December 2012

Giving people choices

If Good Samaritan Sister Meg Kahler could invite any five guests to dinner, she’d choose Aung San Suu Kyi, Scholastica Gibbons, Roger Federer, Genghis Khan and Billy Connolly.

BY Stephanie Thomas

If Good Samaritan Sister Meg Kahler could invite any five guests to dinner, she’d choose Aung San Suu Kyi, Scholastica Gibbons, Roger Federer, Genghis Khan and Billy Connolly.

“I have no idea what you’d cook for them or what you’d give them to drink. Possibly nothing,” laughs Meg. “But it would be a very interesting evening!”

Meg has great admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy campaigner and politician who was detained under house arrest for many years. “I’m not sure of the ‘ins and outs’ of her politics, but there just seems to be a dignity and graciousness and resilience, an inner strength in the woman,” she explains.

Meg describes Scholastica Gibbons – the Irish Sister of Charity who helped to establish the Good Samaritan Sisters with Archbishop John Bede Polding in nineteenth century Australia – as a “remarkable woman”.

“I think she must have been someone quite similar [to Aung San Suu Kyi],” says Meg. “That resilience and inner strength, being able to find a way to get through things, because some parts of her life, I’m sure, must have been amazingly difficult.”

An avid follower of most sport, Meg says meeting world tennis champion, Roger Federer, “would be lovely”. She thinks he’s a “remarkable”, “intelligent” and “really interesting person” who “seems to be aware of what’s going on in the world and does good things on the quiet”.

So far Meg’s guests are logical choices; they’re admirable and altruistic people. So why invite the thirteenth century Mongolian warrior, Ghengis Khan, the man who killed around 40 million people in the process of building the world’s largest empire?

“I wonder what he would be like,” muses Meg. “Someone… so single-minded to the point of destruction, I don’t understand that. I don’t know how you can think that that’s alright.”

Meg says it would be fascinating to talk to someone like Genghis Khan, especially in the company of others who could counter his ruthlessness.

“Then I think you’d need some comic relief,” adds Meg. “Maybe Billy Connolly, just to throw in a completely different personality!”

It seems that Meg’s choice of guests reveals something of her personality, her values and ideals, her outlook on life, and some of her interests.

The second eldest of four girls, Meg was born in Queensland’s Darling Downs. She spent her first eight years in Warwick before the family moved to Bundaberg, then to Rockhampton, finally settling in Brisbane. Meg describes herself as “a bit of a country bumpkin at heart” and admits her “itinerant” early years have been “very handy for religious life”.

During her school years, Meg’s family was always connected with the local Church. “That was a constant for us.” But it was while studying at Queensland University that Meg’s commitment to faith and social justice issues moved to another level.

For a few years she lived in community with two Presentation Sisters and four lay women. “That was a really important time,” she says. Not only did Meg become involved in the local parish, but she worked in youth ministry for the Brisbane Archdiocese and also tutored women at the Brisbane prison.

“Going to uni was a really good thing,” says Meg. “You looked at the world in a different way because it was uni, and as unis are, there’s a bit of everything.”

As part of her BA – mostly English and History subjects – she also did Studies of Religion. She says this was valuable because it allowed her to explore religion “without the Catholic part”. Meg regards this time in her life as significant, largely because of her exposure to different people, groups, places and ideas.

After finishing her degree, Meg completed a Diploma in Education and moved to Townsville for her first teaching position at Ryan Catholic Community College.

“I sort of fell into teaching,” explains Meg. “It wasn’t something that I had this great desire to do, but I always found it kind of easy… and enjoyed it.”

For about the first 12 months, however, Meg felt the need to step away from any involvement in Church life, except for teaching. “I would go to church every now and then if I felt like it, but didn’t get involved in a parish, and I actually think now, that was a really important time.”

After sensing there was “something missing”, she gradually returned to church. At the same time, the local priest asked if she would connect with a few young people doing the RCIA program. “I don’t know what it did for them,” she laughs, “but it was just important in terms of going back to the basics.”

During her four years at Townsville, Meg encountered the Good Samaritan Sisters for the first time and made some strong connections. After a year teaching at the Catholic school on Palm Island – her “first experience of being the minority” – she decided to see if religious life was a possibility for her.

“I thought, well, you’ve got to try this or forget about it. So, 1996 was the try-it-or-forget-about-it-year,” she explains.

Meg obviously found her 12-month pre-novitiate experience in Melbourne to be what she was after. The following year she moved to Sydney for her novitiate, and then after her first profession, she returned to Melbourne where she taught at Santa Maria College, Northcote for the next five years.

Meg’s ministry placements since that time have included three months in Tanzania, two years in Kiribati, and a year as manager of the Good Samaritan Inn in Melbourne. In 2007, she took on three part-time commitments: she was working at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe; she was a member of the Good Samaritan Mission Team; and she started a Master of Education degree.

These days Meg is still based at St Scholastica’s, but most of her time is spent working in Australia and beyond with the Mission Team providing formation opportunities for staff and students of the ten Good Samaritan colleges in the history, values and spirituality of the Good Samaritan Benedictine tradition. Meg says there are four components to their work: offering immersion experiences, developing resources, providing formation programs and building partnerships. “Those elements are critical to how it all happens,” she adds.

“It’s a good job. You get connections with all the schools, all the people, kids and staff and parents.”

Looking back on her 43 years, Meg believes she’s been “really, really fortunate” to have had “amazing people”, including a supportive family, who encouraged her to explore and embrace some of life’s opportunities.

“Some [people] have been part of my life for a long time and some of them a very, very short [time], but they’ve said ‘you should have a go at this’, ‘I think you might like this’ or ‘you can do this’.”

Having had these people and opportunities in her own life, Meg now tries to do the same for others – “[providing] opportunities for people to learn, to grow, to change; it’s that thing of somehow there’s always a possibility for people”.

It’s Meg’s belief that education and learning are life-long processes that, fundamentally, are about giving people choices. “Regardless of what you study and what you do, to be in a position where you can make a choice is a thing that a lot of people in the world actually don’t have,” she explains.

When asked what it’s like to be one of the younger members of an ageing religious congregation, Meg’s response is coloured with realistic optimism.

“Our group is getting smaller… I came into it knowing this was the way it was. You wouldn’t make final vows unless you were ‘blind Freddy’ thinking it was suddenly going to grow and expand. That’s not the way religious life will be when I’m at the end of it,” she says.

She believes it’s an opportunity to find new ways to live religious life – “to find ways of sharing the story in different ways”.

“The congregation might be getting smaller, but with a job like mine when you work with people…  around 10,000 people everyday [who] turn up somewhere that’s got this Good Samaritan thing going on… I think there are huge possibilities if you start to look at that as your community.”

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