Sister Marilyn Lacey, R.S.M. | University of Portland

Sister Marilyn Lacey, R.S.M.

Sr. Marilyn Lacey, RSM, thought she would enter the convent and have a relatively quiet life where she would teach high school math and things would line up as neatly as an equation. But, as she says, “God had other plans.” These plans initially stemmed from an index card tacked to the convent bulletin board: “Urgent! Refugees arriving at SFO from Southeast Asia. Volunteers needed at the International Terminal.” This was 1980, and at the time she had never met a refugee. She went to the airport, led refugees to connecting flights, and also began a new focus and mission: working with and becoming a welcoming presence to refugees. She spent time in a Thai refugee camp, earned her master’s in social welfare, and served for two decades as director of refugee and immigrant services for Catholic Charities of San Jose, California. In 2008, Sr. Lacey founded Mercy Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that forges ways for women and girls in extreme poverty to learn, connect, and lead. The organization works in South Sudan, Malawi and Haiti, and in refugee camps of Kenya and Uganda. She asks her staff of fewer than 24 to be a “compassionate presence,” especially to those in refugee camps, by affirming their strengths, encouraging them, offering hope as well as practical services. The average stay in a refugee camp is 15 to 20 years. In South Sudan, Mercy Beyond Borders funds Saint Bakhita School, the only all-girl boarding school in the nation, started by a South Sudanese bishop who got buy-in by speaking to families one by one, asking them to allow one daughter to come and learn to read. Enrollment started with a dozen girls beneath a tree; now it’s over 800. The power of education has slowly chipped away at a dowry culture that devalues girls. Sr. Lacey believes in the value of listening to the marginalized. “God promised,” she says, “to hang out with the least among us. So, going to the margins…that’s my best chance of encountering the Holy One.” In 2001, she was honored in person by the Dalai Lama as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion.” In 2017, she won the global Opus Prize for inspirational faith-based leadership. She is the author of This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers. “We are all one,” she says. “And it matters how we treat one another.”