A fourth grade geography textbook with pictures of Africa helped set the course for Janice McLaughlin’s life. She sensed that Africa would become her life’s passion. She joined the Maryknoll Sisters at age 18. Maryknoll is the Catholic order that focuses its missions to developing countries. Once she graduated from Marquette University in 1969, she was assigned to Kenya to start her career of Catholic service.
In Kenya, Sister McLaughlin was initially a communications coordinator. In 1977 she became the press secretary for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Rhodesia. At the time, Rhodesia had a brutal apartheid government. Sister McLaughlin helped document and expose the atrocities of this government, including the systematic torture of Blacks in rural areas and the massacres of innocent civilians and clergy. She also wrote about the forced resettlement of nearly 600,000 Black citizens into overcrowded camps that lacked food and basic sanitation.
Shortly after she started her job, she was arrested and accused of being a terrorist sympathizer. She was in jail, held in solitary confinement, for 18 days but eventually released under pressure from the Vatican, the U.S., and the United Nations. Sister McLaughlin described her 18 days in jail as a retreat where she was able to reaffirm her life’s purpose. Once released from jail, she was expelled from the country.
She then returned to the U.S. for two years, but her passion for the people of Africa remained. When she returned to Africa, she first went to Mozambique where she supported the refugees from Rhodesia. In 1980 when the apartheid government in Rhodesia was ousted, she returned to Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe), and helped rebuild the nation’s educational system.
Eventually, the new government of Zimbabwe became corrupt, and Sister McLaughlin became disenchanted with her ability to help those in need. In 1991, she returned to the U.S. for six years. She eventually returned to Zimbabwe, however, to continue her mission of reducing poverty and stopping human trafficking.
Along with her many other accomplishments, in 2009 Sister McLaughlin returned to her sense of wonderment from 4th grade when she wrote a book entitled Ostriches, Dung Beetles, and Other Spiritual Masters: A Book of Wisdom from the Wild. She often connected the traits of wild animals to spiritual meditations on solitude (cheetah), unintentional love (dung beetle), caution (ostrich), and courage (owl).
When Sister McLaughlin passed away in 2021, she was eulogized by the President of Zimbabwe when he said that she “helped give the liberation struggle an enhanced international voice and reach.”
Just imagine what it takes for someone to give up a comfortable life to one which is pushing the envelope. Just imagine how someone without political power can make a difference with moral persuasion. Just imagine how faith can sustain one’s life passion even in the face of personal danger.
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I felt bigger than myself. I was suffering for a cause, and the pain and fear no longer mattered. I was not alone.” – Sister Janice McLaughlin
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.