Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, reflects on his recent visit to India, where he also visited Sari Bari, the 2016 Opus Prize winner. Read more here
As host of the Opus Prize ceremony, Creighton sent delegations to observe the operations of the three finalists: Sari Bari, Cana Communities and Jesuit Worldwide Learning. Read more here
Creighton University served as host for the 2016 Opus Prize, which included a thorough selection process that had 14 nominees culled to three finalists for a $1 million prize and prizes of $100,000 for each of the runners-up.
The theme for this year’s prize was “Restoring Hope, Lighting the Way Home,” a common thread connecting the work of the three finalists — Cana Communities, Jesuit Worldwide Learning and Sari Bari. All three were recognized at a public award ceremony on Nov. 17 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, announced the 2016 Opus Prize recipient, followed by a robust standing ovation: Sarah Lance and Sari Bari, a social business in Kolkata, India, that helps women escape the city’s notorious sex trade.
“This is such a beautiful honor for the community of Sari Bari and for the women of Sari Bari, who are the heroes of their own story, who are my heroes,” Lance said in accepting the award, her voice cracking with emotion. “I am so thankful to have been able to journey with the women of Sari Bari, to be a witness to their transformation, for them to be a witness to my transformation, on the road to freedom.”
“Of myriad social service agencies and charities around the globe, these organizations were chosen because they have developed creative, faith-filled solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems,” said Fr. Hendrickson. “As the host institution, we at Creighton University have been witness to their life-changing work.”
Creighton University Magazine shares the inspiring stories of all three finalists.
In 2003, after living and working for the better part of three years among the destitute and dying in Kolkata, India, Sarah Lance thought she was beyond tears.
“I’d started in India doing the work that Mother Teresa had implored the world to do for the sick and the dying,” said Lance, who was first commissioned by Word Made Flesh, a faith-based organization focused on urban redevelopment in 12 countries on five continents. “Bathing people, feeding them. That can be difficult work to do, especially for an introvert like I was. But I didn’t realize then that there might be an even harder job.”
Once, when Lance’s friend and fellow missionary Josh went to get his hair cut, the young woman assisting him asked if he was interested in any “additional services” following his turn in the barber’s chair. The woman pointed to her daughter and said this was why she asked him and why she was engaged in the work she suggested. Josh came back to share the story with Lance and her community. That began a commitment to becoming a presence in the red-light areas and to girls and women facing the barber’s plight.
Sarah and Josh, along with others in their community, began spending more time in the districts, talking and bringing cups of tea to the women trapped in the sex trade. They listened to their stories, wondering how to help. For two years, Lance worked at just being present and listening to the girls in the area.
Lance returned to the U.S., but was back in India in 2004 when she met a girl, Pinki, who recounted a harrowing tale.
“I had just encountered a girl, 16 years old, just started in the trade, maybe 10 days in,” Lance remembered. “Her mother was dead, she had two younger brothers to support. I’ll never forget how she looked: sad, scared, vulnerable. And here I was, returning home to the U.S. I had to walk away from her that day, and I did so pretty frustrated. It was a moment when I was shaking my fist at God and saying that there had to be options for these women outside of this.”
In that moment, Sari Bari, a social business Lance co-founded with Kristin Keen, and aimed at rescuing women from the sex trade, was born. After more than a decade in business, Sari Bari has employed more than 100 women, providing them with wages, health benefits, child care and, most of all, hope for the future.
A delegation from Creighton University visited the business — located right in the middle of two of Kolkata’s red-light districts — this spring and came away overwhelmed by what they saw.
“The atmosphere within Sari Bari is uplifting, peaceful,” said Anne Ozar, PhD, a Creighton philosophy professor. “It’s a wonderful place to be. With everything going on outside those doors, it’s a night-and-day, despair-and-hope situation that was truly beautiful to witness.”
By the autumn of 2005 and with the memory of her conversation with Pinki still fresh, Lance was back in Kolkata as a field director for Word Made Flesh. While returning with a resolve to help the women enslaved in the sex trade, she said she didn’t have a material plan.
Keen, Sari Bari’s co-founder, suggested an idea: What if they took old saris, the traditional wrap in which Indian women clothe themselves from shoulder to ankle, and repurposed them? Turned them into blankets, purses and other items? They could teach the women in the brothels and on the streets saleable skills in design and sewing, and provide a sustainable income that could keep them off the streets.
Lance, an artist with a background in textiles, saw more than promise — if they could find some support.
“We tried to find an NGO to back the business, but nobody really believed in it,” Lance said.
