Maryknoll, NY — Many years ago, when she was only a toddler, A.D.: The Bible Continues star Chipo Chung was living with her mother, Fay, at a camp for Zimbabwean refugees in Mozambique. That’s where they met Sister Janice McLaughlin, MM, a journalist who had come to Africa, Chung says, “to work in solidarity with the liberation movement…. She worked as a journalist, speaking truth to power against the apartheid regime, and she was arrested for this.” (Sister Janice’s reports for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace about the atrocities of Ian Smith’s forces during the liberation war led to her arrest and deportation from then Rhodesia in 1977.)
Sister Janice and Chipo’s mother formed a deep bond, both working and living together, and Sister Janice helping to raise the young Chipo, as well as working alongside her mother at the camp. The relationship continues to this day, and conversations on theology with Sister Janice helped Chipo prepare for her role as Mary Magdalene on the NBC series, which airs Sundays through June 21, 2015, nationwide.
“Fay recruited me to teach a class in journalism to the trainee teachers (at the camp),” Sister Janice recalled of her initial contact with Chipo and her mother in 1979, “and we produced a camp newsletter.” When independence finally came for their homeland in 1980, the refugees, including the Chungs, returned to Zimbabwe, and Sister Janice went with them, accepting Fay’s invitation to live with her and Chipo, since there were no other Maryknoll Sisters in the country at the time. “They more or less adopted me and I was a part of the extended family,” Sister Janice said. “Fay, Chipo and I would visit our friends from the camps on weekends. I taught Chipo how to make peanut butter cookies. We went swimming in a nearby public pool, et cetera. We had lots of fun together. When Chipo decided to become a Catholic, I was her godmother.”
“My mother was very clever in selecting my godparents,” Chipo recalls, “my granduncle, Garvin, who was extremely devout and the patriarch of my Chinese family, and Sister Janice who was far more flexible and approachable. My godparents were also good friends with each other and were a fine balance of masculine discipline and feminine creativity.
“Janice had already been a second mother to me,” Chipo added, “and had helped raise me. She was not a godparent who disappeared. She was very present as a fun part of my family. It’s been wonderful to have her as a resource while doing my current job as Mary Magdalene and to have theological discussions as adults. She and the Maryknoll Sisters and always encouraged me that Catholicism is a dynamic, living and evolving spiritual philosophy. Playing Mary Magdalene, I have often thought of Janice and the Maryknoll Sisters. The early Christian suffered such dangers and were at the frontline of persecution. In our story, there were many refugees coming to the camp to escape the violence in Jerusalem. I thought of the work my mother and Janice did in the camps while we were filming. Women have always been present, binding the community, finding food, clothing, shelter for those in need, making sure the children have someone watching them, identifying the ones who are most in need, and this is what my character was doing during Episodes 3-6 of AD: The Bible Continues.”
“Although this storyline is made up, it does have some truth to it: women like the Maryknoll Sisters have gone out in times of war and put themselves at risk. Perhaps the fact that they were women made it easier for them to infiltrate risky territories, but this does not undermine the absolute courage this kind of work takes and the threat to their lives. There’s so much to learn from women and how they work through conflict and the Maryknoll Sisters are certainly part of this.
In a post on her Facebook page May 18 which shared news of Maryknoll’s two-day celebration of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s beatification on May 22-23, 2015 at Maryknoll, Chung reflected on the murders of two other Maryknoll Sisters, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, who were killed, again for their solidarity work, this time in El Salvador in 1980, along with other missionaries following the leadership of Archbishop Romero. “They were providing food and shelter to those affected by the civil war,” Chung recounted, and “are amongst the 75,000 El Salvadorians murdered in the conflict. Respect to the great work of these sisters as they celebrate the Beatification of Archbishop Romero, and remember his bravery in the face of violence and hate. Love always, never hate,” she added.
Sister Janice beams with pride as she considers the success of her godchild. “I have watched Chipo grow up and become a very talented and intelligent actress. She has researched widely for the role of Mary Magdalene, reading many of the feminist theologians such as Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault to understand better the role of women in the early church. I am extremely proud of her and hope the NBC series will be a success.” If it is, a second season will be produced.
Founded in 1912, Maryknoll Sisters is the first US-based congregation of women religious dedicated to foreign mission. Working primarily among the poor and marginalized in 24 countries around the world, they now number 458 members from both the US and overseas.