Articles

But He Was There

March 10, 2016 by

“Were the sisters able to witness to their faith before they were shot?” I asked Sister Chantal, as I sat with her in the cramped, sparsely furnished dwelling of the Missionaries of Charity in West London a few days ago. On hearing of the shooting of four nuns at the Missionaries of Charity home for aged and disabled in the port city of Aden, Yemen, I took the day off work and made the two-hour drive into London from the Darvell Bruderhof in rural Sussex to express love and solidarity to the seven nuns of Mother Teresa’s order who faithfully live out their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the midst of London’s multicultural melee.

Sister Chantal raised both hands as she lifted her eyes imploringly to heaven. “We don’t know. We have had no details of how it was. They were in Yemen, you know. None of us can get into the country to claim the bodies or speak with the sister who survived. She was from India, the Superior of the community in Yemen. We know she is safe, but she is in hiding.”

As they served breakfast to their patients on Friday, March 4, Missionaries of Charity Sister Anselm of India, Sisters Margherite and Reginette of Rwanda, and Sister Judith of Kenya were taken hostage by armed gunmen who forced their way into the charity-run care home under the pretext of wanting to visit their mothers. The sisters were handcuffed, shot in the head, and killed. Twelve additional staff members also lost their lives as they defended the nuns from the assailants. A surviving fifth sister fled and jumped into a fridge when she heard the shouting. A Salesian priest from India who was staying at the compound also disappeared, seemingly abducted by the attackers. Pope Francis called the four sisters “the martyrs of today.”

Sister Chantal enveloped me in a heartfelt embrace as we sat down on the rough-hewn chairs in the tiny parlor. “Because they gave their lives every day, they were ready,” she mused. “It could have been me or any of us assigned to Yemen.”

photographs of the four nuns who were martyred in Yemen
L-R: Sister Anselm (India), Sister Reginette (Rwanda), Sister Margherite (Rwanda), Sister Judith (Kenya) Credit: The Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia

She went on to tell me that in Mother Teresa’s early life, she wanted to give “saints” to the Church through her order of nuns committed entirely to Christ. “Toward the end of her life, however, Mother spoke of giving ‘martyrs’.” I looked into the luminous eyes of the sister beside me. They shone with love and serenity. An atmosphere of prayer filled the room. “We are martyred for him every day. Total giving is what our lives are all about. We are committed to showing what it means to live for God, till the end.”

As a vowed member of the Bruderhof Communities, I, too, have committed my life unreservedly to Christ. I feel a deep connection to the sisters who died in Yemen. After all, they were doing exactly what I have signed up to do: lay down my life for others following the example of our Lord Jesus.

When I urged Chantal for further details, she continued, "The attack was a calculated ambush on the sisters. None of the residents of the home were killed; just the sisters and the staff members who sought to protect the nuns. The gunmen smashed all the crucifixes and religious symbols in the home." Sister Chantal became animated. “The love our sisters gave to the people in Yemen prompted twelve others to give their lives to defend them. Some of those were definitely not Christian. But they had witnessed the sisters’ love in action and saw their lives as a testimony to the power of love. They died protecting that love.”

Some of the residents of the home the sisters were working in.
Residents of the care home in Yemen where the sisters worked

Concerned for the young sisters in Sister Chantal’s London community, I wondered how they were coping with the tragedy. Her response stopped me in my tracks: “In the eyes of God, we cannot see this as a loss. Humanly, perhaps, we have lost our sisters. But they were part of a chain of love that cannot be broken. Not even death can break the chain of love.” She went on to explain that the shooting left the Yemeni care home unstaffed. But the organization Doctors Without Borders quickly came to take over the work the sisters were doing. “Martyr’s death is the soil in which new seeds of love can flourish.”

In 1998 three nuns from the same order were martyred in Yemen. At that time, their regional Provincial for the Middle East met with each of the remaining nuns in Yemen and offered them reassignment to safer territory. Each sister, on her own, asked to stay. Who else would care for the Yemeni people? Yemen needed the light of Christ, and they were prepared to be that light.

The legacy of that light – the seeds of love – grew. Chantal went on, “Our sisters could not have given their lives that day if they had not given them to Jesus every day, beforehand. The love of Jesus was working in secret all these years while our sisters quietly served. We don’t see a child growing in its mother’s womb. He grows hidden and silent. But then, in God’s time, he is born into the world. Through suffering he comes into the light of day to be seen by all. You see, because our sisters were killed, the chain of love they were part of has now become visible. The assailants could kill the sisters, but they could not kill the chain of love. My Lord! Look at the power of their witness!”

I was awestruck. A meditative silence hung in the room. Eventually, I gave voice to what I was thinking: this same love hung on the cross two thousand years ago when Christ sacrificed his life. At the time of his death, too, all seemed humanly lost. Sister Chantal continued, “People ask us what we are doing for the world. Nothing! Apparently nothing. But our Lord says, ‘I ask nothing of you except that you give a living witness of love.’ Because we do it for God and with God, he is there, and that is powerful. Wherever God is, evil has no power!” She acknowledged sadness that none of their community could be in Yemen to stand by their sisters in their hour of need. “But He was there.”

Our conversation turned to Good Friday and Easter, the holy days that are just a few weeks away. The parallels were striking: love that gives itself for others, and new life that rises from death. Chantal quietly recited a passage from the Gospel of John. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). “To the end,” she emphasized. “God always asks for a total commitment. His commitment to us was total. And so must ours be.”


Rebekah Domer of Darvell Community in Sussex, England, is a single sister who has served the Bruderhof in a variety of its ministries for over twenty-five years. She currently works for Plough Publishing, as well as volunteering her time as a chaplain at a local hospice.

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  • When I look at the sacrifice of the sisters have given & continue to give, I look to be a miserable sinner very selfish only thinking about me & my family. I ask a true heart to do something & work for the kingdom of God.

    vincent rego
  • Thank you for telling us about these wonderful people, may the Lord watch over all who share their faith.

    Lydia Lewis