Guest Post: Advent Birthing

a doctor smiling at a patient sitting on a bed with a blanket on her lap

This is a guest post by Anne Berry.

Anne Berry was a JV in Managua, Nicaragua, from ’01–’03, where she first learned about Maryknoll Lay Missioners and dreamed of one day becoming one… She studied medicine at Penn State where she met her partner, George. She was a resident in family medicine at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center in Massachusetts, then worked with George (a pediatrician) at Cabin Creek Health Center in rural West Virginia, before realizing her dream and joining MKLM together with George. They have been serving in Mwanza, Tanzania, since 2017, together with their two children, Susanna (9) and Louisa (6). Being in mission as a family has been a powerful and joyful experience, and after completing public health studies in the next few years, Anne hopes to continue serving as a family with MKLM in the future.

“What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328)

According to Mwalimu Magdalena, our wonderful Swahili teacher, the verb “kujifungua” is only used for the physical act of birthing because it literally means “to open yourself”. But “kuzaa” is used equally for women and men, “to give birth” in the sense of being the parent of children — a verb of generativity that I don’t think we have in English. I love the imagery and symbolism of pregnancy and birth during this time of Advent, because it is so rich with meanings (waiting, nurturing, courage, strength, physical capability, new beginning…) and also of course because I love accompanying women as they prepare and work to bring new life into the world. And in light of the Swahili verb, I read the above quote from the 13th century philosopher as a true call to action — or perhaps more accurately, a call to that almost mystical mixture of intense action and mindful being that characterizes both the Jesuit tradition of being “contemplatives in action” and the actual experience of being pregnant and giving birth.

Here in Mwanza, Tanzania, I continue to find special joy in my work with the weekly clinic for Prevention of Mother-To-Child Transmission of HIV, accompanying women through their pregnancies and the first 18 months of their baby’s life, as they work hard to protect their children from lifelong infection with HIV. My husband George continues in the children’s ward and the mother-baby section of the hospital, along with school health screenings and the Mabatini program for children with disabilities. Recently our whole family participated in a collaborative experiment of holding a popular-education-style workshop with the parents of children in the program together with playtime for their children in a separate room. I led the workshop while George and our two kids, Susanna and Louisa, along with the other Maryknoll family and Ana the physical therapy assistant, played with about 25 children.

The separate children’s playtime gave the parents (mostly mothers) the chance not only to participate more fully in the workshop, but also to let someone else care for their children, despite their disabilities, and for once not have to worry about their needs, for just a couple hours. It was also a chance for us to experience how exhausting it is to care for a child with very limited cognitive understanding and communication, or other limitations. Many of these parents have multiple other children as well. We certainly left with a deepened admiration for the work of these dedicated caregivers.

It was not all work though — there were entertaining moments. Baraka, a small 4-year-old who had severe hydrocephalus as a baby, enchanted the volunteers with his telephone chats. He has a shunt (a tube to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid from the head into the abdomen), which has worked quite well to take pressure off his brain, allowing his cognitive development. During the playtime, he sat on the mat alternating between the wooden block painted like a cellphone and the shiny shower head to make his calls, saying into his phone “Halo! Uko wapi? Haya, nitakupigia baadaye!” — “Hello! Where are you? Ok, I’ll call you later,” and awaiting a response from his conversation partner. Even when he’s being serious, you can’t help but laugh. He’s just too cute! Unfortunately, because his head is still so large and heavy, it takes much more strength and balance than it would take another child his age for him to stand up and walk. George was helping him use the tiny walker, made by a local craftsman, but after standing and taking 2 or 3 steps, Baraka looked at George and said, “Ehhh! Nimechoka!! Nibebe!!” which means, “Wow, I’m tired! Please carry me!”

In this season of expectant waiting and preparation for new life and beginnings to come, I give thanks for the many people who contribute to our family’s life here in Tanzania, including Baraka and the other children in Mabatini, the mothers of Bukumbi Hospital and their babies, our colleagues and our fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioners. May we all come to know how we can give birth to Divine Love in our times and our cultures.

Originally published by Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Reprinted in revised form by permission of the author.

About Cam N. Coulter

Cam N. Coulter thinks incessantly about speculative fiction, gender, and intentional communities. Their poetry has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Eye to the Telescope, and Polu Texni, and their academic nonfiction has appeared in the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. Cam reviews short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty and blogs about social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality at The Ruined Report. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work with adults with developmental disabilities in the SF Bay Area. Cam can be found on their website or on Twitter @camncoulter.