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Focus to the Journey

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Six women are gathered for class in a cheerful second-floor room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they wait to learn about leadership from impressive teachers whose lives served as models for their people.

Not one of the teachers will come to class.

The teachers have good reasons for not showing. They’ve been dead for thousands of years. It is the task of Charity Sr. Arleen Ketchum to demonstrate that these teachers, women from the Hebrew Bible, are fellow sufferers. Like the women in the class, these Hebrew women also faced shame, jealousy, invisibility and the inability to name and claim their unique gifts.

“God calls each of us to use the gifts given to us,” Ketchum tells that evening’s gathering at the Elizabeth Seton Women’s Center, which focuses on the story of Miriam. “Every one of us has a purpose.”

Other sessions will focus on Eve, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Shiprah and Puah, Esther, Ruth and Naomi.

Helping women find that purpose is the reason the Sisters of Charity of New York established the center following their 1995 general assembly. One of the goals established at that meeting, as part of the order’s Vision 2000, was “to respond to the needs of women and value women’s experience as sisters, weaving our gifts into the fabric of contemporary society.”

Ketchum, the 57-year-old founder and director, uses the story of Miriam, sister of Moses, for inspiration as the women sit in a circle on a sofa and cushioned folding chairs around her for their weekly midlife spirituality group. Ketchum wants the women of the past to become mentors for the center’s women. “They, like ourselves, were women on a faith journey with no blueprint for success,” she said.

“Miriam was not only the first woman to be called prophet, she was the first person to be called prophet,” Ketchum said, telling how Miriam preserved the life of the infant Moses and returned him to his mother’s breast when Pharoah’s daughter needed a wet nurse. “If it were not for the women in Moses’ life, he never would have seen that burning bush.”

Miriam also was central to the Exodus, Ketchum points out. “She leads the people, especially the women, in ecstatic song and dance after they cross the Red Sea. She gave focus to the journey.”

But Miriam’s role is downplayed in scripture, Ketchum says, possibly by “the desire of a later editor to denigrate women,” and Moses is elevated.

“When someone goes up, another has to go down.” Miriam’s troubles began when she spoke up to authority, Ketchum tells them.

“That’s right,” several women call out.

Ketchum asks how Miriam’s experience compares with theirs.

Hafeesa Nettles speaks up immediately.

“I never felt appreciated,” she says. “From childhood I’d begun to believe I wasn’t worthy.”

Nettles, 47, who describes herself as “working poor,” says she has begun standing up to people when she disagrees. “I can’t let people beat me down anymore. I’ve been beaten down enough. I never could have done that before this group.”

After studying Ruth and learning about her decision to accompany her mother-in-law to a strange land, Nettles changed her life even more. She gave up her Manhattan apartment, with plans to return to Nashville where she attended college. She went online, found an apartment and got two job offers.

“That story made me think, ‘What difference does it make? There’s got to be a friend for me somewhere.’ Ruth inspired me that I can make a family wherever I go.”

Ketchum is thrilled.

“That’s what happens here,” she said. “Women’s voices become stronger. They find support from women here.”

More than 600 women a year of diverse faiths, cultures, economic means and ethnicity turn to the Seton Center for workshops, programs and referrals. Most live in the five boroughs of New York, although some come from Westchester County, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“I feel you can really open your heart here about things that are troubling you,” said Cecilia Cedeno, who heard about the Seton Center through another women’s center in Brooklyn where she lives. “This is more spiritual. It goes deeper.”

Magda Moyano heard about the center through her yoga class.

“I just took a chance and came,” she said. “It’s a loving atmosphere for people in emotional transition who need support. I can’t imagine a better place.”

That loving atmosphere starts with Ketchum, or Arlie, as the women call her. A heavy-set woman with gray hair, she listens as the women share their stories, and makes sure everyone has a chance to be heard. She also allows one woman, an incest victim who cries quietly throughout most of the Miriam session, to remain quiet, telling her she will be there afterwards or the next day if she wants to talk.

Ketchum, whose background is in elementary education, said her current vocation emerged five years ago after she spent a sabbatical year at Berakah, a renewal center and retreat house in Pittsfield, N.H. There she took courses in women’s spirituality and women in scripture. Her return to New York coincided with her order’s efforts to live out the Vision 2000 goals, so Ketchum was chosen to start a center for women’s spirituality.