But Lance and her friend pushed through and in February 2006, Sari Bari opened its first shop, turning old saris into purses, blankets and bags, restoring old lives into bright, new ones.
The business exists side by side with the brothels, a respite to those women who, when they’re ready to break free, can find relief.
“The motivation for Sari Bari was walking away from that girl that day,” Lance said. “I felt I needed to be available for those women, so they could have a chance. So many didn’t have a chance. But with Sari Bari coming along, these women are now finding the opportunity to become who God created them to be, not only economically, but they are now empowered through spiritual connection and restoration.”
Wracked as he was with social anxiety and the stigma of homelessness, the man had not spoken in several months, perhaps even a year or more.
Coaxing him out of his shell proved difficult for even the most compassionate advocates and skilled clinicians, even at Cana Communities Inc., a nonprofit organization invested in helping the most marginalized and operating a number of facilities in Sydney, Australia.
No, the man’s relief and his reintroduction came not in the city and not among people, but on a farm Cana operates about 50 miles west of Sydney, where retired racehorses — themselves trying to cope with a new life — are delivered for rehabilitation and where people, as part of Cana’s Life Transformation Program, begin their own steady walk to a fresh chapter.
“It was just one of a whole host of things we saw that showed how Cana is able — and will go to any lengths — to connect human beings with other human beings and reflect every individual’s dignity,” said Adrienne Pyle, a senior medical anthropology and Spanish major who served as one of Creighton University’s student delegates on the due diligence trips for the Opus Prize. “We witnessed Christ personified in the utmost.”
For more than 40 years, Cana Communities has been ministering to “the least of these” — the chronically homeless, the drug-addicted, the mentally ill, the hopeless cases. They’ve done so through a growing system of emergency shelters, halfway houses, treatment options, prison visits and Cana Farm, providing 45,000 meals and nearly 14,000 beds.
But, as the Creighton delegation to Sydney discovered, Cana delivers much more than just a place to sleep or a hot meal to eat.
“A lot of the people served by Cana are really down the social scale as far as their mental and physical health, many with an addiction to drugs,” said Ravi Nath, PhD, a professor of information systems and technology selected to take part as a faculty representative on the due diligence trip to observe Cana’s operation. “What left the greatest impression on me was how the volunteers and the staff at Cana accept everyone as they are. That’s the biggest thing. And it’s hard for most people, when they see someone chronically homeless or relapsing into addiction. They say, ‘Why can’t you just do things like the rest of us?’ But I was so moved by the sheer commitment. The willingness to work slowly and not to judge people with our own lens, but to put oneself in their shoes.”
Sr. Anne Jordan, PBVM, the recently retired CEO of Cana Communities, recounted for the Creighton delegation the organization’s humble origins 40 years ago in the streets of central Sydney when a Dominican monk, the Rev. Mark Brereton, began opening a house for simple meals to share with homeless people.
Jordan felt her own call to the mission upon meeting Brereton in 1985, and shortly thereafter began serving meals and helping the homeless out of a small apartment. In 2000, along with the Rev. Brian Stoney, SJ, Jordan founded Cana Communities with a preamble to the organization’s constitution reading: “Central to the life of the community are those who are most in need and who — through being rejected, powerless or violent — have the least options. These people are our primary focus.”
And through a dense but agile network of volunteers, Cana has spent its last 16 years with Jordan at the helm reaching more people in need and helping them start new lives.
“It has the function of a family,” said Kim Sorensen, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences from West Des Moines, Iowa, who rounded out the Creighton delegation. “The operating belief of the staff and the volunteers is that they’ll be present and alongside the people they are serving and go with them through difficult times. Most of the people who come to Cana don’t have families. Cana Communities stays by them — multiple court proceedings, relapses, it was really incredible to see the volunteers recognizing the humanity in the people they were serving.”
The volunteer corps itself is a study in contrast as most come from means and are even among Sydney’s more affluent circles. Cana Communities abides by a policy that it won’t take simple monetary contributions — the organization once turned down $25,000 from a local company when the company declined to see Cana at work.
“They want your time, your energy, your ability to see what is at work,” Nath said. “And it happens that many of the volunteers have gotten involved because their children, mostly high school students from a local Jesuit school, have taken an interest.”
As the Creighton delegation learned, another operating principle of Cana Communities is the wider notion that the entire Sydney community is enhanced as more people, given dignity, care and love, are able to enter it.
“I saw a consistent, incredible effort by Cana to make their corner of the world a better place,” Pyle said. “It put me in a mind to wonder aloud, with a lot of the volunteers, ‘What am I doing to make the world a better place?’ It’s a spirit that moved everyone, I think.”
The Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi is huge, sprawling even, like a suburb of tin roofs and sunbaked dirt streets.
But the place, a melting pot of African refugees, also fairly bustles with activity — not unlike a small city where the population can climb upward of 15,000 and the average stay can approach two decades. There are little shops, literal cottage industries, soccer games, schools, even, and thanks to Opus Prize nominee Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL), opportunities for higher education.
And like any small city in the world — but perhaps most crucially in a place where people feel suspended in time and place — Dzaleka has some of the little trappings that make a place of transition a little more like home.
One of these is an arts and culture festival organized annually by a man named Trésor Nzengu, an alumnus of JWL’s program at Dzaleka, a Renaissance man who dabbles in music, art and poetry, and attempts to fuse them all into a celebration that can, for at least a few days, alleviate the stresses of life in a refugee camp.
“It was amazing to hear his story and to see what he does to help show people what education means and what beauty it can bring to the world,” said Selina Marshall, BSBA’16, who recognized the lessons from her own Jesuit education at Creighton in stories like Nzengu’s. “The average age in that camp is 18. What Trésor told us was: ‘You can’t just put your life on hold. This is my community now. What can I do to lead, teach, grow?’”
And so, as an extension of Nzengu’s JWL experience, the refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo has created what is believed to be Malawi’s largest arts and culture festival. And it takes place in a refugee camp.
Ministering to those on the margins takes on many different forms, most focused on the acquisition of basic human needs like food, clothing, shelter and access to clean water.
If there’s effort left over, it’s frequently expended on getting at the roots of certain entrenched issues, such as war or poverty, often with the result that early gains are later overshadowed by short memories of, or indifference to, the plights of other people.
In 2010, several American Jesuit universities began wondering aloud what could be wrought if people on the margins were provided, as part of their essentials, access to college education — and thereby learn the tools by which the disenfranchised might be able to address the origins of injustice in their homelands. Jesuit Commons reached out to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) as an additional partner.
“It’s all true that you need to get people food, shelter, even a job,” said the Rev. Peter Balleis, SJ, who served as international director of JRS from 2007 to 2015 and who has now taken the lead in expanding JWL, the nonprofit providing college access to more than 140,000 people around the world. “But if you don’t train people to form a different society, if you don’t challenge them to look for other answers, down the road, you repeat the cycles of war, instability, poverty.”
The program results in college-level courses and a diploma for those who undertake it. More than that, it also means the creation of a new intellectual class — what Fr. Balleis calls “a global community of learners” — prepared to help their communities, be that in a camp or back in their native lands.
At Dzaleka, where JWL was first piloted in 2010, Creighton University alumni and faculty observed the program in action this spring as part of the due diligence for Opus Prize finalists. On the camp’s outskirts, among the buildings housing the United Nations World Food Program and NGOs providing for needs, there are the JWL classrooms.
“The diploma itself is important,” Marshall said. “But teaching people to think in a different way is what matters. Basically, they were getting a degree in the liberal arts and sciences like what we have at Creighton. These are the tools they can get. Even if we’re learning math, computer science, agriculture — it’s all in the interest of helping people help their communities.”
Fr. Balleis likes to begin any discussion of JWL with a map outlining the world’s hot spots for poverty and educational insufficiency.
“These are the areas where the wars are, where the ideologues are,” he said. “We will not fight them with weapons. We will fight them with new ideas, new ways of thinking, with education. This is where teaching the humanities takes on the most importance, because while job training is important, teaching the humanities is teaching how to think. This is foundational.”
JWL doesn’t ignore the importance of professional or technical skills, however. Among other courses, a computer coding school is part of the curriculum for younger students, a challenge given the dearth of technology to be found in many areas on the margins.
“We saw 10 kids in a tiny shack and they’re just writing out binary code by hand, on paper,” said Steve Hogan, BA’08, JD’16, MS’16, another Creighton graduate who toured the JWL operations in Malawi. “There are a lot of places in Africa where you can get training for low- or no-skill work. But you have to get past that if you’re going to change a country. You need people who think in an intelligent and discerning manner and who are willing to put their learning into practice and not just hand everything over to a dictator.”
Partnered with Jesuit universities for content and issuing three-year liberal arts diplomas accredited through Regis University, JWL is on the lookout for expansion opportunities as Fr. Balleis travels the world looking for more partners to provide help with curriculum and delivery.
“The only way we continue to drive this forward is with great teachers,” he said. “We’ve built a global academic structure to make education work for people on the margins. We want it to be truly global.”