Sara Michel enjoyed the 'simple life' of working with the poor in Cuba, but then asked whether she was really serving anyone but herself.


Sara Michel enjoyed the 'simple life' of working with the poor in Cuba, but then asked whether she was really serving anyone but herself.

December 17, 2012
Following is the text of the talk by Sara Michel, Alberta-Mackenzie animator for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, at the Dec. 6 session of Nothing More Beautiful.

I am humbled by Archbishop Smith's invitation to share with you the experience of my relationship with Christ. Indeed, that relationship determines everything about my path in evangelizing the social and political order through my work with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Every great relationship is characterized by great communication, which consists of not only speaking, but also active listening. A few months ago, in anticipation of tonight's talk, I was waiting, listening for inspiration. The response came as it always does, through Scripture.

I will share with you the reading I heard at church one Sunday in October. It was from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5:

"While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes'aret. And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

"And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, 'Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.' And Simon answered, 'Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.' And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them."

This passage is rich in teaching, but I will only reflect on two aspects that made all the difference in my path.

First, going out into the deep is Christ's command. Christ commanded Simon "Put out into the deep". What is the deep? The deep, for me, is bringing the Gospel not only to individuals, but to go beyond individuals, and to evangelize the social and political order. In practice it is to go beyond addressing immediate, short-term needs and address the root causes of poverty and injustice.

Secondly, one cannot go out into the deep and expect to catch any fish (as in actually succeed in building a world free of poverty and injustice) without him. Simon Peter and the other fishermen had already "toiled all night and took nothing." But at the Lord's word they "enclosed a great shoal."

Tonight I will share with you how I have experienced the command to go out into the deep.

The Lord prepared me for the command to go "into the deep" through principles and practices learned at home, church and school. I see these as the boat and net for my journey.


I was born to God-fearing Coptic Christian parents who raised my sister and me to have a strong faith in God, exercised through the sacraments and affirmed by their example in our home. A fundamental manifestation of my parents' faith was their service to the poor and the sick, something I attribute to the strong influence of the example and teachings of the Desert Fathers.

We would spend our Christmas and Easter celebrations, not exchanging gifts, but visiting hospitals and those who had no one to care for them. (Do not get me wrong; when my sister and I were younger we partook in this tradition more begrudgingly than joyfully).

Sara relaxes at the end of a long day pulling out cacti near Bayamo, Cuba, in 2002.


Sara relaxes at the end of a long day pulling out cacti near Bayamo, Cuba, in 2002.

At Church I was taught that I ought to first care and strive for my own spiritual life and salvation, and that a fundamental component of a healthy spiritual life was service to others, and the way one served others was to be a vessel of God's love to those around them.

At school, the principles of my home and church inspired me to join Archbishop MacDonald High School's Social Justice Club, in an effort to be a vessel of God's love to my neighbours, near or far. I was glad that my Catholic school provided me with the opportunity to affirm the teachings of the Church and my home.


Simply put, I was raised to strive to live a fruitful life so that at the end of my days I would meet my Lord reciting the words of St. Paul, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4.7)

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I learned of and experienced the sorrow, despair, poverty, conflict and injustice in the world. There was a great need for the expression of God's love to his people, his creation.

I innocently, and naively, echoed Isaiah's response to God "Here am I! Send me!" (Isaiah 6.8) The Lord, always faithful to that invitation, communicated his command to "put out into the deep" through a number of experiences, both challenges and opportunities, right after high school.

In my first year of university I found myself drawn, called to study history. It was a counter-cultural decision. At the most basic level, I was groomed by family (all of whom are physicians) and community expectations, and by my own academic choices, for a career in medicine.

At a professional level, studying history, did not guarantee any sort of financial or career stability, as opposed to a professional program in law, medicine, pharmacy, engineering etc. I didn't quite understand myself why I was drawn to that path.

In retrospect, I understand that one cannot accurately assess a social or political problem, or provide an effective and sustainable solution without knowing the context of it. That would be tantamount to a family doctor not taking a medical history before assessing and treating his patient. In fact, without knowing the patient's history, the doctor could kill his patient if he prescribes medication to which the patient is allergic.

In the same way, one cannot accurately perceive of, analyze, assess and resolve social and political problems without understanding their context, their history. In fact, simplistic problem assessments lead to superficial solutions which, regardless of the goodness of the intentions, can be ineffective at best and damaging at worst.

