Commencement speaker brings global perspective

Mercy's ministry of advocacy at the United Nations

Sr. Deirdre Mullan

Sr. Deirdre Mullan, R.S.M., director of Mercy Global Concern at the United Nations, says technology makes the world small, but fear sets people apart. Just this year, she witnessed her troubled homeland of Northern Ireland begin to share power between Catholics and Protestants – an event she calls magical.

Growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland, Sister Deirdre Mullan, R.S.M., says she quickly learned what hatred can do. As a means to mutual understanding, she pursued education and taught school in her hometown, called Londonderry by the British. Although she ultimately earned a doctorate and taught at Thornhill College for many years, she's been the director of Mercy Global Concern at the United Nations since 2001, arriving in New York City two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center. She found a worried, sad and angry city - and felt right at home.

"The 9/11 attacks were another lesson in hatred, in demonizing humans as ‘other,'" she says. A key part of Mullan's job at the United Nations, along with members of other nongovernmental organizations there, is to promote human solidarity and dignity, often by championing the rights of the disenfranchised - poor people throughout the world or victims of rape used as a weapon of war, for example.

"It's a ministry of advocacy," she states. Though traditionally emphasizing hands-on service, Sisters of Mercy are now beginning "to demand answers to broken promises."

For example, a Sister working in a Third World country will e-mail her: "Where is the U.N. aid that's supposed to be here? We're not seeing it on the ground." She works closely with Unicef (UN Children's Fund) and Unifem (UN Development Fund for Women) to help make sure their operations are reaching people effectively.

Mullan, 52, says the United Nations is where the world's heartbeat is monitored. "People think of the Security Council ... but we need to look beyond that post-World War II model," she says. Despite some red tape and bureaucracy, she believes the organization has done "amazing things" - like helping to end polio and apartheid, getting rid of land mines and dealing with the AIDS pandemic.

This woman who goes to work every day "with a dance in my step" has become a global citizen. In her travels across six continents, she has seen unbelievable poverty. She recalls a Sister in Cambodia who was begging for money to build a simple school. Mullan used her Mercy connections in Ireland to find donors. The web of support spread and, within eight months, a small school was built.

Recalling an old African proverb, she says, "When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion." In this case, the lion is poverty.

Mullan has learned to network and build relationships with the other missions at the United Nations. For example, she recently asked the ambassador of Kenya to investigate rumors of girls being sold as sex slaves in Nairobi.

She says the biggest challenge for her and for everyone is confronting nationalism. "You have to be prepared to see things differently," she says. "When you learn about another culture, you learn to think differently."

Can the United Nations be an effective force in the world? She admits it's sometimes paralyzed by nationalistic governments. "It needs a rapid response force answerable to the Secretary General, not to political leaders," she says.

But Mullan believes that if Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, were alive today, she'd be at the United Nations networking on behalf of the poor. Like Catherine McAuley, she seems charged with the drive to get things done: ridding the world of hunger by 2015, asking the right questions of political leaders and candidates - and not sitting down.

In her commencement speech, she told the Saint Joseph's graduates, "It's not enough to be compassionate, we must act."

- by Charmaine Daniels