Travelling to the beat of a different drum

They say the best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would serve the church as a religious sister, I would have told them they were mad.

When I was a child I remember my mother often having to drag me to the car to go to Mass. There was a program on television that I enjoyed watching and Mass often clashed with my sport training. My priorities were on the field so sitting in a pew was a waste of time.

From the age of five, I dreamed of representing Australia at the Olympic Games. I played netball, hockey, cricket, tennis but I excelled in athletics.  The first time I picked up a javelin, I broke the club record so javelin was my sport.

I wasn’t the most naturally talented athlete but I believe I was one of the hardest working. I loved training on Christmas Day or in the rain, always seeking that advantage over others. A poster on my bedroom wall read, “Second place is the first loser.”

Sport was my first and only love. I continued to represent Queensland and went to university to become a physical education teacher. I had my sport, and many friends, yet I felt empty and lost. I seemed to have everything but I doubted myself. After some searching, it became apparent that a personal relationship with Jesus was the only thing that could satisfy my longing. I joined a youth group and began going to church.

Two years later, I was invited by the Canossian Daughters of Charity to volunteer in Africa for a month. I had met the sisters through youth retreats, and at 19, the opportunity to travel to Africa and work with the poor excited me. Yet the trip clashed with the Olympic trials for Sydney 2000. I was living in Forster Tuncurry and training full time to see just how far my dream could go. When I won the NSW Open Championships in the year 2000, I had to decide: Africa or Olympic trials?

I went to Africa, knowing I would still have years to fulfill my sporting dreams. My life changed forever.

I travelled to Tanzania where I worked at a shelter for homeless young people. I remember meeting an 11-year-old girl called Neema. Neema had been left in a basket by her parents when she was born. She had suffered greatly. Almost every day she was raped by the homeless boys at the shelter. When it was time to leave, Neema begged to come back to Australia with me to be my servant; to tie my shoes and carry my bags. I remember being so angry that God could allow people to suffer like this. I yelled at God, asking why I could do nothing to help this little girl. God told me very clearly that there was something I could do. I could give my life completely in service of God and God’s people. I decided to leave the sporting arena and become a Canossian Daughter of Charity.

This decision to walk away from sport and enter religious life was a shock, especially for my coaches, family and friends. It was completely out of the blue and people thought I was crazy. I didn’t know the first thing about being a nun. Yet I knew I loved Jesus passionately and I wanted to live a radical life of following him, so that Jesus had not only the first place in my heart, but the only place.

I made my first vows in April 2005. Whilst I had to let go of my dream of representing Australia, I believe my vocation is a gift more precious than any gold medal.

In 2008 I was blessed to have the opportunity to go back to Africa and serve the people of Malawi. Malawi is a very small country, ranked the poorest in the world in 2016. Students are in the classroom at 5am and finish school at 9pm. They know the only way to escape poverty is through education.

Journeying with these people who have nothing but are so full of joy taught me so much. People might think working in a remote village with no smartphone, limited internet, unreliable electricity and no hot shower is difficult. It took time to adapt. Yet it taught me that the greatest riches are not the externals, but the heart that loves. The people of Malawi opened their hearts to me and I feel so blessed to have had the chance to share life with them.

I came home last year, after eight years in Africa as principal of a girls’ secondary school.

My dream was Olympic gold. God’s dream for me was religious life. I know that if I really want to follow Jesus radically, I need a listening heart and the courage to follow where God calls me next…

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Sr Melissa Dwyer FDCC Image
Sr Melissa Dwyer FDCC

Sr Melissa Dwyer is a Canossian Daughter of Charity.

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