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Angela, a sister and a doctor: I embark because my life belongs to others

· Women's voices ·

Angela Bipendu during a rescue operation at sea

“My experience with immigrants was born from Pope Francis’ exhortation to come out of one’s own context to go and help wherever there is the greatest need. In listening to him I said to myself: I am a doctor, I can offer help to these people who are fleeing from wars in search of peace, because only where there is peace can there also be justice”. Sr Angela Bipendu, 46 years old, is Congolese. She has been living in Italy for 15 years, took her vows with the Discepole del Redentore and has spent the past three years beside those whom she calls “the lowliest of the lowliest”: refugees, those seeking asylum and migrants. “The earth belongs to everyone. Before God there are no refugees” she says. “We are all his children. Even though the first refugee was Jesus of Nazareth himself, who was obliged to flee with his family to Egypt”. Her tone of voice is an open door. It is the tone of someone whose ear is used to listening and who puts welcoming into practice without formality or ceremony, anchoring it to the essential: the common nature of human beings who live in the same world. “It was 2016, I set sail from Agrigento and went to Lampedusa without knowing what lay in store for me. I was afraid of the sea, I couldn’t swim, but I said: ‘Lord, here I am’. The Prophet Jeremiah at the moment when he received God’s call came to mind. The Lord insisted on sending him and Jeremiah said to him “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth”. I thought the same thing, even though I felt a force that drove me to take this step, I felt an extraordinary courage, as if had been told ‘it is you who must go’”.

This incentive led Sr Angela to leave her community and to embark on the Mediterranean: “I have made the sea my second home. Together with the health-care team of the Italian Relief Corps of the Order of Malta, on boats of the Italian coast guard, I discovered these people’s dramatic reality.

There are many stories, but Sr Angela remembers one in particular: “We were arriving on the open sea to rescue a rubber dinghy whose motor had broken down There was a woman, the mother of two little girls aged three and five. She had seen her daughters die and had buried them with her bare hands on the Libyan beach where they had been waiting to depart. She told us that they had died of the cold; it was 2 February 2017, the day dedicated to the consecrated life”. I shall never forget it, she said, “After an eight-hour crossing the woman was in deep distress and was inconsolable. I wondered, ‘what can I say to her?’. Everything seemed inappropriate. So I simply sat beside her, I stroked her, I did all I could to protect and console her”. That woman, like the others and like many men, had left Africa to flee from homicides, violence and abuse. “It is easy to say let’s help them in their homeland”, Sr Angela remarked, “but have we ever seen a mass mobilization or a concrete commitment from a Western country in order to be able to say “now we’ve done enough”? Never. True justice is not saying ‘Let’s help them in their own countries’, but rather consists of concrete actions”.

Action, for Sr Angela, is complementary to prayer. “The first thing”, she emphasizes, “is to have a motherly heart; to act with tenderness and understanding. We women are mothers even without physical motherhood. And the heart that God gave us is a mother’s heart. The Church must never tire of preaching the Gospel through our witnessing. She must encourage those who choose to leave their communities in order to evangelize in the midst of people. If I have the gift of treating people which God freely gave me, why should I not share it just as freely with those in need of it? It is not always easy to understand why a woman religious should embark on the sea, some people think it is inappropriate. I accept this idea but I feel I must do something different, because my life as a religious is not mine but belongs to others”.

Tullia Fabiani

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Sept. 18, 2019

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