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Opus Prize Week at Creighton opens with discussions between nominees, public

A week full of events surrounding the presentation of the 2016 Opus Prize began Monday evening at Creighton University as the three finalists for the world’s most prestigious award for faith-based nonprofit organizations sat down before a crowd of about 270 to talk about their work.

The nominees — the Rev. Peter Balleis, SJ, of Jesuit Worldwide Learning, Sr. Anne Jordan, PBVM, of Cana Communities Inc., and Sarah Lance of Sari Bari — were formally introduced and took audience questions for about 90 minutes in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium.

Themes for the evening included how the nominees came to their work, specific stories that keep them motivated, what it feels like to be nominated for a $1 million prize, the relation of the global to the local, and the point at which they saw that their life’s work was going to be something other than “normal.” That question sparked a droll demurrer from Sr. Jordan, who serves as spiritual director for Cana, an organization helping the homeless and drug-addicted in Sydney, Australia.

“Coming to Creighton today is the most abnormal thing I’ve done in my life,” said Sr. Jordan, to applause and laughter. “Before this, I just put one foot in front of the other and did what I had to do for the day.”

Striking a more serious note, when asked how their organizations retain focus and spread their respective missions, Sr. Jordan invoked the eponymous wedding feast at Cana in the Gospel of John, where Jesus performs his first miracle, turning water into wine, as a metaphor for how Cana and its corps of 700 volunteers reach out to the most marginalized in their community.

“When we know we’ve got nothing, we can call for miracles,” she said. “We don’t ask for miracles when we have everything.”

Fr. Balleis said an image seared into his mind is that of a dark night in Aleppo shortly before JWL — which brings higher education opportunities to refugees in eight countries — decamped for Jordan as the Syrian civil war consumed the ancient city. As the battle loomed, a JWL English class studied by candlelight.

“This is their chance, this is their hope,” Fr. Balleis said. “To work in a refugee community or to return home, this is why they work and why we work.” Balleis said the aim of JWL is to create a global community of learners and said the organization relies on the coinage of the word “glocal” — the global in the local, the local in the global — to achieve a situation where refugees, empowered by education, can return to their homelands and begin the process of imparting knowledge, improving outlooks and tamping down extremism.

Citing the examples at work in Afghanistan, where women outnumber men in JWL classrooms, Balleis said he is hopeful the organization can bring about a new day in a country torn by war for the better part of four decades.

“We bring the university to the local and plant it there,” Balleis said. “I look at what we are doing in Afghanistan, where we have more women than men in the program. I believe there will be a change.”

In the red-light areas of Kolkata, India, where Sari Bari is at work helping women escape that city’s sex trade and human trafficking through employment repurposing saris, the traditional Indian garment, Lance, Sari Bari’s founder, said she is also encouraged by seeing a community transformed before her eyes.

“We talk about our work as sandbagging the tide,” Lance said. “There’s a constant influx of new girls into the trade. But we are seeing a community transformation. When it’s 9 or 9:30 in the morning and you see women leaving their homes, not to go stand on the line, but to go to work for their families, for their freedom, that’s transformational. It will take time, but we’re in it for the long haul.”

Over the next three days, the Opus Prize nominees will visit with students, staff and faculty on Creighton’s campus, taking part in 16 classroom discussions and three more student-led panel discussions.

For the public, Opus Prize Week at Creighton continues Wednesday, Nov. 16, with the Interfaith Prayer Service at St. John’s Church at 3:30 p.m., on the University campus, followed by a reception in the Mutual of Omaha Ballroom in the Skutt Student Center.

The Opus Prize award ceremony, hosted by Creighton, takes place Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m., at the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha. Free tickets are still available for the ceremony.

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