Six months after I graduated from the University of Alberta, with a degree in history and a certificate of Middle Eastern and African Studies, I got offered a job as an analyst with the federal government Department of National Defence. As an analyst I would research and analyze international issues to report, consult and advise decision-makers on matters related to Canadian foreign and defence policy.

I was in my early 20s, with a bachelor's degree, no previous "professional" experience, and I was being offered a permanent, high-paying, prestigious position in Ottawa. I got the car, the apartment, the work-related travel, the recognition. I thanked God. I had needed the affirmation that despite, and maybe even because, of the counter-cultural decision to study history, that I would be successful in this world.

Very shortly after though, I started to feel a great dissonance. I had all the material comforts, but I was not fulfilled. Surely I was engaged with the social and political order. I was researching it, analyzing it, advising on it – but for what purpose?

The choice of social and political issues, how they were defined, how they were actually expressed and addressed were motivated by personal or national self-interest rather than by moral principles that protect and uphold human dignity. Any attempts to bring the perspective of the common good, let alone the poor, were dismissed.

The intention and the method were not to catch fish, to bear positive effect ­- spiritual or material – on those that need it most. I was essentially standing at the lakeshore expecting to catch fish.

I was grateful for this experience. It demonstrated God's care for me (by providing me with employment). It was an expression of God's instruction about how material comfort and social recognition are no fish – they will not satisfy. The experience also presented me with God's challenge: what now?

Of course, trying to be faithful to the lessons learned, I sought an opportunity at the other end of the spectrum of engagement. I volunteered for a non-profit organization in Cuba, to work with young students, aspiring arts instructors on social and community projects. I stayed at the boarding school with the students where I slept on a piece of plywood with a bed-bug infested one-inch mattress, covered with a very ineffective mosquito net.


I had to go to a nearby water pump in order to get enough water to use the bathroom. I had to jump, Tarzan-style into a local pond to "shower." I ate beans every single day which we had gathered that same day at the farm where we worked.

It was one of the happiest times of my life, as I learned the beauty of simple living, working with my hands, appreciating the land, relating to people and community.

Let me describe to you the contrast in experience from the Canadian context: A number of Canadian volunteers came to work at the boarding school, and the Cubans, wanting to welcome the Canadians, took them to the beach. The beach was merely sand and sea. The Cubans immediately jumped into the water (most of them in their day clothes as they did not have bathing suits). Very quickly, they were interacting, playing games, joyful for a day off, joyful for having company, laughing, giggling and having the time of their lives.

On the other hand, the Canadian group stared blankly, confusedly at the water, at their surroundings. They seemed displaced. There were no beach chairs or umbrellas, no beach balls, no blaring music, no food bar. It was not even an hour before they requested to go back to the boarding school.

There was no "stuff" to entertain them at this simple, beautiful encounter of human and nature. This was another lesson on how material comfort, material dependence can starve more than it can feed.

As you see, and as most people who have gone on "mission" realize, I received more than I gave.

That experience of living simply, working with people on the land, healed me and formed me. I was so changed by the experience that I took a leave from government and headed to Bolivia, with a Church-run non-profit organization, to serve the community of San Jorge in the slums of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

I went to Bolivia gung-ho about contributing, making a difference. I felt like I was finally letting down the net. What I had not realized was that in Cuba, most of the fish I caught were fish that fed me.

Let me explain this a little. I already described how formative that experience was for me. The question is, did I have that much of an impact. Surely, any individual or community appreciates when someone steps out of their own bubble of self-interest, and takes the time and effort to listen to their story, to live with them, to be with them, to work with them.


However, I was not doing anything that the Cubans could not do, and were not already doing – whether it was working on a farm, painting buildings, visiting clinics. I assumed I was valuable for these things I was doing, though in reality, the value was not in doing, it was in being and in listening.

In fact, assuming that I was valuable for what I was doing for them, I carried the implicit understanding and message that I was more able and capable than they were. This was my mindset in going to Bolivia.

In Bolivia, seeking the simple life and the satisfaction of "doing good," I had proudly and arrogantly gone on mission with assumptions of capability (and thus the incapacity of the poor), and not recognizing my own mental, emotional and physical limitations in facing structures of poverty and sin.

