My Spring Break with the Nuns

A fresh look at why the Little Sisters of the Poor deserve to win their Supreme Court case

I spent my spring break with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gallup, New Mexico, six years ago. Now when you think of a college student on spring break, you probably picture booze, beaches and bad decisions. But that week of my life was even crazier than that.

I was part of a team of about 15 college students serving in various parts across the region. One group spent time with severely disabled children on the nearby Diné reservation; my group led a retreat for students at the local Catholic school; and another served the elderly all day alongside the Little Sisters at their nursing home.

Since we arrived on a Sunday, those of us serving at the school or on the reservation got a glimpse of what the Little Sisters did on a daily basis.

Each morning they woke before their guests (the Little Sisters take an extra vow of hospitality, along with poverty, chastity, and obedience and therefore see all their residents and volunteers as “guests” in their homes) to pray and attend Mass. From what I saw, their day was filled with prayer, caring for their elderly guests, begging, more prayer, and more service.

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By the end of the day I was physically and emotionally exhausted. And confused. I’d prayed with an elderly woman on her deathbed. I narrowly avoided being tricked into eating a spicy Hatch chile whole by a mischievous Diné man who tried to convince us how mild they were by eating them whole with nothing to wash them down. I’d spent more time in prayer than I knew was possible with my attention span.

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The Little Sisters were so joyful and alive. Was there some secret stash of espresso back in the kitchen that I’d missed while we were serving lunch?

The Little Sisters were kind enough to allow us to make our home base out of two of their guesthouses: two double-wides furnished with well-loved, donated furniture and stocked with plenty of expired snacks for hungry college students.

At first we were a little shocked about the food. Should we tell them all the food in their cupboards of the guesthouse was expired? How long had it been since they had someone stay here? How could they let all of that food go to waste?

We called our teammates at the men’s cabin to investigate. We wanted to know a polite way to tell them all the food they had for their volunteers was no good, but how could you tell a group of sweet, old nuns that the free food they provided for you wasn’t good enough?

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When we got a hold of the men’s house, our co-leader informed us that they’d already asked our chaperone/chaplain about it. The priest laughed as he explained how they beg for everything, including the food they provided for us. Our priest reassured us that the food was still fine to eat; they’d done their research on how much longer pre-packaged food could last past its “sell-by” date.

Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor are having their case argued in the Supreme Court of the United States. Theirs is one in a group of seven cases in Zubik v. Burwell, which includes as plaintiffs Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, and several Christian colleges against the Obama administration’s HHS Mandate.

I’m summarizing Matt Hadro’s report here when I explain that, in 2010, the Affordable Care Act required that preventive services be covered in employer health plans. In its guidelines released in 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services stated that these services included sterilizations and contraceptives, including some abortifacients.

The HHS granted narrow exemptions for churches and their affiliates such as parish groups and schools. Religious non-profits who objected to such coverage, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, were not exempt, however.

The administration then offered an “accommodation” for these objecting non-profits. The non-profits would send a form to the government stating their objection, and the government would then notify their insurer, who would provide the coverage at a separate cost.

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However, plaintiffs argue that they would still be cooperating with actions they believe are seriously immoral by facilitating the contraception coverage. They face steep fines for not complying with the mandate, and with no other option than violating their conscience, they took the case to court.

No Half Measures
I began to realize during my brief stay with them that the Little Sisters don’t do anything in half measures. The ones I spent my time with in Gallup were totally devoted to their guests, and through them, to God and their Catholic faith. As their founder, St. Jeanne Jugan once said, “My loving Jesus, I have only you.” They take that to heart in everything that they do and prayer is just as much a part of their day as service to the poor.

Their infectious joy, I discovered, comes from serving Him through the poor.

That’s why it makes me so angry to see that 1 in 3 Americans and huge corporations like Exxon, Pepsi, and Visa are exempt from the HHS mandate — but a group of nuns dedicated to serving the poor and elderly are not.

That’s why I’m praying that our Supreme Court justices will side with reason over ideology in granting an exemption to the Little Sisters and the other plaintiffs in this case.

This article originally appeared in Catholic News Agency. 

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