ROME — Sister Mercy Muthoni would often suffer sleepless nights when she heard from the Cameroonian girls she helped escape human trafficking in Kuwait.
They’d call to tell her they hadn’t eaten for days, or that one of them was sick and they were struggling to carry her for part of their journey.
“Even if I go to bed, it keeps ringing in my mind,” said Sister Muthoni, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary who ministers in the English-speaking region of Cameroon.
“When they say especially that they have not eaten for two days, I would go without eating. I carried their suffering with me, and it was really weighing me down,” she told Global Sisters Report.
Without a Cameroonian embassy in Kuwait, this particular case wound up resolved as sisters connected across countries with the help of Talitha Kum, the international umbrella network for sisters against trafficking.
“There are times I say, ‘I need to take a break.’ But the pressure will be too much that I’m not able to,” Sister Muthoni said.
The stress, sadness and anger that comes with ministering to trafficking victims — a ministry where the realities are dark and the stakes feel high — is not unique to Sister Muthoni. The work of women religious often cannot be contained in a tidy 9-to-5 schedule that allows them to set aside those experiences at the end of a workday.
How women religious recharge and care for themselves is what allows them to persevere in challenging ministries. Music, meditation, stitching, retreats — Talitha Kum sisters find different ways to bring peace and distraction into their lives, putting on pause the tragedies that occupied their minds throughout the day.
“Giving life to others gives you life. That becomes an energizing force for us,” said Bethany Sister Jyoti Pinto of India.
“We look at those vulnerable people’s faces, their tears, their sufferings, and then with that compassion, we are moved to do something for them, to free them from those kinds of terrible situations in which they are in,” said Sister Pinto, coordinator of the Asian Movement of Women Religious Against Human Trafficking.
“That is a movement within, and it is not humanly possible unless we have a divine strength and energy to keep it going year after year, day after day.”
Sister Muthoni said she has learned to tell herself a “story” to help her cope with not being able to help everyone: “I am not the savior of the world, and I cannot do everything. One day at a time, one moment at a time, because if I try to cover everything, I will not be of service to them.”
The recent founder of Talitha Kum’s presence in Cameroon, Sister Muthoni has learned to incorporate regular time off into her schedule, taking two days off a month without her phone and visiting her family in Kenya for two months every other year.
“Within that time, I make sure I take a bit of a retreat, rest, connect with my family and friends and just forget about it a bit,” she said.
Dorothean Sister Mary Quiroga from Argentina said even during time away, “You still have them on your mind.”
“I’ll be on a mission heading somewhere else, and when I cross (a) border, immediately, I think, ‘How many others have crossed illegally? Who came to my country looking for work?’ They are always present with me. When you embrace a cause, you can’t get it out of your heart.”
For Sister Quiroga — and for nearly every other sister who spoke to Global Sisters Report for this story — daily prayer is vital for finding peace and strength.
“Oftentimes, we feel helpless or that we’re doing so little within this immense scourge. Prayer is what, above all, sustains me,” she said.
Sister Jean Schafer, a Sister of the Divine Savior from the United States, said she enjoys beginning her day with prayer, the “quiet, calm centering, and that immediately is self-care.”
“As you pray … your mind turns to some issue, and then you can bring that into your prayer, you can hand that circumstance over to God and say, ‘In your providence, you know about this, and you’re going to guide us in whatever it is we have to do to help this individual,’“ she said. “You feel your dependency on God in that prayer, and you count on that inspiration.”
Sister Schafer, who belongs to U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, added that the hope she gets from staying in touch with survivors who now have fulfilled lives serves as a reminder that “you can do that for others, too.”
Charity Sister Kathleen Bryant said when she learns of little girls who have been kidnapped and mutilated, girls whose journeys she’s followed only to hear eventually of their deaths, she has to figure out, “How do I protect my heart so I can be a joy-filled woman? Because the personal stories I hear, they break my heart.”
A classical pianist, Sister Bryant, who lives in Los Angeles, said music and dancing “make me feel whole and healed,” adding that she has a “creative prayer life.”
When Sister Bryant learned of a 12-year-old girl who needed money for vaginal and anal reconstructive surgery after five years in slavery suffering sexual violence, she turned to her congregation to help raise money to pay for her needs. But just months after the procedure, on Easter Sunday in 2017, Sister Bryant learned that the cartel had executed the girl.
“That one knocked me out for a week. She had been sold at age 7, and she escaped,” Sister Bryant said the girl had told another sister. “She’d always cover her hands, saying, ‘I never want to see my hands again after the things they made me do with my hands.’ And then they killed her. I was so mad at God.”
Comboni Sister Gabriella Bottani said belonging to the Talitha Kum network is, in itself, self-care.
“More and more, I realize that our gatherings are not only for planning, but that it is a way to feel that we are not alone, that we can share and understand one another because we all have those experiences,” said Sister Bottani, Talitha Kum’s international coordinator.