I learned this lesson the hard way in Bolivia. I was slapped with a culture of poverty (and I mean poverty, not the poor). This culture is one that has been inspired and produced by some aid organizations (government, international or otherwise) that enforce the disempowerment of people by conditioning aid on it.

Sara Michel teaches an informal basic English class to children in a church hall in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia.


Sara Michel teaches an informal basic English class to children in a church hall in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia.

Simply put, it is the demand that someone look and act poor for them to get charity. This dehumanizes the relationship between people and simplifies it to an unhealthy one as giver and receiver, where the giver is only appreciated for their capacity to give, and the receiver feels both the weight of being a charity case and the entitlement to charity.


Unfortunately it also means that there is reward in being the most visible or most loud poor person. Consequently the most vulnerable, those unable or unwilling to even express their poverty, get the least attention. Those people and communities that were requesting aid were rarely the most vulnerable.

On the other hand, I remember after a few months of being there, one of the youth, Mario, who came to church every day, shared with me his story. He had 14 siblings, each from a different father. Only he and a few of his siblings were baptized and came regularly to Church.

He invited me to his home, which was in an even poorer community than the Church. His home consisted of metal sheets and a ceiling of cloth (and this is in a country that weathers severe tropical storms). He slept on a pile of bricks against a wall where he had nailed a paper icon of Christ and the Madonna.

I learned, through the experience of visiting his home, that he walked an hour to get to the nearest bus stop to come to church. He did this every day. This young youth and his family were certainly not the most vocal or visible about their poverty.

In addition to being faced with the reality of this culture of poverty, and in that context, I was also overwhelmed with demands and requests to give a class on basic computer skills, to teach Sunday school, to visit those youth who were no longer coming to church, to submit a proposal for a medical centre to the local authorities, to offer translation services and the list goes on.

I felt chained by my own limitations (emotional, physical and financial), overcome by solitude, disillusioned with my plans and purpose . . . and I was living in the church. Sometimes I would lock myself in my room just because I could not face the conditions.

The kids would throw rocks at my door to wake me up at 5 a.m. and I would not respond. I was no Mother Teresa. I was humbled and, to add insult to injury, when I was scheduled to leave, civil conflict broke out in Santa Cruz, and the airports were shut and I could not leave for a few more weeks.

I wanted to go back home, leave the boat, wash the nets and hang them up.


In government I was engaged in one aspect of the social and political order – being a subject matter expert, advising, consulting and politicking. Ultimately, this served my own material comfort and social needs.

In the field I was engaged in working with communities to fulfill my emotional and spiritual needs. Was I really serving anyone but myself? Was I really fulfilling the commandment to go out into the deep and catch the fish? Was I catching any fish? What was missing?

It was something that Simon says, "Master we toiled all night and took nothing. But at your word . . .".

What I read in this is: By your word, in your time, for your purpose, for your glory and not by my will, by my ambitions, for my needs.

It was a couple of years later that I would appreciate this lesson. In the meantime I just held onto the Lord and trusted.

In this process of submission to God's will, my path became quite an adventure – a master's program in international relations specializing in conflict analysis and resolution; work with the United Nations World Food Program to design an early warning system for human-driven humanitarian disasters; in 2010, a call to come home; offers to receive a fully-funded PhD in conflict resolution; offers to go work with the Coptic communities in Egypt; and then the offer from Development and Peace.


It was in the mission and work of Development and Peace that I realized God's command to let down the net. It is also where I learned that second lesson that it is only through his call to go into the deep and let down the net, that one is actually effective at catching fish.

Development and Peace is the official international development organization of the Catholic Church in Canada. It is also known as Caritas Canada. When Development and Peace was created by the bishops in 1968, it was given two mandates.

First, it was to support civil society organizations (partners) in the Global South to address the root causes of poverty. Second, it was to educate Canadians about those root causes of poverty so that, in the spirit of solidarity, they may engage in personal, social and political actions to bring about sustainable change for the common good.


The very unique and effective development philosophy was that change in the South is not possible without change in the North. As a colleague wisely put it, it is here, in the North that we hold the keys to people's poverty or dignity in the South. As the animator, I am responsible for fulfilling that second mandate right here, in the Alberta region.

The principles that guide Development and Peace's philosophy are based in the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. These include the preferential option for the poor, solidarity, participation of local communities in decisions affecting them, among others.

