I have worked on the African continent for most of my adult life – almost 40 years – and have visited at least a dozen countries on all five continents in the past six years as President of the Maryknoll Sisters. Although I have this vast international experience – Pittsburgh will always be my home. It has shaped me and formed my vision of a world where no one is hungry, homeless or jobless and where all have enough.
Near the corner of Penn Avenue and Atlantic was St. Lawrence O’Toole church and school, which I attended for 12 years. Pittsburgh has undergone a radical transformation from the smoky steel capital of my childhood to the cultural, medical and educational center that it has become today but its ethnic diversity and working class pride have endured. The values instilled in me then continue to guide and excite me many years later.
My parents, Paul McLaughlin and Mary Louise Schaub, taught me and my sister Mary Ellen to treat all people as equals – from a street cleaner to the President. This has served me well as I have worked in refugee camps, poor townships and in the office of the President of Zimbabwe. As you heard, I also spent some time in prison in Rhodesia, where I made friends with my guards as well as with the other prisoners.
This was a lesson I learned early in life – to respect all people and treat them the same. It was no wonder that I became involved in the civil rights movement here at home and went on to support liberation from colonial rule in Southern Africa.
The Dominican Sisters from Columbus, Ohio, now Dominican Sisters of Peace, who taught me for 13 years, instilled in me a strong sense of justice and concern for the weak and vulnerable in society. In high school, we helped out several afternoons a week at the home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor that was directly across from our school. I learned then that poverty and inequality were right in my own backyard.
The Thomas Merton Center (that nominated me for this Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania award) was also right in my own backyard (on Penn Avenue). The staff connected with me when I was deported from Rhodesia in 1977 and we have remained kindred spirits ever since – together with the Association of Pittsburgh Priests. They are the missionaries here at home, bringing the message of peace, justice and equality for all to the people of Pittsburgh, while I carry the message to the African continent as a Maryknoll Sister.
Sometimes this message can be unsettling and make people uncomfortable. When I supported majority rule in Southern Africa, it made the government of Ian Smith so uncomfortable that they deported me – back to Pittsburgh.
When I was home again, I lobbied against steel companies in Pittsburgh that were violating international sanctions against Rhodesia by doing business there. I began to get hate mail and threatening phone messages. One day my mother looked at me and said, “You better go back to Africa. When you speak out against injustice there, you are a hero. When you speak out against injustice here, you are just a troublemaker!” A mother’s wisdom spoke deep truth.
Here in the United States, we see so many frightening and depressing images of Africa. The media captures stories and photos of the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the kidnapping of school girls in northern Nigeria, and the hijacking of freighters by pirates off the coast of Somalia. These tragedies make headlines but are only a small sliver of the reality.
There is another face of Africa that we rarely see – a dynamic continent of creative and resilient people who are full of faith in God and hope in the future. They are empowered by a belief in ‘ubuntu,’ a philosophy of life that holds that all people are connected with one another and that your destiny is related to mine. Relationships and a sense of family are at the heart of their joy and their ability to overcome problems.
I lived through many changes on the African continent – from the oppression of colonialism, through liberation wars that have left behind a legacy of violence, to the heady days of independence when it seemed that anything was possible. Today the continent struggles to find a new identity that honors the past while embracing a better future for all.
The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many names for God. My favorite is Chipindikure – The One Who Turns Things Upside Down. It sums up my experience. This transformation, and sometimes uncomfortable uprooting from the familiar, has been the essence of my life. I think I have been able to embrace many changes because I am rooted in the love of family, friends and my Maryknoll community. Maryknoll opened the doors of the world to me – but no matter how far I have wandered, I knew I could always come home to Pittsburgh and find a loving welcome.
I accept this award on behalf of all the wonderful people who have loved me, formed me and encouraged me – in Pittsburgh, Kenya, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and around the world. Thank you.