Sister Septimus had been out walking with Sister Visentia in the woodlands surrounding their cloister, the convent of the good sisters of Mary Magdalene. When Sister Septimus came back into the cloister alone, a search party was organized to look for sister Visentia. Two of the sisters in the search party, Sisters Bryda and Ludwika soon found themselves walking along the banks of the Raritan River as they searched for Sister Visentia.
The day before all of this there had been torrential rains across all of Hunterdon County, so the river was much higher than usual. This day the typically serene South Branch of the Raritan was swollen to the tops of its banks, the waters were thundering by and all in all the river looked unusually treacherous! As they peered over the banks of the river hoping that they would not see Sister Visentia in such a dangerous location, to their shock and horror, they saw a toddler bobbing in the river thrashing and struggling to keep her head above water.
Sister Bryda immediately slipped out of her cowl, scapular and tunic and dove into the river. She reached the young girl just as the child was about to go under for the third time and handed her out to Sister Ludwika. Ludwika wrapped the child in Sister Bryda’s scapular to cover her and warm her, and was ready to help Sister Bryda out of the water when they both saw another child up river a bit, and struggling. So, Sister Bryda swam up to the child, caught him and handed him up to Sister Ludwika.
Again just a Bryda was about to ask Sister Ludwika for a hand to get herself out of the river, they both hear a pair of children calling for help. Of course Bryda could not let them drown, so back into the cold, torrential river she swam. It was feeling to her that the water was getting progressively colder, and the current faster and deeper. But, these were young children, she just could not let any harm come to them. So back after them she went.
And, yes, just as she was handing the last child to Sister Ludwika, Ludwika pointed upstream again – more children! Sister Ludwika was horrified, and she could see that Sister Bryda was near exhaustion. So, Ludwika quickly helped Bryda out of the water and jumped in herself to continue the rescue operation. This went on for a while, and now both Sisters were passed exhaustion and barely able to move.
Sister Ludwika crawled out of the river, and rasped to Sister Bryda, “Someone must be throwing children into the river! I’ve got to go and stop them.”
“But, Ludwika, you can’t leave me here alone. It is taking both of us to get these children out of the water. We can’t just let them drown, and I can’t do this alone.” Sister Bryda gasped.
“Bryda, if I don’t stop whoever is throwing these children into the water, we will both be too exhausted to be any good to anyone.” countered Ludwika. And, with that she turned her back on Bryda and the toddlers, and started to walk upstream to find out who was throwing the children in the river, and to stop them. It was one of the hardest decisions Ludwika had ever made.
Sister Ludwika’s intention was prevention, but her action looked (and felt) like abandonment. Efforts for change are risky. The outcomes are rarely clear and certain. To those doing the more immediate work of addressing and repairing the harms caused by injustices, energy and resources committed to long term goals can feel like a depletion of much needed emergency resources. To those committed to longer term social change strategies targeting social change to bring about the alchemy of social justice, emergency triage work can feel short sighted. Truth be told, both are necessary. We need to heal the wounds of injustice – we need to pull the children from the river. We need to contain the consequences of injustice – we need to ensure that the children we pull from the river are loved and fed and we need to see that they don’t catch pneumonia. And, we need to build a world where fairness and respect for human dignity are the norm – we need to prevent more children from being thrown into the river. And all of that takes a village.
(versions of this story are common among community organizers. some folks attirbute early renditions of it to Saul Alinsky.)