Orbis Spotlight: The Color of the Skin Doesn’t Matter

 

This memoir by Maryknoll Sister Janice McLaughlin tells the extraordinary story of a life spent in service and solidarity with the people of Africa, and how this experience shaped her faith and her understanding of what it means to be human. 

Sister Janice, who died at 79 at the Sisters Center on March 7, 2021, was well known to readers of Maryknoll. Apart from serving a term as president of the Maryknoll Sisters, she served in communications for the Congregation and remained a frequent contributor to the magazine. 

As she describes in this memoir, written during the last year of her long illness, the turning point of Sister Janice’s life came with her arrest in 1977 by the white minority government in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She had only recently arrived in the country to serve as communications director for the country’s Peace and Justice Commission, where she documented massacres and atrocities in the government’s brutal war against the African independence movement. 

Charged as a terrorist sympathizer, Sister Janice was held in solitary confinement for almost three weeks before international pressure prompted her release. She later referred to this time as the best retreat of her life. With only a Bible to occupy her, she read the Gospel with new eyes. 

“I felt part of something bigger than myself. I felt bigger than myself,” Sister Janice wrote. “I was suffering for a cause, and the pain and fear no longer mattered. I was not alone. I was with the oppressed people, and God was there with us in our prison cells.” 

A photograph taken at the airport as Sister Janice was being deported shows her waving joyfully, with not a sign of her ordeal. But before long she was back in Africa, in Mozambique, caring for refugees from the war. And from there she would eventually be welcomed back to independent Zimbabwe to work on rebuilding the country’s education system. 

All this was only the beginning of a remarkable life, documented in this memoir, including work with orphans, those suffering with AIDS and victims of trafficking. Her book reveals how inextricably her faith was bound with service to the most marginalized and dedication to the cause of justice and human rights.

In her preface, Sister Janice notes of her title, The Color of the Skin Doesn’t Matter, that it represents “an ideal, a dream of a society without barriers to achievement; a society where racism, sexism, classism and other forms of prejudice which divide us is abolished.” She is all too aware, from her experiences in Africa and in America at the time of her writing, that skin color can matter very much — leading to violence and even war. Yet she did not lose hope in another way, and a future where people are not divided by prejudice. 

Her friend Judy Mayotte writes of this book: “Sister Janice McLaughlin was dropped into a moment in history, took it, and ran with it. Her autobiography reveals a woman who looked at, listened to, and opened herself fully to the multi-variant voices of her historical time and place, as a Maryknoll sister, and as a participant in the Zimbabwean struggle for justice and independence. Hers was a life courageously lived according to her favorite Shona word for God – Chipindikure: ‘The One who turns things upside down.’ Read her story with awe and joy.”

To find more information on the book, or to purchase, please visit OrbisBooks.com

To read more Orbis Books spotlights, click here.

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About the author

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Maryknoll’s Orbis Books. He is the author of many books, including All Saints, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, and Blessed Among Us. A former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, he has edited the selected writings, diaries, and letters of Dorothy Day.