I began working on issues of power abuse, boundary violation, and sexual abuse I learned that an important early step in healing is giving victims words to name their violation.”
The experiences and stories women work through while attending Sister Care often combine into a
common thread. In Puerto Rico the recurring theme they shared both with the large group and privately with Elizabeth and Carolyn centered on loss: the loss of family members leaving the island to find economic footing in the US; the loss of loved ones dying too young; and the loss of trust in leaders of the church because of sexual exploitation, abuse and patriarchy. The impact of how the materials bridge faith and self-care was reflected by a participant, “I really like how Sister Care combines theology and psychology in a practical way. I’ve not seen that done so well before.”
Another unexpected bridge was strengthened between the Mennonite churches of Puerto Rico and MC USA during this Sister Care. Historically, when Mennonite Church USA was born in 2001, the Puerto Rico Mennonite church chose not to affiliate with the larger denomination for a variety of reasons, one being the feeling that their needs and interests would be overlooked in the context of a larger organization. After this decision the Puerto Rico Mennonite church drifted from Anabaptism and aligned themselves more with Pentecostal traditions, a natural place to land given the Puerto Rican approach to worship.
After ten years and various close connections to both Mennonite institutions and people in the US, the Puerto Rico Mennonite church decided to become an associate member of the Atlantic Coast conference. This choice made sense since the industrial job opportunities in Lancaster draw many people from Puerto Rico. One significant piece of this landmark Sister Care seminar is that Elizabeth, a Puerto Rican, is the moderator of the entire denomination, creating that trusted, personal connection.
Women leaders from the Puerto Rico Mennonite churches were so grateful for the Sister Care manual. They reported they have never had Mennonite resources specifically for women in their congregations. More significant is that these women are hungry for materials written by and for Mennonites since this is an area of deep need in their congregations. One participant said, “I know God sent you here with this material because this is just what we have been needing in our churches!” The overwhelming sentiment is that the Puerto Rico Mennonite church really does want to build a stronger bond to the larger church and the bridge Mennonite Women USA created by bringing Sister Care and the material to the island is a step in the right direction.
Given that the participants’ educational spread spanned from low literacy to very sophisticated government employees Carolyn was impressed with how the Sister Care manual was accepted. “What continues to amaze me as we share Sister Care around the world is how well these materials are received. I think all of us, whether in a rural community like Kokomo or a bustling megacity like Kolkata, want to feel we are precious to God, and our life matters, and someone will be there for us when life is hard and we don’t know how to keep going.” This is precisely what the Sister Care materials make available to women.
The use of the Sister Care manual doesn’t stop with the seminar. There is a women’s group in two of the Puerto Rican churches expressing their desire to go through the manual together with others in their congregation who could not participate in the Sister Care seminar. Their insistence: they want men to be in the room, too. The women want the men in their lives to hear this work so women from the Puerto Rico Sister Care are committed to lead workshops to co-ed groups from their churches. “That is the power of the Sister Care material,” says Elizabeth, “Once it touches you, you want to multiply it and spread it out and this is what will happen now in Puerto Rico.”
Of the ten Mennonite churches in Puerto Rico, eight sent participants for a total of 76 women. The seminar was held in the middle of the island in a town that boasts the highest elevation point in the country: Aibonito. Known as the Switzerland of the Caribbean for its lush mountain flora, mountaintop views and temperate weather, the setting was a lovely respite for the gathered group. It is also the site of some of the earliest Mennonite mission work in Puerto Rico, the home of Academia Menonita Betania, and the 150-bed Hospital Menonita.
Indeed it was held in a location with a long history of service workers. The participants, too, are committed members of their communities often missing out on church events due to being in the kitchen preparing and cooking delicious food. So to ensure each woman could fully engage with the work of Sister Care, Eileen arranged an outside caterer to oversee the meals during the Sister Care weekend creating traditional Puerto Rican dishes of rice and beans, chicken and salad. It was a blessing for these women to be free from having to prepare meals so they could instead fully participate in Sister Care. Elizabeth noted the significance of the catering for this particular seminar saying, “The Puerto Rican women are always helping other people but this time, with Sister Care, they are helping themselves.”
The weekend was both reunion and respite, educational and eye opening. During the final blessing ritual a participant commented, “If nothing else had happened this whole weekend except the opportunity to participate in this blessing, it would have been worth all of my time.” Elizabeth reflected, too, “The final ritual was so revealing showing us how emotionally heavy their hearts were. You can see it in their faces when we’re leading…you can see how this material is touching them and working in them.”
There are several upcoming Sister Care International seminars where co-presenters Carolyn and Rhoda Keener will share Sister Care: August they’ll present in Paraguay and Argentina, October they’ll lead in Ontario and November they’ll present it in Trinidad. Then Carolyn and Elizabeth will co-lead Sister Care in Cuba in November as well.