June 2017

Learning to listen vital for cross-cultural ministry

When Sister Geraldine Kearney arrived in Australia with her migrant family at age four-and-a-half, she couldn’t have known that the culture shock she experienced would play a key role in forming her for ministry in mission, culture, leadership and formation.

BY Debra Vermeer

“I have been extremely blessed and given lots of opportunities,” she says of her life as a Sister of the Good Samaritan. “And certainly, it is my own life experience that has gifted me with the love I have of the work I do in cross-culture.”

Geraldine was born in Rangoon, Burma, where her Anglo-Burmese family lived until they migrated to Australia in 1952.

“My mother was a teacher and I could read and write fluently in Burmese,” she says. “I have lots of memories of Burma, and of coming by boat to Broome.”

From Western Australia, the family headed across the Nullarbor to Melbourne, before settling on a small poultry farm in Appin, just south of Sydney. It was the only work available to Geraldine’s father, whose train driver qualifications were not recognised at the height of the White Australia Policy.

“One of the earliest memories I have of Australia, and one that affected me deeply, was the time when Dad took us in to buy food and the man in the shop took his broom and swept us out,” she recalls.

“I have strong early memories of being different. I was the only one in my class with black eyes. And this gave me a deep-seated sense of the value of justice and equality.”

Geraldine was taught by the Good Sams at St John’s and St Patrick’s, Campbelltown, and also spent a brief time with the Sisters of Charity at Liverpool.

“My mother taught for 27 years at St John’s Primary School and had the greatest love and respect for the Good Samaritan Sisters,” she says. “We’d take them eggs and chickens from the farm and the calibre and the dedication of the nuns who taught me had a great impact on my life.”

Growing up, Geraldine developed a strong desire to be a missionary, but a serious bout of rheumatic fever seemed to put an end to that.

“After the rheumatic fever, the doctor said I’d be no good as a missionary and I should look somewhere else,” she says. “But it was something I’d always been interested in, even as a child. I think it must have been the diversity I really wanted.”

When she finished school, Geraldine took a year off to recover more fully from the rheumatic fever and then entered the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, where she went on to be professed in 1969.

From 1971 to 1996, she taught at schools in New South Wales and Queensland and was principal of three schools. Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman was among Geraldine’s students at Hughenden in Queensland.

“I loved teaching and I still miss teaching,” she says.

“I’m a very creative type of person and so I loved inter-weaving the subjects. It was a time of new teaching methods coming into play and there was a lot of innovation which really helped to bring out the creative side of me.”

But it was her time as principal of the tiny Catholic school on Palm Island which Geraldine says was a “life-changing experience”.

“It just taught me so much,” she says. “The people there, the kids, everyone taught me so much.

“Those people, those children, really prepared me for the cross-cultural work I’m doing now in terms of being transformed in my own attitudes.

“They would say to me, ‘you have to learn to sit on the ground with us and listen’.

“And that was a big lesson for me, to let go of bossing people around and to listen. But, of course, listening is also at the heart of our congregation. St Benedict begins his Rule by saying ‘Listen, with the ear of the heart’. So, it was a very important lesson for me and when it was time for me to move on, I found it very hard to let go of Palm Island.”

Moving on from Palm Island brought with it another culture shock, when Geraldine was sent to Chicago where she studied for a Doctor of Ministry in Cross-Culture.

“Can you imagine going from Palm Island to Chicago?” she laughs.

“Thankfully, in between the two places, I had four months in Burma, teaching the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, the sisters who educated my mother and with whom I have a strong bond.

“Whenever I go back to Burma I know that I am home, and they embrace me and welcome me.”

Once in Chicago, Geraldine was asked to do a spiritual direction course as well as the doctorate studies, but half-way through the course, after battling fatigue and seeing a doctor, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She came home to Australia for surgery and 13 weeks of radiation therapy.

“It was a turbulent time,” she says. “But all through that period, I can remember there was a certain sense of grace; that I was being carried in this period of unknown and what next? I had a deep sense of serenity, which was just pure grace.”

After the treatment, Geraldine went to Kiribati to undertake some survey work for the doctorate, before heading back to Chicago where she graduated in 2000 with a Doctor of Ministry from Catholic Theological Union.

In 2001, she returned to Kiribati where she taught at the Kiribati Pastoral Institute and was part of the Good Sams’ formation team there until March 2005.

“I was very glad that I’d done my studies in Chicago before embarking on the inter-cultural work in Kiribati,” she says.

“One of the big learnings in Chicago was that when you are going into another culture you have to go as a child, to learn. It is really mission in reverse.

“So, my time in Kiribati highlighted more things that I had to learn for myself, such as patience, and pace of life. I’d done the study in culture, but this was the lived reality.

“It was a good time, both the teaching and formation. So often in my work in formation I’ve come to realise that they’re the ones teaching me.”

Returning home in 2005 to care for her ailing mother, Geraldine was appointed as the Delegate for Social Responsibility for the congregation and was a founding member of Pacific Calling Partnership, with which she is still involved. She later took up a Masters in Counselling, from which she graduated in 2010. She also became qualified in psychodrama in 2016.

“I wasn’t sure about psychodrama at first,” she says. “But as I came to learn more about it, I found out that the role play opens up an ability to explain things beyond words, which can be very helpful in a counselling situation.

“It has helped me in understanding what happens when someone hasn’t dealt to the best of their ability with trauma and it’s wonderful to see someone emerge after eight weeks of sessions and the difference you see in them as they do start to deal with their trauma. It’s very fulfilling for me.”

From 2012 until now, Geraldine has been heavily engaged with religious congregations both locally and internationally, working with leadership, mission, formation and community across cultures. This work has taken her to Hong Kong, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, the Philippines, New Zealand, Kiribati, and Australia.

Sometimes she is able to use her counselling and psychodrama skills to help people who are returning from overseas missionary assignments where they might have experienced trauma. She also draws on her academic studies and her own lived experience in cross-cultural mission and remains involved with social justice issues through Catholic Religious Australia and the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes justice committees.

Geraldine is also on the Good Sams’ formation team as program co-ordinator for inquirers, pre-novices and temporary-professed sisters, which takes her to Kiribati and the Philippines at least twice a year.

Next year will bring a year of renewal for Geraldine as she celebrates her 70th birthday.

“I’m really looking forward to devoting some time to my inner artistic self,” she says.

The year will include two weeks in Palestine, walking in the footsteps of Jesus, two weeks in Bethlehem at a school for iconography, and then on to Rome to take a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Benedict. Back home in Australia, there will be some time in Queensland, working on the art of illuminations, where she hopes to produce some writings and/or paintings of the early Sisters of the Good Samaritan and St Benedict to give back to the congregation as a gift.

Looking back at her life and ministry, Geraldine says she is filled with gratitude.

“I’ve been extremely blessed and given lots of opportunities,” she says. “I’ve been so, so blessed by the people I’ve worked with and learned from.”

“I have a very full life,” Geraldine says. “It’s a wonderful privilege to have so many irons in the fire and such a variety of opportunities and experiences in my ministry which keeps it very much alive and life-giving.”

Debra Vermeer

Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.

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