Change and transformation are often used interchangeably.1
When we understand the profound difference between change and transformation, we ask different questions and are open to alternate approaches. Transformation is not just about looking different; it is about being different and behaving differently. Change fixes the past and change can change back. Transformation is about acting today to create a future tomorrow—a future that can be realized only when we free ourselves from the constraints of the past and create ways to bring about a desired future. The butterfly is a transformation, not a better caterpillar. Transformation is permanent; there is no going back.
I would like to share with you three stories. They involve different generations; different geographies and different influences. However, I believe there are striking themes across all three that can be useful in our understanding of transformed person... transformed society.
My first is about Judith Odero, now 34, who attended St. Theresa’s Gekano Girls School in Kisii, Kenya, founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, my own religious congregation. Judith came from an impoverished family of seven and her parents could not afford school for all of the children. The two boys were given first priority. She feared dropping out of school because she could easily become a victim of early marriage and not realize her dream of becoming a teacher. The sisters visited her home, 60 kilometers away from the school, and determined that she needed financial support to continue studying.
They waived her school fees. Although, they could not have imagined the impact of educating that one student, the School Sisters of Notre Dame were founded on the premise that educating women would transform the world. Judith always wanted to be a teacher, and the offer of a scholarship, combined with the school motto, “Enter to learn, learn to serve,” inspired her to work with disadvantaged children.
She went on to attend the Migori Teachers Training College in Western Kenya and now has founded her own school for children in Mathare, the second largest slum in Nairobi, where survival is a daily battle. She felt their struggles and knew they had the potential and interest to learn, but no support. She started Destiny Junior Education Centre in 2013, armed with only an idea and a passion. In three years, the number of pupils attending kindergarten through eighth grade has grown to 400.
Conrad Nicholson Hilton
The second story is about Conrad Nicholson Hilton, who began his life in a humble setting in San Antonio, New Mexico, in the United States. His mother was a devout Catholic and Conrad attended religious instruction taught by the Sisters of Loretto. During his free time, as a young boy, he would visit the Loretto Convent and help with chores and became a great admirer and advocate of the sisters.
As a successful businessman and entrepreneur, establishing the international chain of Hilton hotels, he maintained devoted relationships with many Catholic sisters worldwide. He saw them laboring in poor and developing countries, where they tend the sick, educate the children and advocate for improved living conditions for all. As a good businessman, he always knew that a dollar invested with the sisters would pay dividends many times over – helping the greatest number of disadvantaged people. He passed away in 1979 and the bulk of his estate was left to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which today has an endowment worth approximately $3 Billion and gives away $120 Million annually to improve the lives of the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Conrad’s mantra, which has been passed on to the Foundation, is “Think Big; Dream Big; Act Big.”
Sr. Rosemarie Nassif
The third story is my own. I was born the oldest of four children into a Lebanese American family in St. Louis, Missouri. My father was a tradesman – a barber. Both my parents ingrained in my siblings and I three values that were the root and foundation of our lives: faith, family and education. Although neither my father nor mother attended college, there was a family rule that had no exception that each of their children will go to college.
At age 17, I decided to enter the convent and become a Catholic Sister, to my parents’ dismay. They were concerned about all I was giving up. I never thought of my decision as “giving up,” but rather giving my life away to a God that I intimately and deeply trusted. Instead of my world getting smaller, it kept getting bigger and bigger. I’ve earned a PhD in physical chemistry, been president of two universities, sat across the table from the US Secretary of Education to advise him on college completion and affordability, as well as served on the boards of banks and a mutual fund. At the Conrad Hilton Foundation, I am responsible for granting over $20 Million each year in support of Catholic Sisters and Catholic schools. I’ve been touched and transformed by the lives of people in 12 countries, six of them and, soon to be seven, in Africa. Not at all what one would call “giving up.”
Themes of Transformation
Are there themes related to transformation across these three stories? I invite you to ponder your own, but I would like to suggest three.
The first is “Know yourself” and a corollary of that is to know the God to whom you relate and who continually calls you to be your best self. Whatever your religion, however you know God, maintain your self-awareness through a life of contemplation— seeing yourself as God sees you. Contemplation instills in us the ability to be self-critical and totally honest, realizing that we are part of the story and we all need each other. Conrad Hilton prayed every day, without fail, both when his business was failing and when his business was thriving. Know yourself with a deep sense of both overwhelming gratitude and profound humility.
The second is “Give yourself away – for something or someone.” It’s the only thing that really matters.It will make your life bigger and richer than you could ever imagine. In Africa, there is a profound understanding of community. What happens to me and within my own self is directly related to society, and what happens to society affects me. Our duty is not only to put forth our best efforts on behalf of society.
Our duty is also to allow society to transform our own selves: to break our hearts when we see injustice and suffering, and to fill us with joy when we see beauty and kindness. Judith Odero had little, but she had the power of education. She gave away her entire self so that others who had less could share in her riches. Judith made a positive difference in the lives of others, and they made a positive difference in her.
The third is “Live your passion.” It’s your passion that will never allow you to settle for change; it drives your vision, dreams, actions to transformation. To some degree, it places you in the camp of the “unreasonable.” Reasonable people adapt to the world. The unreasonable persists in adapting the world to a bigger vision. Passionate people are recognized by their enthusiasm, their resilience and their sense of hope. Archbishop Tutu once stated that he is not an optimist. Optimism is wobbly. Rather, he is a prisoner of hope. Transformed persons and transformed societies are prisoners of hope.
Taken from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) 34th Graduation – October 2016 booklet
1Lynn M. Levo, CSJ – Becoming a Transforming Presence: Insights from the Dark Night, (The Occasional Papers, Vol. 45, Number 2, p. 3). Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Summer 2016.
Photo taken by Rose Achiego, Global Sisters Report, August 2016.