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Faith Matters

Paid in full - with a glass of cold milk

Compassion must be put into action, says Sister Deirdre Mullan, who says young children can teach all of us important lessons

Irish schoolchildren helped provide uniforms for these pupils in Sub-Saharan Africa
Deirdre Mullan RSM

IN a world gone crazy and intent on self-destruction, and with some of us continuing to harm each other and Earth itself, it is so easy to become disheartened and disillusioned.

If you are like me, sometimes our television and newspapers can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

It is good, therefore, to remember from time to time that there is another world out there.

I feel doubly blessed that my work takes me into classrooms and colleges in various parts of the world, where I have the opportunity to interact with young minds and hearts full of life, goodness and so much eagerness to make a difference.

The main focus of my work is helping to build bridges between the developed and developing worlds and to make small connections, which provide life-changing opportunities on all sides.

The longer I live, the more convinced I am of the interconnectedness of everything and how often our help and courage comes from the most unexpected places.

I am blessed to have many examples of this, but one in particular stands out for me.

Several years ago, in an effort to refocus Confirmation away from just an opportunity to have new clothes and a family meal together, I was invited by Fr Kieran and Sister Nuala to speak about my work to the children of St Mary's National School and Dooish National School in Ballybofey, Co Donegal.

The teachers in both schools had prepared the children well. However, there was a felt need to invite the children to understand that faith is bound to action.

This year, as in past years, sixth class in both schools took the Confirmation Pledge, which involved making a voluntary contribution to buy a school uniform - costing €10 - for a child in a school in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This year, the children's contribution will purchase 137 school uniforms,

When I visited the schools recently, the students were delighted with their efforts, and to help them understand how we never know when our good deeds will come to repay us, I shared this true story, which I hope will also fill you with hope in these difficult times.

The longer I live, the more convinced I am of the interconnectedness of everything and how often our help and courage comes from the most unexpected places 

Eduardo was a child of migrant workers and so most of his early life was spent travelling from one place to another as the fruit-picking seasons dictated.

As a result, Eduardo missed large chunks of schooling. His salvation was that he was a dreamer and he believed that he could - and would - go to university.

One day, in a hot, arid Californian summer, Eduardo found himself very hungry and very thirsty.

He decided to knock on the door of one of the big mansion houses near where his parents were fruit-picking and ask to do any small job in exchange for a sandwich.

His courage left him, however, when a beautiful young woman opened the door and so he asked instead for a drink of water.

The young woman returned a few minutes later with a large glass of cold milk. Eduardo drank it thirstily and left the house, his belief in basic human decency restored.

Years later, after many struggles and much personal determination, Eduardo graduated from university and was working in a large teaching hospital. He had studied hard and was on an upward track as a successful doctor.

One morning, on a shift around the ward, he came across a middle-aged woman who had been transferred to his hospital with a life-threatening condition.

He looked at her notes and her treatment began. After many months and good medication, the woman was ready to return home. She feared, however, the large medical bill she would receive and wondered how she would manage to pay.

Eduardo had instructed the finance clerk to come to his office before giving the woman her bill.

He took it, wrote something on it and replaced it in the envelope. When the woman received the bill, she opened it with some trepidation and found written on the side: ''Paid in full with a glass of cold milk."

Their paths had crossed again. The fruit-pickers' child had become a renowned physician who never forgot the kindness a young woman had shown to him as a child.

Indeed, more than anything, this story is another way of expressing the golden rule given to us by the carpenter of Nazareth, who told us: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

The schoolchildren to whom I have told it loved this story, and also understand that it is not enough to be compassionate. We must also act.

  • Deirdre Mullan RSM is a Sister of Mercy from Derry and works at the United Nations in New York, where she is active in girls' education.

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