Moreover, from a professional point of view on development and aid, the philosophy and practice of respecting the locals, working with partner organizations and, most importantly, educating about justice right here are in fact best practices.

In Development and Peace, I finally understood what it means to effectively evangelize the social and political order. It was through Him, the Church, Development and Peace, that I was most effective in "catching fish," and not only in promoting the work that happens in the South, but in fact in the process of the animation work that happens right here in Alberta.


Let me explain how so:

The responsibility to animate and educate presents many challenges:

At the most basic level one has to work against popular, superficial interpretations of the causes of poverty, and instead educate about the root causes of poverty. These popular interpretations include putting the blame on natural disasters, as if natural disasters are not instigated by human agency.

Others include simplistic views of the causes of conflict, framing them as struggles of Arab versus Jew, Christian versus Muslim, African versus Arab, men versus women, old traditions and new traditions. These simplistic problem definitions and assessments lead to equally simplistic and sometimes damaging solutions.

This is why when Development and Peace chooses its partners, it engages partners who are aware of the conditions and work towards sustainable change, and not those that only respond to donor information and needs.


Secondly, in educating about the root causes of poverty, such as the mismanagement of resources, unaccountable governments, corporate malpractice, etc. one runs up against some pretty powerful actors (such as certain governments and corporations) who go to great lengths to invalidate or silence the opposition through campaigns of misinformation or defamation.

Thirdly, if one were able to provide a holistic perspective on the root causes of poverty, despite the challenges to do so, the sustainable solutions that would address these fundamental causes do not "sell well," because they more often than not involve something more than charitable giving. These sustainable solutions often necessitate the giving of oneself through a change of heart and behaviour.

It is very interesting to see how people are quick to respond with gifts of money and stuff, which are appreciated and necessary, but when asked to reflect on their own consumer practices and the impact on the poor, they are not as ready to give of their minds and hearts.


A couple of years ago the Development and Peace campaign spoke about the right to clean water for all. Many individuals and organizations share that concern, and supported wonderful projects dedicated to that matter, such as buying filters, building wells.

However, when it is brought to light that our own consumption of bottled water in fact propels certain companies to take away poor communities access to water, because now these water sources have been diverted for bottling up for consumption in the North; people are not so keen to change their own harmful practices, and make a very simple switch to our very clean tap water.

Fourthly, the work of animation involves not only animating the converted, but also people of various backgrounds, experiences, interests and opinions (particularly on international development, which is a subject almost everyone feels qualified and entitled to talk about and act on like an expert).

This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of animation, as it requires a lot of patience, compassion and dialogue between sometimes very passionate, almost antagonistic, perspectives.

Lastly, the work can be overwhelming due to the number and difficulty of the issues raised (conflict and violence, poverty, hunger, oppression), as well as the complexity of aid and development, the diversity of demands for presence, information and animation, as well as the diversity of the people themselves.

Yet, given these challenges, the seemingly difficult, often humbling, task of "catching fish" is possible through Him.

In the words of St. Paul to Corinthians, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies." (2 Corinthians 4.8-10)

It is through Him and through this position that I have learned that the method by which one achieves their goals is just as important, if not more important, than the goals themselves.


So what is this method, this way? It is the way that He taught by his example and words.

First, it is with humility. When Simon and his fellow fishermen caught the fish, his first inclination was to proclaim his own weakness in verse 8, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man." I learned that in this work that no one is blemish or contradiction free. I am not blemish or contradiction free.

In fact, I am constantly learning about the impact of my own actions. Moreover, it is not humanly possible to know all facts or appreciate all perspectives in order to accurately assess a social or political situation. I have learned, through experience, to take my time, and to actively listen, and understand as many points of view as possible, before developing a position.

Moreover, it takes humility to address the problems and offer solutions. Fortunately there are no cookie-cutter solutions that can be applied to all problems, without sensitivity to culture, history, structures.

Furthermore, one cannot anticipate all the effects of present solutions in time. All of this does not mean that there is no right or wrong, nor that one should not stand up for what is right or wrong but that one needs to take time to listen and see, reflect and pray, and then engage.

Secondly, one ought to engage with the social and political order with love and compassion. We are taught that Christ came for the sinners and not those who thought they were sin-free. He stayed with Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Luke 19), he spoke with the Samaritan woman, focusing on her virtue of honesty rather than condemning her for her vices.

