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‘'When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, there are many ways and forms in which a man can be a Christian' (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer).
LIFE & SOUL 5 - SISTER BARBARA EPPICH: URSULINE TEACHER IN INNER CITY OHIO
I dance my prayer in my heart everywhere I go - quietly and with a smile. As an Ursuline sister in the United States, who made her vows in 1953 and has spent her life teaching young children, I still live out my order’s mission to transform society through contemplation, justice and compassion. This means setting aside time to listen to God, to refresh my spirit and create a safe place in me in order to walk among God’s people so that I can create safe places for those I meet along the way.
My spiritual life has been touched and moved by many timely events over the years. In the 1990s, for example, three Black African church leaders gave me a new insight into spirituality. All three died of cancer within a short time of each other but I believe Jim, Joe and Thea remain my Trinity and they were the ones who taught me to dance my prayer. Black Church leaders know that God is good – all the time – and I believe it with all my heart.
I’m now in my eighties but I still ‘dance my prayer.’ I grew up in the Collinwood neighbourhood of Cleveland, Ohio, where I have ministered to the poor among the poor for much of my life. I came to the Ursulines from St Jerome parish and spent the first 35 years of my ministry as a teacher and principal of elementary schools throughout the diocese. I worked in education for over 50 years. My last appointment was as director and head teacher of Saint Joseph Family Care Preschool, providing a Montessori environment with a learning-centre approach to children from the Black African community who were four or older. This is an educational system which allows young children to develop academically through natural interests rather than formal teaching methods. It aims to make children more independent and aware of themselves. They have the opportunity to develop at their own rate and with their own learning style. It provides a solid foundation which translates into improved educational outcomes years later. From pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, we specialise in developing personal skills and values, academic and cognitive skills, group values and relationships. The program is well rounded, offering many opportunities for the young students to explore their interests and talents. Daily activities are in the areas of reading readiness, maths, social science, health and safety, education in religion, perceptual motor skills, art, music and creative development.
The preschool runs from 7.30 in the morning to 6 in the evening during the school year for up to 28 children. This particular preschool was my idea. It involved securing more than $200,000 in funding to start the programme, renovate St Joseph’s Church to accommodate the classes and employ several staff. This has meant that hundreds of inner city children entered kindergarten with better-developed social, cognitive and academic skills. The family care centre has always offered these children a safe environment that promotes physical, mental, social and spiritual growth. It’s an important start for these very children who might otherwise be lost in a challenging district of the inner city.
The families of these children are very poor. Most of them are on welfare; but when they feel they have some support, they do very well. Everyone pays some tuition. If they have jobs, they can get vouchers to help pay. If they can’t pay with money, they can pay with time, volunteering to help out for two hours a week. And if the parents can’t help out themselves, they can send the grandmothers and aunts. We do everything possible to involve the families. I noticed that parents who helped out with the classes also blossomed themselves during the school year. As they witnessed the value of their service, the change became visible in the way they dressed and carried themselves. This sense of pride is healthy for everyone involved in the lives of these children. By how they act, children teach me to love God so I must act right for them to see me.
In 2009 we suffered a setback when both the school and the program were closed by the diocese. It was then that I faced many challenges. When the diocese shut me up in 2009 at St Joseph on St Clair, I was angry but I would not let my anger make me anxious. So, with God's help and lots of prayers, I found another place - St. Jerome Elementary School on Lake Shore Boulevard 20 minutes away. If God takes you to it, he will take you through it.