Everyone in the entire gymnasium stood and clapped. Sister Marilyn Lacey, RSM, had just told the graduates at this year’s Commencement to “Get Engaged, Get Lost, Get Gratitude.” She explained how her life opened to God’s flow when she stopped crossing things off her daily “to-do list” and stepped outside her comfort zone to help refugees. A consummate humanitarian and director of Mercy Beyond Borders, that day she earned a standing ovation along with her Honorary Doctorate degree. Here’s why.
In Sudan, a country ravaged by a decades-long civil war, Mercy Beyond Borders works to educate and empower women and girls. “They grow up thinking they’re worthless, only good for a dowry of cows,” Sister Marilyn says. Her greatest joy is when they suddenly become aware they have human dignity. She recalls one woman saying, “Even if you’re nobody, you’re still somebody.”
Her efforts to start literacy groups and fund schooling for girls who typically receive little or no education mean that 46 girls are now on school scholarships. Two have even gone on to college, representing the very first generation of Sudanese girls to do so. “I’d like that 46 to be 40,000,” she states firmly.
Lacey told the Saint Joseph’s graduates to pay attention. “Wherever you find yourself, God’s presence is always flowing … in hidden ways,” she said. “Open your heart a crack, take some chances ….We all can do something locally or globally … peace comes from acting as if we’re brothers and sisters.”
Lacey also takes on maternal and child health in Sudan, helping to raise money for remote medical clinics, health education and medicine. Her work echoes that of Sister Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of poor women and girls in Ireland. Indeed, Saint Joseph’s College, originally an all-women’s school, was founded in this tradition.
Lacey has added a third prong in her approach, by working to fund self-help microenterprises designed by refugee women returning to their home villages after the civil war. Mercy Beyond Borders stands with them to provide seed capital and basic business training.
No stranger to working with disenfranchised people, Lacey worked for 25 years to resettle refugees from all over the globe, particularly with Catholic Charities in San Jose, Calif. She wrote a book of reflections and stories about her experiences with refugees called This Flowing Toward Me: The Story of God Arriving In Strangers.
She travels to Sudan about three times a year to check on projects and find new partners with Sudanese and other African leaders, the Catholic diocese, schools, or women’s group. So far, she can’t bring American volunteers to Sudan because, though the civil war is over, everyone still has guns.
Lacey wants to spread the word about the work of her organization. If you’d like to reach her or find out more, go to www.Mercybeyondborders.org. She encourages people to sign up online for the monthly e-newsletter. And get engaged.
No matter what continent she’s on, Sister Lacey is a force of love to be reckoned with. And as we all know, the heart crosses all continents.