Sharon McKenna – Receive All as Christ

I found the following short bio in the book “Strength is What Remains” by Tracy Kidder.  The book is about a Burundian refugee’s horrific experiences in his homeland and in New York.  While the story of the refugee Deo is very inspirational, it is the life of one of side characters that really haunts me:

Sharon (McKenna) grew up in Norwich, Vermont, in an Irish Catholic family, a little strapped for cash, and frugal.  Her parents managed to send her to Wellesley College, where she would have been in the class of 1960, but once she discovered her vocation, she transferred to the Catholic school Manhattanville.  She traveled some, in Europe and the Middle East.  In late 1960, she entered a Benedictine convent in Connecticut.  Speaking of that convent, she told me, “I always say that, just for me, that was not the right place.”  She said this without a trace of irony, I noticed, even though it had taken her thirty years of cloistered life to decide the place wasn’t right.

Sharon began to think of leaving the convent when the abbess launched the construction of an elegant building to replace their rather makeshift quarters.  She remembered thinking, “Gee, I thought we were supposed to be living simply, the way we all should.  Let’s share with people who have nothing.

Her parents had subscribed to The Catholic Worker, a dangerous organ of left-wing Catholicism to some, and to others an extension of the ideas of the Sermon on the Mount.  Sharon grew up reading it.  She didn’t regret her years at the convent.  She had learned a great deal.  Among other things, she seemed to say, she’d found that she yearned to play a little part in the affairs of the world.  She had received dispensation to resign as a nun, but still wore her ring from consecration.  She had come to New York without a job or even many clothes and had found her way to St. Thomas More.  She was paid a small salary to do various jobs at the church–taking care of flowers for the sanctuary, help at wedding rehearsals.  She also taught Sunday school to the four- and five-year-olds.

Sharon believed her job in life was to discover the abilities she had received and use them “in a deep, giving spirit,” for the glory of God.  She threw herself into all her jobs, but she spent at least as much time in her self-appointed role, which was receiving people who came to the church in distress.  The supply was abundant even on the Upper East Side.  “I feel this is just being a Benedictine in another situation,” she said.  The prescriptions for receiving guests were laid out in chapter 66 of the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict.  The basic instruction was simple:  “Receive all as Christ.”  the porter, the doorkeeper, should respond to visitors with “all the gentleness of the fear of God.”  I took it that, at least in part, Sharon had left her Benedictine convent in order to become a Benedictine doorkeeper.

The job entailed a certain amount of potential embarrassment and I had the feeling that, for her, embarrassment was sometimes a temptation.  She told me that not long ago a well-to-do friend, parishioner, had seen her pushing a shopping cart full of used clothes for the needy toward the church, and had told her that this just wasn’t done.  Respectable people just didn’t push shopping carts down the sidewalks of Fifth or Madison Avenue.  “Well, maybe they don’t,” Sharon told me she had replied.  “But I do, I don’t care.”  Not long ago, she told me, a man had staggered into the sanctuary in the pangs of drug withdrawal and collapsed writhing on the floor, and as she knelt over him first kneading his shoulders and legs, then pounding on them to try to loosen his cramps, she was thinking, “If someone comes into the church right now and sees this, they’ll wonder, ‘What the heck is going on?’  But I don’t care.”

She didn’t discriminate among the needy people who arrived at the door, she said.  Whatever troubles they brought, she took them on, if she could, and none of the people bored her.  Not, for instance, the retarded lady with whom she lived for several years after the pastor at St. Thomas More decided he no longer wanted women living in the rectory.  The retarded woman didn’t bathe, her apartment was crammed with garbage and junk, and it took about six months for Sharon to get the woman and her place cleaned up, but she didn’t mind any of it, she insisted.  She’d tell herself, “Hey, this is some adventure here.  What kind of headway can we make here?”  She thought of what she did offering undifferentiated help to anybody.”  “It boils down to whoever walks into my life.”  There were the “druggies,” who were afraid to come into the rectory.  And the woman who hadn’t been in a church for 20 years but told Sharon she was aching now to go to confession.  And the homeless lady, a paranoid schizophrenic, who would lie down on a pew as if on a park bench–the church authorities had finally decided they had to throw her out.

Sharon Mckenna

Sharon still befriended her and all the others, and felt glad to see them when they arrived.

While in New York, Deo desparately wants to attend medical school and become a doctor.  Sharon helps provides him with physical and emotional support needed to accomplish his goal.  This colaboration has led to the Village Health Works, a humanitarian group working in Burundi.  According to Lisha McCormick, Director of Development for Village Health Works:

In July [2011], Sharon was able to travel to visit the Village Health Works project in Burundi and meet the many community members who benefit from the Village Health Works Sharon McKenna Health Center.

Sharon McKenna During a Recent Visit to Burundi

It truly is inspiring to me that through her genuine kindness and belief in the value of all people she meets, so very many lives have been so profoundly affected.  To provide a bit of perspective, Burundi is a country of just under 9 million people, but it has less than 200 doctors.  Thus, access to healthcare is virtually non-existant to rural Burundians, the majority of whom are subsistence farmers who live on less than $1 a day. Our health center is an oasis of healing and hope amid some of the worst poverty in the world. Sharon’s hand has played a very distinct role in making Village Health Works a reality.  

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One Response to Sharon McKenna – Receive All as Christ

  1. Lisha says:

    Dear Roger,

    Sharon McKenna is sitting with me now and, as she is not an email user, has asked that I reach out to you to express her appreciation for your blog and her thanks for recognizing her in your February 10, 2010 post. Sharon was hoping you could kindly make one correction in your post where you quote from “Strength in What Remains”:

    ‘She said this with a trace of irony, I noticed, even though it had taken her thirty years of cloistered life to decide the place wasn’t right.’ to instead read as “She said this without a trace of irony.”

    Thank you so much for your work and your wonderful blog.

    Best regards,
    Lisha McCormick

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