By: Sr. Colleen Gibson SSJ

A group picture of participants in the program, which ran from September 9-20, 2017. The cohort came from 15 countries and 14 different congregations of Sisters of St. Joseph.When I arrived in LePuy, France, this past September, I didn't quite know what awaited me. A call had come in June inviting me to take part in a program at the International Centre focused on intercultural dialogue and non-violent communication with other younger Sisters of Saint Joseph from around the world. My answer, even on short notice, was, of course, "Yes."

As with many commitments in our lives, though, it was hard to imagine where that "yes" would lead me.

The 10-day workshop designed and implemented by the Global Coordinating Group of the Sisters of Saint Joseph was funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The workshop was designed to provide training and formation in areas seen as essential to living religious life into the future — primarily how to live in an intercultural world and how to manage and facilitate conflict resolution.

Arriving in LePuy for the workshop, I joined 24 sisters who were either in initial formation or recently finally professed. This group, along with our teachers and interpreters, would become a sacred sisterhood during our time together.

Celebrating their accomplishments: Sr. Colleen and her English speaking table group celebrate winning an "Oscar" for their acting skills during the workshopThe diversity of our membership was an integral part of our learning, both formally through various learning processes and informally in the experiences, conversations, and interactions we shared. We came from 15 different countries and a total of 14 different congregations from around the world.

Classes, which ran from nine in the morning until sometimes as late as nine at night when we had cultural showcases, were given in/ translated into four official languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English), but at meals and when we toured the city, we were left to our own creative devices to communicate.

This made us stronger in the process, bringing with it valuable lessons about what it means to include the one on the margins, what it feels like to be misunderstood, and how to step out of your own comfort zone for the good of the whole. Sometimes I would find myself listening in French, roughly translating into English, and passing that translation on to someone who'd speak Spanish for those who couldn't understand. It was a humbling experience, requiring patience, perseverance, a healthy dose of humor and lots of hand motions.

In the classroom, we were seated according to language groups. This allowed for deeper reflection on a small group level, and then interpretation was provided for large group feedback. Among those who spoke English, the three sisters from the United States, one sister from Canada, and eight sisters from India were divided between two tables.

Sisters Erin McDonald (Congregation of St. Joseph), Colleen Gibson (Philadelphia) and Karin Nuernberg (Orange), enjoy the homemade s'mores they shared with the group as part of their cultural presentation on the United States.Here, though we shared a common language, we soon realized that our experiences of religious life differed greatly. To have a conversation, we had to discover each other's cultures; this meant being curious, actively listening, and trying to interpret things in a non-violent and non-judgmental way. It wasn't always easy, but it taught us lessons that it could take a lifetime to learn from a book.

Truly, it was the experience of being together that laid the groundwork for our intensive study and reflection on the topics of intercultural dialogue and nonviolent communication. We had to learn to trust one another and to be vulnerable in the process. Whether it was heartfelt sharing around the future of religious life, discussions about managing conflict in community, or putting on skits about communicating openly — we were in it together.

From the ridiculous to the sublime — some topics proved to be universal. Everyone has had the experience of someone not changing the toilet paper roll when it's empty and everyone knows what it feels like to be judged wrongly in a community situation. In our sharing, be it in words or through activities, we found a common bond of the charism and sisterhood we share.

Participants head back into the Centre International after a ritual of gratitude

To be a Sister of Saint Joseph is to be about unioning love with God and neighbor whether you're in Madagascar, Lebanon, Switzerland, Honduras, or the United States. Our living situations might differ, but our hearts are joined in the call we've answered. By our answering that call, we belong to one another. Beyond any language or experience, the truth is that we are bound by the love of God and neighbor without distinction.

Now I wake up in the morning to text messages from our sisters in India. As I am beginning my day, theirs is just coming to an end. We've begun to say to one another that where one of us leaves off another one begins. There's something universal to our relationships. Wherever we are, we are sisters — living lives vastly different and yet living the mission and answering the call in a strikingly similar way.

As we parted ways at the end of our days together, I found myself deeply moved by a sense of both loss and connection. How in ten days' time could we grow so close? I wondered. But then again, based on all we shared and invested, how could we not?

Flying home, I found myself reflecting on the many experiences of LePuy and our foundations. From the kitchen to the cathedral, there was a grace to the space I'd been invited into in my time away, but even more, the sacred space of my sisters — space found in one another — was what I cherished most. "This experience has changed and will change my life." I wrote in my journal flying home, I don't exactly know how, but no doubt it will.

"Where one of us is all of us are": Sister Colleen Gibson matches her insignia with the one sent by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill to the heritage area at the Lyon Mother House, where Mother St. John Fontbonne's bedroom is preserved.Now, a few months later, I can see the initial impact of this experience coming to fruition. Part of that impact is a call to share not just the experience with others but the actual training. To that end, those who took part in the LePuy experience are invited to share the skills and formative experiences with sisters "back home." Thus, the program is designed as a "train the trainer" style course, with the expressed intent of having participants bring the workshop home to other sisters so as to deepen our charism of unity through the practice and education around the essential elements of nonviolent communication, conflict management, critical engagement with difference, and an exploration of the role of empathy for understanding and right relationships within a diverse community.

These are skills not only for the future of religious life, but the current reality of the lives we live. Sisters are invited to consider taking part in the series of upcoming workshops being offered this spring as a way to renew and deepen their understanding of these topics, share with other sisters, and grow in the process. There's no telling what might await you, but with open hearts let's embrace our call to union for the life of God in the world.

[Sr. Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. She is the author of the blog Wandering in Wonder and currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]