December 2014

“One wild and precious life”

Kiribati woman Claire Anterea may not be a Good Samaritan Sister anymore, but she’s “still a Good Samaritan in some way or another, no matter what”.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” These words by American poet Mary Oliver could well have been written with a young and somewhat precocious Kiribati girl in mind.

Claire Anterea’s first years were spent on the remote outer island of Abemama. She tells a story which demonstrates her fearlessness in the face of a perceived injustice.

She was five and not allowed to receive Communion.

Claire takes up the story. “One day I collect all the kids and ask, ‘Do you want to receive Jesus?’ They really want to. ‘OK, let’s go to the church’.

As soon as the church is empty, Claire and about 50 of her faithful followers run, rather than process, up to the altar.

“I stood in front of the kids and said, ‘You have to be quiet. So make two lines, one for boys and one for girls’.

Claire climbs on a chair to reach the key and opens the tabernacle. “I bow and tell everyone to bow. I take the silver cup and climb down.

“I hold the cup and say to the kids, ‘When I say The Body of Christ, you put your hands like this and say Amen. So everyone eats and goes to the back of the church. And then I put many hosts in my mouth. ‘Why do you have so many?’ they ask. ‘I’m the priest!’ I say.”

A piercing cry of “O my God!” interrupts the service. One of the Sisters, the sacristan, appears and the children scatter for cover to their respective houses. Except cool, calm and collected Claire, who tells me, “I don’t want to drop the cup, so I walk slowly and put the cup on the altar. I then go past Sister who is an angry woman wanting to eat me, and walk slowly to my house.”

Sister does the rounds of the village where “every kid got smacked by their parents”, says Claire. Sister finally confronts Claire’s parents, “Your daughter, she took the ciborium…”

When asked why, Claire responds with the profound logic of a five year old. “I heard that when you eat Jesus, Jesus will enter your heart. All you adults eat Jesus. But Jesus really likes children. So I went and called all the kids because we all want Jesus too.”

Claire concludes her story with a winning grin: “My father holds me and smiles and I don’t get smacked.”

In significant ways Claire’s childhood and that of her siblings (she is the second of five children) were atypical. Both parents were professionally trained community workers who often spoke English to their children and entertained foreign guests.

Claire’s father, Anterea Kaitaake, had seven years seminary training as a Missionary of the Sacred Heart before leaving religious life to marry community nurse, Maria Kauea.

Over the years Anterea worked variously for the government as a village project officer and for the Catholic Church as a lecturer in the Christian Community Leaders program and as a high school teacher.

“People came to Mum and Dad because they were both good teachers and I could see how they treated people in their own professional way,” says Claire. “My Mum was very caring to the mothers when they came to the house for help.”

Claire recalls how “it was rare to see I-matangs [foreigners] on an outer island. All the other kids were scared of them but I wasn’t scared. I was always interested in where they were from and how they lived, how they were like us but had different skin.”

Much of Claire’s education was a blur as the family moved often with her parents’ work. “This had an impact on me socially and academically. You get to know the teachers and the school and then you have to move and say good-bye to all your friends. People say, ‘I remember you as a little girl. You were famous in the school. You were so social and you did this and that’. But I don’t remember.”

After completing Year 5 on Kiribati’s main island Tarawa, Claire attended the Kiribati Pastoral Institute for two years, worked in an X-ray department for another two years and then for 12 months lived in New Zealand with her aunt.

In 2001 Claire joined the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. Claire says she was attracted to the Good Sam way of life, prayer and lectio divina and, tellingly, their commitment to social justice.

As a Good Sam, Claire worked in youth ministry and on various justice issues including human trafficking. In 2007 she took a pivotal step by joining the Pacific Calling Partnership (PCP), a coalition of organisations working for climate justice for Australia’s Pacific neighbours. That year PCP chose Claire as a member of their delegation to the United Nations Climate Conference in Bali.

This was Claire’s introduction to the harsh realities of climate change. “When I first heard about climate change I was scared,” she says, “because our land is only two metres above sea level. What would happen if the sea rises? Where would we go?”

In 2009 PCP mentored Claire when she and two other Kiribati community workers, Pelenise Alofa and Toani Benson, founded the Kiribati Climate Action Network (KIRICAN), a NGO dedicated to climate justice.

Life took another turn when Claire left the Good Sams in 2010. She harbours no regrets believing “It was all God’s plan. The Sisters helped me become the woman I am today”.

Specifically, Claire says the Good Samaritan Sisters helped her name and harness her skills. “Before, I was a leader like a child, leading anyone who followed me. The Sisters helped me to reflect and identify my skills and to use them for good projects.”

Claire continued her work with PCP and focused her considerable energy on KIRICAN.

“Working for climate change isn’t only for Catholics,” says Claire. “It’s for everyone. So we invited many women leaders and church leaders – Protestants, Assembly of God, Mormans, Seven Day Adventists to join us. KIRICAN now has 31 groups.”

KIRICAN aims to target behaviour. Claire explains: “Before we ate pandanas and threw it away and it rotted. But now we have plastic and we throw that away without thinking. Plastic and [disposable] nappies are a real problem.

“I keep saying to our people that we will be flooded by rubbish before we are flooded by the sea.”

Claire and her KIRICAN team visit a local community and invite all the people to an entertainment featuring drama and songs about caring for the environment. “All people come and learn something. And then we have a clean-up.”

In 2010 and 2011 Claire attended the UN Climate Conferences in Cancun, Mexico and Durban, South Africa respectively. Various media outlets discovered that she was an engaging speaker able to communicate with passion and conviction Kiribati’s precarious position on the frontline of climate change catastrophe.

UNESCO invited Claire to speak about her work with KIRICAN at the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Nassau, the Bahamas in 2011. “There were lots of people there – all scientists,” explains Claire. “I’m the other side of the coin. I’m a community person from a very small island.”

In 2013 Claire was encouraged to apply for a position with the Kiribati Adaptation Program Phase III (KAP3), the objective of which is to improve the resilience of Kiribati to the impact of climate change on freshwater supply and coastal infrastructure.

Claire was acutely aware of her lack of formal qualifications but believes she was offered the job because of her experience.

One of the water engineers with whom Claire works in KAP3 is Good Samaritan Sister Marella Rebgetz. Marella has long been a mentor to Claire, helping her discern between the scientific basis of climate change and the plethora of misinformation that renders it a convenient scapegoat for various contemporary environmental issues in Kiribati. Activities such as haphazard rubbish disposal, unsafe burial practices and poor sanitation are having a critical impact on the freshwater supply.

Claire continues to learn new skills concerning accountability, record keeping and team work. “It’s amazing,” she acknowledges, “a Kiribati lady learning about these things. I’m so pleased to be part of a team.”

Claire’s life is full and rich. She has a partner, Tangaroa, and in 2013 she adopted Baneua, her sister’s two-month-old baby. “Baneua has given me motivation in life,” says Claire. I want to give her a good life and I want her to live in a clean and beautiful environment.”

There is another dream. Claire wants to work with other Kiribati women who entered the Good Samaritan Sisters but then left to pursue family life. “We have families now. I want to bring us back together to refresh the charism, and to see how we can share the Good Samaritan spirit within our families, communities and villages,” she says.

Claire’s ‘one wild and precious life’ continues to unfold. “I’m not a nun anymore,” she says, “but I’m still a Good Samaritan in some way or another, no matter what.”

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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