A Global Perspective: Sister Nancy Schramm on Integrating Life and Faith

By Gabrielle DeFord ’11 M.A.R.

Living in community with the dispossessed lies at the heart of Sister Nancy Schramm’s ministry. For 31 years she has been in Belem, Brazil, a city in the rain forest at the mouth of the Amazon River. In Portuguese, Belem means Bethlehem, and it is the capital of the state of Para. During the last full week of September, Schramm joined the Yale Divinity School community, sharing her experiences at classes, chapel, meals and chats in between. Her time on campus as a “global visitor” was sponsored by a Jessie Ball duPont Fund grant awarded to YDS to encourage new ministry initiatives in a changing world.

A native of Illinois, Schramm is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The order’s ministry in Belem follows a liberation theology approach that decentralized the parish there in favor of greater integration with people in base communities. Over 60 of these communities exist in the slums of the North, 25 on the islands surrounding the city.  The mission of the base communities, Schramm says, “is to transform society by living where you are, recognizing the elements that impede the kingdom of God and working to transform them.” Together, the communities first struggled against dictatorship and the military police. More recently, they have turned to combating drug addiction, violence, poverty and environmental depredations.

SchrammAfter 15 years working with youth in these communities, Schramm turned to working in spiritual formation with lay people, seeking to empower people in their faith and in struggles against injustice. “The movement between personal moments of cultivating a relationship with God and being in ministry in a community is like being in a spiral, and each feeds each other,” said Schramm.  “A personal relationship with God and community relationships and struggling for a better society are all interwoven.”

At one brown-bag discussion session with students during the week, Schramm shared the floor with Bob Sackel, a leader in the L’Arche movement, which supports family-like homes where people with and without disabilities share their lives together.  Together they described the visions and experiences of their respective faith communities.

L’Arche communities are also of Roman Catholic origin and center on fostering relationships between those with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. From its beginnings in France in 1964, L’Arche has grown to encompass 131 communities in more than 30 different countries. They, like the base communities of Belem, are integrated in the culture of the local population and take similar approaches to pressing societal and personal needs.

In L’Arche, people with disabilities are accompanied as little or as much as they need through every step of the day. In the base communities, people are viewed as protagonists of their own stories and are also accompanied. Shared meals, prayers, rituals and other shared aspects of day-to-day life help community members bond. “It’s a very simple, very ordinary life, but there’s a depth to it,” Sackel said in describing L’Arche. “The mission of L’Arche is to reveal the giftedness of people with a developmental disability.  The therapy is long-term, based on relationships, a sense of belonging and a sense of home. Loneliness is the great disability and genuine, sincere, honest friendships are the way to heal. People who come are often disturbed and angry, but when they start to participate, you start to see a transformation. As we live in mutuality everyone starts to grow and change. This is an inward journey as well as a relational journey.”  One of Yale Divinity School’s most well known professors, Henri Nouwen, who taught at YDS in the 1970s, was deeply involved with L’Arche.

In the base communities, Schramm reported, people also help each other have moments of transformation, which they call conversion, though the process is complex and slow. She sees it as planting seeds for the next generations, so that society’s disenfranchised can feel the impact of justice in the face of violence.

SchrammSchramm’s next step will bring her back to the United States in April. Her order has chosen her as one of four council members to support their Mother Superior. Where once members of her order may have wondered how someone so far away as Brazil could understand the issues confronting them in the United States, they now appreciate the perspective she brings.  In particular, there is a growing awareness of different cultures, and the order has lately welcomed more Philippine, Mexican, and African members. Schramm’s task as a council member, she says, will be to encourage members of her order to “go live the emerging newness of God.”

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund grant that sponsored Schramm’s visit is providing various opportunities for YDS to explore the understanding of ministry in the new century. From its start in 2008, the $250,000 grant has three main thrusts over its three-year period: to enhance the Leadership In Public Ministry program, to map where all the churches in New Haven are and document what they are doing, and to support curricular innovations and focused engagements. It is hoped that the mapping program will encourage new relationships and community possibilities in years to come. Meanwhile, the innovations and engagements part will continue to sponsor key visits, make possible extracurricular activities that expand on classroom learning, and support the Common Book Project—in which the entering class is given a free copy of a book relating to social ministry, followed by a session with the author of the book.