Children who lived in the neighborhood near the church where Sara Michel worked in Bolivia came to the church at every opportunity to hang out, learn something or to play.


Children who lived in the neighborhood near the church where Sara Michel worked in Bolivia came to the church at every opportunity to hang out, learn something or to play.

It was this compassion that changed these individuals – that Zacchaeus returned fourfold what he had falsely claimed from people, and the Samaritan woman, not only confessed and repented of her ways but also was one of the first preachers of the "good news."


How does this translate in practice? How one considers and listens to others, and expresses one's own point of view on issues, whether it is on the oilsands, Canadian foreign policy, American politics, has to be with compassion.

Compassion on others' capacities and abilities, and even compassion towards those who believe that the only way they can make it in this world is by stepping on others, or accumulating wealth. They too suffer from an emotional and spiritual poverty, and need to be approached with just as much compassion.

Sometimes, those engaged in social justice feel that those un-engaged are not doing enough, almost judging that they are not Christian enough; while those un-engaged feel overwhelmed by the seeming demands and futility of engagement, and relegate it to those "activist types." These perspectives only alienate rather than build up.

When we see wrong committed against God's creation, God's people, whose every hair is accounted for in God's eyes, whose every tear is numbered by God, we must also speak and act unequivocally.

Through his example, it is our role and responsibility to firmly stand up to destructive cultural, social, economic and political policies and practices, such as the exploitation of resources, destroying people's livelihoods, communities and identities; the exploitation of people through modern day economic slavery; and the marginalization and disempowerment of the voiceless and poor through adverse aid and foreign policies.

It is our role and responsibility to raise awareness of the not so pleasant realities of this world, and at the same time, to celebrate those who are striving to change them.

It is our role and responsibility to deliver these messages unequivocally, out of love for God's people, and in love towards those people and institutions who through poverty of awareness or spirit act unjustly.


Fourthly, this work towards change takes a good measure of self-sacrifice, of which his crucifixion is a timeless example. In our case, it is a sacrifice of one's own assumptions, comforts, and efforts. This is the ultimate unequivocal act of love, for God, and neighbour; this is also the only key to change in individuals and communities.

This is how one goes seeking change in our social and political environments (fishing for fish), but also how we are called to change people, who are at the heart of these environments. This is how we become fishers of men.

Being faithful to that commandment to go out into the deep, without realizing, without asking, Christ makes us not only fishers of fish, but fishers of men.

The byproduct of being faithful to going out into the deep with a message of truth and principle, expressed with love, is that you become an agent of evangelization.

Finally, this work of evangelizing the social and political order is done with thanksgiving; thanksgiving for Him, his love, his example. Thanksgiving for his creation, his people. Thanksgiving for the agents of his love.

Thanksgiving for his grace; his blessing; for his mercy; and his strength. Thanksgiving for the opportunity to also be an agent of his love through raising awareness and advocating for the voiceless and poor, and the opportunity to grow in faith, in loving relationship with Him.


That is what it all comes back to – Him. For me, it is about Him, being faithful to Him, and living my faith in works, as the apostle James exhorts in his epistle, chapter 2.24: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."

I pray that I always focus on Him, be faithful to Him, and behave accordingly. I pray that I do not get distracted or despondent in the face of challenges. Today I have received a great honour to share my journey with you; other times though the work is not so glorious. However, praise or scorn does not matter, because in the end it is about being faithful to Him.

The fact that it is about Him, gives me great comfort. I do not know what his plans are for me, personally or professionally. What experience tells me though, is that his plans have always been greater, more fulfilling and edifying than my own plans for myself.

What does this all mean for you who are present here today? This is what I would like to leave you with:

Any goodness that you may see in me or my path is due to Him. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 16: "I say to the Lord, 'You are my Lord, I have no good apart from You.'"

I am no different from anyone here. We are all called to love God and neighbour; we are all called to be apostles; we are all called and are all capable, through Him, to go out into the deep to fish, to evangelize the social and political order.


We do so in being conscious about our thoughts, choices and behaviours towards our neighbours near and far, by questioning our assumptions about them, learning about them, listening to them, hearing their stories, developing relationships with them, walking with them, and advocating for them with truth and justice, in love and compassion.

I will end with the words of St. Paul, "May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen . . . , do; and the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4.7-9)