It was God’s work, it was never mine.

Lisa Connell - Delegate for Social Ministries: Australian Province of The Society of Jesus

Good morning everybody. I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to share with you my journey in the social apostolate. Today, I stand before you as a white, middle-class woman, well-educated and with tremendous opportunities afforded to me throughout my life. A loving upbringing in a Catholic family where the Church and spirituality were always key. Yet there was always a ‘gnawing’ within, that this privileged environment did not ‘belong to me’ or was a ‘right’ I was entitled to: it was a ‘gift’ to be shared with others. I sensed at a young age that while I had been ‘educated’, I didn’t really ‘understand’ the world, that there was something deeper to explore. I was desperate for something called ‘wisdom’, but also wanted excitement, adventure and to change the world for the better!

So, as a young 18-year-old woman, I set off on adventures to many far-away places. I worked as a volunteer in Aboriginal communities – I cleaned toilets, did laundry and cooked (very badly)! Once I completed my nursing training, I was ‘off’ again to work as a nurse and researcher in PNG, Uganda, Iraq and Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Having a personality that sees opportunities, rather than obstacles, enabled me to say ‘yes’ to these invitations.

Within all these countries, I was plunged into a world where western focus on ‘efficiency’, ‘productivity’ and rational decision-making was seriously challenged. I entered a different world where all was relational and immense suffering and everyday survival was the reality of life. I spent much of my time listening and wondering if I was part of a political economy where my lifestyle came at the expense of others.

It wasn’t all ‘smooth sailing’. On numerous occasions, I was threatened for questioning corruption and held/detained at borders in Iraq and Pakistan. At the age of 21, I had an accident in Papua New Guinea which resulted in significant head injuries. The physical healing took a year, but it took longer to recover brain processes, such as memory, speech and analytical capability. Having access to excellent healthcare and a determined personality, enabled me to recover well. I realized how privileged I was.

My journeys always led to experiences that challenged and inspired me. Moments of desolation were associated with feelings of fear, inadequacy and the realization I couldn’t ‘fix’ the deeper issues. I was still very much in the Western mindset of ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact’ and never really understood the value of accompaniment. This sense of hopelessness and despair was overwhelming at times. Young children died in my arms because I couldn’t get them to a hospital quickly enough. In Uganda, 40% of women I treated in the ante-natal clinic were HIV positive. Rabies, TB and meningococcal outbreaks: it seemed never-ending. I began to realise there was a ‘much bigger picture’ to this injustice and suffering and while I could do the best I could, I had to ‘hand it over to God’ as this is where the real work began and probably when I felt most consolation. It was God’s work, it was never mine.

Where was God in all of this? Sometimes God was difficult to see amidst the fear, suffering, frustration and other times God was clearly present – in the people and in each ‘moment’. Wonderful moments of consolation came from singing and dancing with various communities. I taught dancing to the young nurses in the Ugandan Hospital compounds in the evening: Elton John music blared out, followed by the drums when the sessions turned into local Ugandan dancing sessions. Patients suffering from AIDS, arose from their beds and joined in the fun. The nuns kicked up their heels and joined in the dancing. In the midst of all this death: there came a need to find sense/joy in the present moment and in our relationships in the here and now.

Working alongside the nuns in Uganda was a privilege. Their stories of amazing courage during Idi Amin and Obote’s regimes were astounding. They cared for anyone who needed help despite numerous threats from different factions. I remember thinking that these women were the real ‘feminists’ of the world. Their strength, capability, faith and humour inspired me!

I sat with amazing Afghani Muslim women who taught the local children in secret during the Taliban regime, knowing they would have been killed if discovered. They said to me, ‘the children are our future’ – this is why we did it.

I prayed and worked with religious communities, yet it was never consciously to bring the Gospel to the poor, or for the greater Glory of God or to bring about the reign of God. I never understood that language and still struggle with that today. I felt that having humility, joyfulness, openness to God and compassion was enough – God and the Holy Spirit can then work as they need to. I began to explore more about my faith and teachings, particularly those associated with liberation theology and preferential option for the poor

It is really only recently that I have explored the concept of ‘solidarity’ in depth and reflected upon Mary at the foot of the Cross – she couldn’t change the outcome, relieve Jesus’ suffering, and was at risk – but there She stood.

Further studies in management, leadership, theology and yoga and a PhD in human- trafficking all led me to roles including Director of Mission in various organisations and my current Delegate for Social Ministries in the Australian Province role. In many ways, joining the Jesuit community, felt like coming home.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from and to be inspired by those people and communities that invited me in to work and live alongside them. I am also very grateful that I can serve in a leadership capacity within the Jesuit Social Ministries and to continue to say ‘yes’ to God within the Social Apostolate.