August 2015

To be changed forever

The transformative effect of immersion trips has been well documented. Quite simply – people are changed by the experience. Immersion is an encounter of the heart, the mind and the spirit, writes Monica Dutton.

BY Monica Dutton

This is the wallpaper on my iPhone – has been for many years now. I keep it because it is a reminder of something else – something much more important than an iPhone.

The colourful, shambolic disarray in the photo indicates the excited rush of little ones eager to get inside. They need to take off their shoes before entering the house – and do so in such a hurry that their sandals end up in a chaotic rainbow heap.

The children are excitedly looking forward to joining a Scripture class in the Boulevard, just outside City Heights, Bacolod in The Philippines. There they gather each week for songs, prayers, scripture readings, a small treat and the love the Sisters of the Good Samaritan have for each and every one of them. To witness this joy is to be changed forever.

It is said that when we know someone else’s story, we cannot help but love them. When we don’t know their story, it is very easy to mount a fear campaign. The Australian government has managed this very effectively in recent years. By turning back the boats, the people of Australia do not ever get to know the stories of the people we turn away.

“They” are all terrorists. “They” are coming to take our jobs. “They” will overrun our country. The fact is, “they” are anonymous, faceless and voiceless people. We do not know their story. We never will know their story while they continue to be “resettled” on Manus Island and Nauru.

The recent screening of series three of Go Back to Where You Came From on SBS, looks at the stories of refugees and asylum seekers on a very personal level. Participants in the documentary visit refugees in their homes in Australia, and then go back to where the refugees have come from to meet their families, live in their communities and come to some understanding of what caused them to flee their country. Essentially, the aim is to learn about and come to know the stories of these people.

For some of the documentary’s participants, immersion in the stories and culture of the refugees and their families is a profound and life-changing experience. In her own words, Jodi changed in a very short time-frame from being ignorant, superficial and apathetic to an informed, passionate advocate for justice, who now considers some of the Rohingya people to be among her closest friends.

Jodi’s story is not uncommon. The transformative effect of immersion trips has been well documented. Quite simply – people are changed by the experience. Immersion is an encounter of the heart, the mind and the spirit. It provides an opportunity to refocus – a counterpoint for how people view the world and their place in it. An immersion is not a vacation. It is about engaging with people in cultures different from our own and being a part of the local community, rather than just passing through it – of being on the inside rather than the outside.

Immersion provides an authentic experience of encounter and engagement with another culture which can be uncomfortable, confronting and challenging. Many participants speak of a “moment” during their immersion – a “light-bulb” experience, which causes a fundamental shift in their outlook. If they are open to being changed by that moment, it is not possible to go back to the way they were before, and they can never see the world in quite the same way again. It causes them to “re-place” themselves in the world.

Authentic immersion experiences are deeply relational. They involve real people, real communities and real stories. They are about understanding and experiencing first-hand what life is like for another person. They are about listening and learning. Immersions are not so much about walking in someone else’s shoes – but rather walking with, or walking beside the other. They are about coming to know someone else’s story – and becoming a part of each other’s story.

As well as an attitudinal shift, immersion experiences can awaken and enliven the spirit. Involvement in the richness and diversity of the Catholic tradition in another cultural setting provides a global picture of Church. Witnessing the compassion, mission and ministry of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan across a range of communities is to see the parable in action in a twenty-first century context.

Immersion experiences can also provide a way to reconnect with personal spirituality through participation in a liberating expression of faith and life. There are times of stillness, reflection and peace which invite the presence of God. There is also a restorative dimension – a sense of hope, joy and beauty of spirit; and often a recognition and a yearning for something we have lost.

Immersion experiences provide an opportunity for people to pause, to take stock and to re-evaluate. Participants are commonly quite unsettled after they return home, until they are able to make some sense of their experience and what it means for their lives.

In the long-term, many speak of reconnecting to their immersion experience in later years, to inform decisions made in their personal and professional lives. They have been humbled by the privilege of encountering difference, and feel impelled to make a difference in their own time and place after they return. There are often intentional and purposeful reminders in their daily lives which can immediately take them back to their experience.

My iPhone wallpaper is such a reminder. It tells a story – I have no intention of changing it. It takes me back to an experience of another world, another time, another place – one I am now inextricably connected to. It is a part of my story, a part of who I am. It keeps me grounded.

Monica Dutton

Monica Dutton has a background in education and has been working with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan for more than 20 years. She currently holds the position of Spirituality and Mission Animation Leader for the Congregation.

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