20 Years at the United Nations: Advocating for the Most Vulnerable on the World Stage

20 Years at the United Nations: Advocating for the Most Vulnerable on the World Stage

At the United Nations, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Joan Burke, with David Stang, brother of martyred Sister Dorothy Stang, accept her posthumously awarded United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.

The Conscience of the United Nations

Sisters get along.

They work in the trenches, they discern, they discuss, they find what Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Joan Burke calls "a common mind."

It's true in Cincinnati, in Africa, and in Latin America.

And it's true at the United Nations, where Sister Joan, twenty years ago, became the Sisters' first non-governmental organization (NGO) representative, serving eight years in an advisory role to the world body's Economic and Social Council.

"Saint Julie," says Sister Joan, "was loving to others around her. She was a person of relationship. She responded with patience. And that's how Sisters relate to people around the world. It's human relations writ large. It's how we have to sort things out."

President Franklin Roosevelt, in the earliest days of the United Nations (U.N.), insisted that in addition to governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a voice. Included in these NGOs today are congregation of women and men religious. In addition to a moral perspective, they bring with them a vast and worldwide network of sisters, brothers, priests and lay people through which information can move in real time, and in both directions. These networks can inform the U.N. and its government delegates of developing trends, worsening or improving conditions, injustices, destabilizing developments, popular sentiments, etc., and can also communicate the priorities of the U.N. and in some cases actualize those priorities, not only through their own communications but through churches, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and many other ministries in which they are intimately involved.

While serving in pastoral ministry in Tambogrande, Peru, Sister Meg Walsh visits and prays with a parishioner.

"We don't see issues in terms of boundaries. We see issues in the faces of people. We see challenges frequently before governments are even aware of them." Sister Joan cites the emergence of HIV / AIDS in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she previously worked. "Sisters knew this first," she says. "They (officials at the United Nations) know the NGOs are already scrambling before they even know about things." 

In many ways Sister Joan was a natural choice for the Sisters' first representative. By her mid-twenties, she was mission secretary for the congregation, based in Rome but traveling regularly to the five continents where Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur live and work. She had work experience not only in the developed world, coordinating the school lunch program for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, but in the developing world, working with people who are poor in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She also brought to the United Nations, as do all representatives of Catholic religious congregations, a firm knowledge of Catholic social tradition. This, she says, gave her and other congregational representatives a leg up when responding to situations involving human rights, care of the earth, and other moral issues. "We see an issue immediately from the perspective of the Gospel," she says. "We can come up with responses so quickly because Catholic social tradition is a part of our frame of reference."

Government delegates, on the other hand, as representatives (and employees) of individual governments, have to report to those governments and have to toe the line in terms of their positions and votes.

"Unlike them," says Sister Joan, "We're life members [of our respective congregations]. We don't have to get approval. We look at things from a moral perspective. That's paramount. Governments can't do that."

Women access clean water
at the village pump after
the Sisters' water system
was upgraded in Kitenda,
Democratic Republic of Congo

"We're only there because we have something to say. We're really there because of our experience on the ground."

Kofi Annan, a former United Nations Secretary-General, recognizing this impartiality, once called NGOs, including religious congregations, the "conscience of the U.N."

A United Nations within a United Nations

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, with Sisters in 14 countries, are already a 'united nations' of sorts. They minister under the direction of a multinational Leadership Team based in Rome; they confer often and at length across borders on issues facing those they serve, such as gender discrimination, illiteracy, and a lack of clean water; and they work toward a more equitable distribution of resources among their richer provinces in the developed north and those provinces ministering in the still-developing world in Africa and Latin America. This distribution of resources is done not in "the trap of giver-receiver," according to Sister Joan, which creates resentment and dependency, but in a manner that recognizes the interdependence and common cause.

Like St. Julie, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Tanke, Nigeria provide Catholic education for girls.

The Sisters, also by their example, show the effectiveness and accomplishments of women in places where women and girls have historically been denied opportunities in education, employment, and basic human rights, and where few women professional role models exist. And they've done this not only at the policy level, or position-paper level, but, as Sister Joan calls it, at the "micro-level of cross-cultural community living where Sisters work side-by-side not only with other Sisters but with lay people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

This last practice has, in particular, won the respect of official nation-state delegates in that the great preponderance of these delegates have no such real-world and hands-on experience, or personal connections to those who often most feel the brunt of inequity, social and environmental injustice, and income inequality.

"Governments know what we are doing, we are doing because of our convictions and our knowledge. They know they can't contradict what we're saying and they know we're not here to proselytize," says Sister Joan. "[Sister] Dorothy Stang," she says, "was an especially catalyzing event for them. It made them realize the value of people working on the ground, and paying the price."

An Expanded Influence


When Sister Joan began her work at the United Nations she gave a lot of thought not only to what the Sisters could bring to the U.N., but what the U.N. could bring to the Sisters. She concluded that by working collaboratively with the United Nations, the Sisters would gain a better awareness of the similarities and interconnectedness of needs of people who are poor; and a deeper, more evidenced-based understanding of the urgency of certain issues bearing down upon them, such as environmental degradation and an erosion of the rule of law. Participation also have the Sisters – as with other NGOs – a better, more practical understanding of the obstacles faced by self-interested governments, and with that knowledge, an ability to craft creative solutions appreciating the needs of all interested parties. 

Participation also built solidarity with other organizations and individuals who though they might be of different religious and philosophical traditions, nevertheless share the same goal of uplifting people who are marginalized. This solidarity stands to create networking which in turn further establishes solidarity, resulting in more good being done for the greater number of people.

On this last point, Sister Joan says, "There is an opportunity to read the 'signs of the times' that we would not have otherwise."

"It's so hard for Sisters on the ground," she says, "because they're working so hard, and because everything is so immediate, to see how wat they are doing can bring change to the world."

After graduating
with a masters'
in Education from
Xavier University
in Cincinnati, OH,
Sister Eucharia
returned to Nigeria
to teach in
Notre Dame Schools there.

But by linking their work, says Sister Joan, with others around the world, and through advocating on the world stage for the very work they are doing locally, the commonality of need and the enormity of need can be appreciated and conceivably addressed.

"Advocacy is really going to be what is responsive to people we're trying to help. Otherwise, our influence is very limited to the kids we're working with, and maybe their parents. 

This type of broader more elevated advocacy, for the Sisters, began in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Sister Joan. "It's then that we became more justice-oriented."

"But it's shifting policy, that's what it's all about. Just us, we are a drop in the bucket. But if we can change the discourse, if we can change the mindsets, it creates openings for deeper social change." And deeper social change is what Sister Joan is about. "Social justice is a constituent part of the Gospel," she says. "And as a person of faith, I believe the spirit is working across the world."

That same spirit was followed by Saint Julie. And Saint Julie, Sister Joan says, would have no problem in the United Nations. She would move easily there. And she'd say, says Sister Joan, "Speak up for the will of the people. Persevere!"

Published in the Cross Currents Magazine, Spring 2022 Volume 18 Issue 1, by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Ohio Province