By Sister Nathanael Lee, LSHF, Missionary Oblates’ Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) 2015–2017 Intern/Fellow. She is from South Korea and a member of the Little Servants of the Holy Family.)
A major part of my two-year internship with the Justice and Peace ministry at Missionary Oblates – US Province is understanding the workings of the United Nations. For my local congregation back in Seoul, Korea, the UN is considered beyond our scope of work. It is a distant institution and far away from our daily apostolate life. I can hear colleagues from my Order, Little Servants of the Holy Family, saying, “Why in the world would a Catholic Sister need to go to the United Nations?” Needless to say, my colleagues are always ready to serve the poor and keen on caring for those most abandoned right in our neighborhood. We as an Order have no problem with a ‘so-called’ grassroots level approach to human problems.
Before this recent visit to the United Nations, my knowledge of indigenous people was confined to images from the 1986 British film ‘Mission’ and 1990 American film ‘Dances with Wolves’. From my perspective they both present a stereotypical view of indigenous people. South Korea ethnically is a pretty homogeneous society, so I have very little knowledge of indigenous issues. It may be surprising to some people to know that this was the first time I heard about “rights” for Indigenous people. I was not only ignorant as a global citizen, but I also had a narrow perception of the concept of minority. So recently participating in the UN Indigenous Forum simultaneously exposed me to two new things: the UN system and the issue of indigenous rights.
The 15th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues took place in New York City from May 9-20, 2016. I was amazed to see a large number of indigenous people proudly wearing their traditional attire in the General Assembly hall and raising their voice. Their stories were equally fascinating and agonizing – homicide, massacres, evacuation, and displacement, etc. These were stories I never hear about through the mainstream media. I wondered “why”, considering a resolution on the rights of indigenous peoples was declared and adopted by the UN in 2007. For me, the UN was the perfect place to begin absorbing this totally new subject matter. I was learning by listening to real indigenous people in their own voices, reading through official conference documents, and participating in side-events.
Here in Washington, D.C., through the Oblate JPIC office, I have learned how to approach global and national issues that begin at the grassroots level. The link from grassroots to national then international promotes a “no one left behind” strategy. It is like the Good Shepherd who goes after one-lost sheep until he finds it among the hundred. (Cf. Luke 15:4) In my case, ‘a woman religious from a small local congregation goes to the United Nations’ sounds unrealistic somehow at the beginning. Having said that, I am confident now about persuading my Little Servants of the Holy Family Sisters on just how appropriate it is for us to engage with the UN on behalf of voiceless people in desperate need. It was a tremendous privilege to participate in the 15th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. I am grateful to VIVAT International, an accredited member of the UN, for bringing me as part of their delegation. I appreciate all people who strive and search for one lost sheep until they find it.