How I let go of old ideas

By Aquilla Peterson, S.H.C.J. My choice to enter religious life was not only about ministry or being part of a group, but more about a conversion to thinking about things differently, to throwing whatever gifts I may have into the ring to help foster the reign of God.

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I was born and raised Catholic, the fourth of five children, with some years of parochial education. I had tremendous faith in God and a great devotion to Saint Teresa of Ávila and the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, when I graduated from high school and went off to Penn State, any dreams or aspirations I had changed radically.

With protests against the war in Vietnam, the Black Power movement, and too much partying, campus life was in constant disarray. My own life mirrored this turmoil and was characterized by fear, chaos, and confusion. My antidote for all that was wrong in the world and in myself was to drink. Toward graduation and after, I became aware of a vast emptiness in my life, a futile quest for happiness without purpose. In 1986, when my mother succumbed to cancer, any hope I had seemed to die with her. She was the person who knew me best and had supported me throughout my life. After a particularly bad Christmas and New Year’s following her death, I hit bottom. My health had deteriorated, I was alienated from family and friends, and most of all I had lost my God.

It was in this dark place that I sought help and was able to experience a personal revelation of God and self. With help came a new awareness and a desire to turn my will and life over to God’s care. Hope took on a new dimension for me. I began to pray again, and eventually my life began to change for the better, going in directions I never dreamt possible. I accepted the events of my past life as gifts of growth and was eager to begin anew.

Helping others in God’s name
I eventually pursued a master’s degree in social work at Bryn Mawr College in order to challenge myself and to strengthen my skills in working with the mentally ill.

Ministering to the mentally ill helped me to experience the presence of God more clearly. What I discovered was that Jesus was among them, that he came into the world not as a rich and powerful person but as someone poor and powerless. Most of my clients were former patients of the state hospital system, the abandoned and the forgotten.

One man, Greg, was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. After stabbing a woman and a dog during a psychotic episode, he spent 13 years in the forensic unit of the hospital, where patients who have been charged with violent crimes live. As I began to know Greg, I discovered a good person who had suffered much in his life but never lost hope. Talking to him daily one-on-one and giving him his medications created a bond between us and became a time of quiet intimacy. I found joy in knowing the confidence and trust he placed in my care. Three years later he is still stable, living and working in the community.

My ministry became one of helping others in God’s name. I could well appreciate the value of human suffering, and perhaps it was this paradox of being able to identify with others’ pain that enabled me to reach out and connect with the part of them that was still hurting.

At this time of my life I felt things were going pretty well, and the future seemed to hold even more promise. One day in late December I hesitantly went to church after a long absence. I got on my knees. As I began praying and meditating on God’s will, I heard in my heart the words, “You are mine.”

A great peace came over me, and I cried in gratitude for all I had been given. Deep joy and trust welled up in me, and the impression left me with no room for doubt that I was to continue a life of service, but service combined with faith. It was then that I began to consider the possibility of religious life.

But the thought of giving up the life I knew was overwhelming. It was not the poverty or living simply that I feared but the idea of obedience. For a number of years my life had been my own. I was quite independent in most things. Nevertheless the thought of life as a sister continued to haunt me. I would secretly read materials about religious life and what it entailed. I went through various stages of affiliations with different religious orders, but the desire to be a regular member never went away until I finally said yes. After many years of bargaining with God for one thing or another, my unconditional yes was given with great joy.

I first met my religious community at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and then again at a diocesan “life awareness” weekend. I reconnected with the community’s vocation director and began meeting weekly with her while I was working. I also started spiritual direction during this time to develop more fully my prayer life and to further discern what God was calling me to. This entailed meeting regularly with a person specially trained to provide spiritual guidance.

As I began to get to know women of this community through retreats, prayer groups, and other activities, I was impressed with their prayerfulness and work. I saw them as people focused not only on good works but also on taking their prayer life seriously. After participating in their activities and getting to know them, I asked the community if I could begin “candidacy,” a sort of trial period of eight months. During that time I lived with the sisters in community but kept my job. I could see who they were up close, and they could do the same with me. The next phase, the novitiate, was my more formal entry to religious life. It was now time to say good-bye to my job.

Appreciating the differences
The first year of novitiate was quiet. I focused on spiritual training in the history and “charism” (or spirit) of the order, as well as on taking classes in theology. As I write this I am in my second year of novitiate, ministering in the Dominican Republic. I am working with Haitian children who have come with their families to live and work in a “Batey,” a sugar plantation camp.

I came as part of a team of young women who are volunteers in a program my community sponsors. My task is to reinforce what the children are being taught in school, through homework help and instruction when necessary.

Living in the Dominican Republic and working with Haitians has challenged me to examine my own racism and acceptance of difference. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that things are not as simple as they seem on the surface. I’ve had to relearn everyday habits. And I cope with erratic distribution of water (which we get two or three days a week) as well as make do with sporadic electricity. Given all these differences, I wondered if there would ever be time to be of service to others. The smells, food, and language were even greater challenges. But with time and effort, I grew to appreciate much of Dominican culture.

Later I would wonder if my initial reluctance and even repulsion to aspects of life here was akin to what some of my religious community might have felt upon my joining them. I certainly come with a full share of differences, although they may not be as radical as the differences I encountered in Latin America.

Being the first African American in this congregation, I knew realistically that I would experience prejudice, if only of a subtle nature. What has come up at times is an assumption that “we” are all alike, when in reality there are as many differences as there are similarities. If we are going to be joined together successfully in community, all of our cultures have to be acknowledged, accepted, and celebrated.

Other forms of prejudice tend to be elusive: an insensitive remark here and there, uncomfortable avoidance, an intolerance of difference. All these can contribute to walls that divide. My hope is that as a community we’ll continue to seek creative solutions to help eradicate prejudice and racism among ourselves and in the world.

For my part, I know I will return from this Latin American experience knowing more about poverty and with a greater realization that we are all called to pay attention to the struggles of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. It has been an honor to be invited to share in the lives of the people in the Batey.

My choice to enter religious life was not only about ministry or being part of a group, but more about a conversion to thinking about things differently, to throwing whatever gifts I may have into the ring to help foster the reign of God. Having made my decision, I have no regrets. I feel at peace that this life is the right choice for me.
Sr. Aquilla Peterson
Sr. Aquilla Peterson passed away in 2010 from Lung cancer. She took her final vows in 2004 with the Sisters of the Holy Child of Jesus. For all of her adult life, Sr. Aquilla was a mental health worker. Ministering to the mentally ill helped her to see the presence of God more clearly and she said that her ministry became one of helping others in God’s name.

2005 © TrueQuest Communications

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