My Mary Magdalenes

MaryM_and_Christby Tefi Ma’ake

When I was a graduate student in Berkeley, I lived with a Benedictine sister from Atchison, Kansas. Sr. Suzanne not only became a close friend, but also helped to shatter the ideas and misconceptions of what I believed a woman religious was or had to be. It didn’t take long for my classmates and I to pen her the “coolest nun ever!” Suzanne didn’t earn this title because she could tell us crazy adventure stories of her living and working all over the country, or because she had a DVD, CD, and video game collection that put us all to shame, or even because she had tattoos (although they definitely supported her given title), she was the “coolest nun ever” simply because she was who she was – she was real, and more than that she shared her real self with us. Suzanne was our classmate – she struggled with hours of reading, and papers, and sometimes frustrating professors, just like the rest of us did. And for me she was a witness of faith and constant reminder to stick to it, even when I wasn’t so sure I needed this Church or that this Church needed me.

Now I hope she doesn’t get upset with this little blog shout out, but I bring her up because she is the main reason that at 9:00 am every morning I get a text message with the readings of the day and a question to ponder. One of her fellow Benedictines sends out these text messages everyday and I was so intrigued with the idea that I signed up last summer when I went to visit Suzanne at her monastery. I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve gotten so used to the text, that some days I don’t even read them, let alone take the time to pray with and reflect on the question posed. But when I do, they always seem to be just the messages and questions I need to devote time to. Last week, the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, was one of those days and the question, “Who have been the prophetic women in my life?” has had me thinking since I first checked the text message.

Without question Suzanne stands among the prophetic women in my life, but countless others raced through my mind as I thought about this question. I first thought about the teachers who have shaped and guided me: Ms. Knapp, my high school campus minister and “Women in the Church” teacher who planted little seeds of question and encouraged me to let them grow; Sr. Mary McGann, RSCJ, whose passion for liturgy taught me that knowing our history and being able to meet the pastoral needs of our communities were equally important; and Sr. Eva Marie Lumas, SSS, who opened up the world of liberation theology and always pushed me to find and use my own voice. These women made me think of other female scholars who were foundational in my both my education and spirituality, like mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros, most famous for my all time favorite book, The House on Mango Street. The works of both these women are prophetic because they validate both the fight (lucha) and hope (esperanza) to actively work for change.

Before long I was poring over the Gospel reading for the day (John 20:1-2, 11-18) and researching Mary Magdalene. So long misidentified as a penitent prostitute, Mary Magdalene is a remarkable woman not only because of her devotion and love for Jesus, but because of her recognizable role as leader. Coined the Apostle to the Apostles, Mary Magdalene was among the first to witness Christ at the tomb and to be commissioned to service and appointed to proclaim the Good News. These two marks of an apostle, witnessing the risen Christ, and being sent out in service called to mind the many prophetic Mary Magdalenes in my own life for whom I am very grateful.

My mother, Nancy Elaine Ma’ake. I can remember being five years old and watching my mom go through the initiation process at St. Didacus parish in San Diego, CA. My mother converted from the Lutheran faith because it was so important for my father that their children be raised in the Catholic tradition. When I decided to study theology in college, it was my mother who offered me a new perspective on the faith tradition I had, in a way, taken for granted. I remember interviewing my mom about the significance of the Eucharist to her for a paper and for the first time tangibly understanding the “real presence” so often discussed in class. For my mother, receiving the Eucharist every Sunday was the gift of Jesus broken and offered to her that sustained and strengthened her to go out and be Christ for others. I’ve never before and never since seen a Church so packed as I did for her funeral, a true testament to her witness of faith and the love she so freely offered to all those she encountered.

My younger sister Stefini Lynn Ma’ake, who is more like my mother than I wish I could say for myself. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, it was Stefini who stepped in to take care of my mother and help my dad with my younger brother and sister. When my teenage brother and his girlfriend (now wife) found out they were having a baby, it was Stefini who reminded us all that when it came down to it, this new life was a blessing and it was she who helped raise my niece so my brother and his wife wouldn’t feel so helpless and alone. Stefini is the most selfless person I know and I hope one day to be more like her.

My best friends Heather Kelesey, Raquel Amezquita, and Karina Moreno. I am truly blessed with amazing people in my life and my three closest friends remind me every day what it means to be a woman of faith and devote one’s life to service. Heather has been my best friend since high school, went to college with me, and ultimately picked up and moved to Chicago to serve with ICTC (Inner City Teaching Corps) and teach at an inner city elementary school. Everything she has, she offers to her students and she is one of the most phenomenal teachers I know. This summer I had the opportunity to watch her in action as she ran a summer camp she started for her students to give them a safer alternative during the summer. The students aren’t charged anything for the three-week camp that has them actively engaged in all Chicago has to offer, and she doesn’t get paid either. That she manages each summer to raise enough money and so willingly gives up her summer to benefit others amazes me.

Raquel and I met our freshman year of college at LMU. She had recently lost her mother to cancer and then our sophomore year accompanied one her best friends, George, as he struggled with cancer himself. As a 19-year-old college student, Raquel wasn’t goofing off like some other students, she was organizing and fundraising for bone marrow drives on campus, hoping to find a match for George. She turned this passion into her career and since college has worked as a bone marrow recruiter. She currently works at City of Hope, a hospital designed especially for cancer patients, and also the hospital where both of our mothers were treated. Everyday for Raquel is filled with joys and heartache. She works tirelessly for her patients, cries with and consoles parents when they lose a child, and celebrates when a transplant is successful. Walking with her on her chosen path reminds me just how real God is.

Karina and I became friends during grad school with the PLACE Corps (Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education). At 27, Karina became the principal of Dolores Mission School, the most economically poor of all the Catholic schools in Los Angeles, but the richest in so many other ways. Everyday she somehow makes it possible to help parents send their children to school, when they can’t even afford electricity or to put food on the table. She works to provide a safe environment for her students in an area most known for its gang violence. I’ve shed tears with her on days when it seems she’s barely keeping her head above water, when waves of tragedy and hardship keep crashing, but somehow she keeps swimming and is stronger in her position than I could ever dream of being.

These women, my friends – my sisters – are the real prophetic women in my life, my Mary Magdalenes, walking and leading me everyday – messengers of God embodying what it means to put faith in action. As I continue to read through the stories of the women in From the Pews in the Back, I’m inspired by even more young prophets. I didn’t realize two days ago how much time I’d spend reflecting on such an important question, but I’m so glad I took the time and encourage you to do the same. Who are the prophetic women in your life?

Tefi Ma’ake is the oldest child of a Tongan father and a Swedish American mother. She was born in Hawaii, grew up in San Diego, and currently resides in Los Angeles where she works as campus minister and theology teacher at Notre Dame Academy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and theology and a Master of Arts in secondary education from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and a Master of Theological Studies with a specialization in multicultural theology and religious education from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. In her spare time, Tefi loves to read, experiment in the kitchen, and spoil her nieces.

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One Response

  1. And you, dear friend, are one of mine. Prophets challenge others with their words and their message, and I continually see you speaking for those without a voice: sharing your message of experience and faith through this book and through these blogs and speaking for your students of color at ND, you are a prophetic woman, and I so appreciate your passion, insight, honesty, and love.

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