Malia – Keeping hope alive in a multi ethnic secondary school

The 2012 Commissioning Mass for all teachers working in Catholic schools within the Wellington Diocese was on 21 February at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Thorndon.

It was very much on my mind that on the same day in Samoa, the Sisters of Mercy, families, friends, teachers, past and present pupils and all our Mercy associates were also celebrating the forty years of our Mercy Mission in Samoa. 

The main celebrant, Fr Paul Martin SM who is also the Rector of one of the Marist colleges in Wellington, gave a very challenging homily about a life of a teacher and what it means to be a teacher in a Catholic school. One thought-provoking and no doubt arguable thing he said was that, ‘our perception of the world and what is happening around us now is formed and shaped by our experience and life as a teacher’. He then went on to share about why teaching in a Catholic school is a special call from God and how we are now shaping tomorrow’s future. It was indeed inspiring but also challenging and scary.

I could not help thinking and saying to myself, ‘right, but it is not the only window through which I see and perceive the world’. Ever since I have been invited to share a reflection on my ministry, I have found myself asking me so many questions. Some of which I have managed to answer, by a hair's breadth I must add, and others I still yet to find answers for. Perhaps, I will never be able to answer some of them in my lifetime. One thing I have come to accept and truly believe in after listening to Fr Paul’s sharing is that; ‘my perception of the world and what is happening in it is shaped and formed by my experience and life as a Samoan Mercy woman teacher’, in that order.

It is very difficult for me to think, talk or write about my teaching ministry without the other three aspects of my reality. So, is what I am doing centred in God and impelled to be Mercy? And, how am I keeping hope alive in my ministry? Well, it would have been so much easier to identify and recognise the corporal works of Mercy, the Mercy values and what it means to be a Mercy Sister in a Mercy school.

But I am at Bishop Viard College where there was hardly anyone who has heard of the Mercies, let alone understood what we are about.

I do believe however, that if Catherine was looking for an area where her mission to the poor, sick and ignorant could be seen here in Wellington, she would gravitate to Porirua. In my ministry to Bishop Viard College, I certainly rely on her encouraging presence. Here, I have a daily challenge to be present to and confront our social inequality. I see around me the extreme impact of deprivation on families and students. My challenge is to be of service to a whole range of social needs.

Bishop Viard College is a decide one school in a low social economic area of Porirua in Wellington. It predominantly consists of Pacific Islanders, then Maori and then a small number of Europeans, Asians and even some Latin American students. In the last few years, we have seen a number of students arriving from Burma, Colombia, Thailand and Kiribati under the refugee status. At present, we can proudly say that we are a multi ethnic community and hopefully in the near future, we can also declare with pride that we are a multi cultural group. Although Bishop Viard is the only Catholic secondary school in the area, it has been avoided by many ‘well-to-do’ Catholics from nearby parishes and often because of the reasons mentioned above.

When I decided to accept the teaching position at Bishop Viard College more than three years ago, I was very much aware that I was up for a challenge, in whatever aspect of the word you can think of. However, I did not realise that the challenge awaiting me was going to be as big as I have encountered in my three years here. I did not expect to teach students who would come to school hungry. I did not expect to come across what seemed like stubborn kids who would come to school in non school uniform items, or without proper equipment such as sports uniforms, text books and other stationery. The list could go on. Yet they seemed to willingly accept facing consequences. Was I naïve in my presumptions and unrealistic expectations? Perhaps I was, but this is New Zealand, not a third world country.

It was only after I got involved and worked closely with Pacific Island parents, mainly Samoans, that I began to see what was going on. Many Pasifika families work very hard to feed and clothe their children and other members of their families, let alone meet many other expenses. For some parents, it may mean taking on more than one job to make ends meet. It is not uncommon for some Pasifika children not to see a parent or parents until Sunday. My first reaction to this was shock, anger and disbelief. How could they expect their children who are as young as eleven or twelve to fetch for themselves? Or expect the older siblings to take care of the little ones. And worse still, why send their kids to a school like Bishop Viard College where they have to pay so much money instead of a local state school where they don’t have to pay as much?

Well, talk to a Pasifika parent in that situation and you get a full picture and what drives them to be in that situation. No parent wants to leave their children by themselves or with other family members for no reason. But they want what is best for them. They want to provide them with the best education no matter what it costs. They want to break the cycle of poverty so their children can have a better shot at life with better job opportunities, so they can have brighter futures. And to them, if working night and day is the only path to get there, then so be it.

As a Sister of Mercy, I have a sense of following the Mercy traditions of practical service to those who live in deprived conditions. But as a Samoan woman, I know that any intervention has to be culturally appropriate. Both students and parents have needs which keep them in spiritual and physical poverty and ignorance of their dignity. My fluency in Samoan means I can assist Samoan parents to seek alternatives and accept assistance available for them as they strive to give their children the best opportunities. I can also teach, encourage and challenge my students to seize the opportunities available to them now and aim high to shape a brighter future for themselves and their families.
I see this as a golden opportunity to live out my vow to serve the poor, the sick and ignorant and to keep real hope alive in my everyday experiences.