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Reconciliation in the Lives of the Little Sisters of Jesus

An ethnography of Catholic religious life in situations of political violence and oppression.

The Little Sisters of Jesus were established in the Algerian Sahara by a French woman, Magdeleine Hutin (Little Sister Magdeleine of Jesus), one week after the Second World War was declared. Almost eighty years later, they number approximately 1200 sisters in 60 countries. Inspired by Charles de Foucauld, a 19th century French monk who “did not feel called to imitate Jesus in his public life and preaching, but…the hidden life of the humble and poor workman of Nazareth”, they take whatever low-paid menial work they can find, sharing their neighbours’ material living conditions as closely as they can, with the aim of fostering reconciliation simply through being present. LS Magdeleine used to say that the whole of the sisters' spirituality could be summed up with the word 'unity'. When I told the nuns that I was interested in learning more about their work for reconciliation, the reply was cautious: "It's not work, exactly." One of them would clarify: "I used to work day in and day out in a jam factory. In the end it's not the work that matters, but the friendship with the people you're with."

This research project grew out of ten years of friendship with the LSJ. Over that decade their life has fascinated and challenged me on both an intellectual and a spiritual level. I completed my doctoral research in Palestine/Israel, an ethnographic study involving youth who were living in areas of high friction. After meeting an 11-year-old Palestinian girl whose father had been detained by the army without charge or trial, or phoning a friend in Gaza whose terminally ill mother had run out of painkillers, my work would seem futile at best, voyeuristic and exploitative at worst. I would often wonder about the LSJ conviction that it is possible to contribute to justice and reconciliation through presence rather than by any kind of professional activity. This is the most basic, bald question at the heart of this research. Gradually the project took shape around it.

In the end it’s not the work that matters, but the friendship with the people you’re with.
— A Little Sister of Jesus

Research themes

Islamic roots: LS Magdeleine initially wanted the sisters to live in Muslim-majority countries. In 1946 she felt that the congregation needed to broaden its focus, but the LSJ retain a profound sense of connection with the Islamic world and their early years in Algeria shaped their spirituality and outlook. How does this connection inform their understanding of reconciliation and their attempts to live it out, especially in today's political climate?

Vulnerability and peace: The LSJ choose to live in many politically fragile settings, often in places of violent conflict. In peace and conflict studies, it is common to talk about vulnerability only in terms of risk and protection - for example, how to mitigate dangers. Vulnerability is an important part of the LSJ's spirituality and it influences how they live. How do they understand their personal vulnerability in these precarious places, and does embracing it hold potential for reconciliation?

Personal encounter: The LSJ live in small communities of three or four, and their lives hinge on individual friendships, the primacy of the face-to-face encounter. How is reconciliation encouraged (or challenged) through the LSJ’s interactions with one another, their immediate neighbours, and their wider social environment? As they do not sponsor any formal peace work programmes, it is impossible to quantify their effectiveness. What does this mean for their daily lives and what can be learnt from this?