Armed with her knowledge from Berakah and advice from Janet Corso, the director of Sarabrae Spirituality Center for Women in Newburgh, N.Y., Ketchum started her order’s center Sept. 1, 1996, in two small rooms on the Upper East Side used mostly as offices, with classes being held in outside locations. Realizing women needed a place of their own where they could gather, the Charity sisters moved the center the next year to its current location in the Blessed Sacrament Convent on West 70th Street.

Naming the center for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a natural choice, but not just because she was the founder of the Sisters of Charity.

“She was a teacher and she opened the first Catholic school in the United States,” Ketchum said. “She used her gifts for what was needed. Today those needs are being met. What women are looking for now is a place to develop their spirituality on an adult level. They connect with other women and have a place where they can talk about their relationship with God.”

Close to 90 percent of the $128,000 annual budget is met by the Sisters of Charity of New York. Most of the rest comes from grants, especially for the programs for women in recovery conducted by Karen O’Brien who works part time in collaboration with Ketchum. Each course has a suggested donation -- for the eight-week midlife spirituality group it was $130 -- but no one is turned away if they are unable to pay. “Some only pay a dollar or two,” Ketchum said. “They receive the same love and warmth.”

That love and warmth fills the center. Statues of women and illustrations from different cultures are placed around the room. Chaim, the Hebrew word for life, is painted in fire colors on one wall. The women in the midlife spirituality group have surrounded it with paper butterflies. Each woman decorated a butterfly in the first class session and labelled it with the transformation she wanted to undergo.

In one of the illustrations, three women sit together in a circle with a lighted candle in the middle, just as the real-life women sit in a circle at the center and share their light.

Classes begin with breath work and stretching, prayer, singing and an opportunity to share events from the previous week or to read from their journals. Ketchum then talks about one of the biblical women and offers challenging questions for discussion or written reflection.

For Miriam she offers two [questions from Rose Sallberg Kam's book Their Stories, Our Stories: Women of the Bible]: “Miriam’s banishment from camp must have seemed the darkest moment of her life. When have you experienced overwhelming rejection or loneliness?”

And: “Like Miriam, many talented women find official leadership denied them. Just as Miriam never reached Canaan, they may never reach the promised land of gender equality. Even so, how might they extend their current use of their gifts of leadership?”

Moyano shares an experience she thinks is particular to women. She had worked for the United Nations for years and was ready to be appointed to a top-level position when she decided to adopt two boys and sideline her career. She said she doesn’t regret it, but thinks fear may have been her motive as much as a desire for motherhood.

“We have to stop blaming men or our mothers,” she said. “A lot of it is ourselves. We’re uncomfortable with power.”

A concluding part of each class is the activity. For studying Miriam, which involves a bowl of yellow and purple sand surrounded by nine white candles -- one for each of the women, one for Ketchum and one for each of two visitors -- with a larger purple candle in the middle. It represents “our God who always leads us,” Ketchum said.

Beside the bowl is a statue of a woman in a purple gown with her arms raised toward heaven. Ketchum calls her Wisdom Woman because “in our journeys all of us are seeking God’s wisdom.” The final element in this ritual is a butterfly candle, representing “the freedom we all yearn for,” which Ketchum asks the incest victim to light.

One by one the women approach the bowl. They take a little sand from a smaller bowl, adding their sand to the desert. Then they light a candle and declare what they hope to achieve as they pass through their own deserts. These include a desire to be less judgmental, that past hurts won’t interfere with a new relationship and to hold on to a belief in self.

“As we move through these deserts, we move into the freedom that new life gives us, and we are truly transformed,” Ketchum said.

By the end of the evening, the candles have melted together, celebrating the women’s unity.

The class ends as it began, in song. This time, though, Ketchum puts her arm around one woman, who reaches for another. Soon they have formed a chorus line, dancing and singing to a tape of “Live the Promise,” a song by Rory Cooney.

The most ecstatic singer and dancer is Ketchum, a modern-day Miriam leading her people through their deserts.

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer, is editor of the anthology Journalism Stories from the Real World.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001 [corrected 08/10/2001]