International Sion Student Meeting – Kansas City, USA

A Sion perspective on the environment was at the heart of the 3rd international Sion student meeting, named “Laudato Sion: Spaces of Dialogue with the Global Community and Creation”. Running from 17 to 22 April, it coincided with this year’s Earth Week and concluded, significantly, on Earth Day 2023. What characterized this edition of the meeting was the level of involvement of the students, from planning to execution, leading to a meaningful and enriching experience for all.

Students from five countries came together in Kansas City, USA.

Nineteen adults and forty-five 12 – 18-year-olds from twelve Sion schools in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France and the USA came to the Notre Dame de Sion schools in Kansas City, USA, to express their love of Sion, their unity as Sion students worldwide and their commitment to environmental and ecological projects that “will renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 103:29). Some British students tuned in via Zoom. Everyone had had the opportunity to have a say in how the six-day event would unfold.

In fact, three years in advance, Annie Riggs, Mission Director of the Kansas City school, had brought together a group of students to form a Planning Team, who liaised with students from Sion schools around the world. Each school took ownership of different aspects of conference planning, to build a programme that all the young participants could relate to and enjoy. It was truly an event planned by Sion students for Sion students.

Gratitude and welcome were a constant throughout the week.

Alice Munninghoff, former Head of the Kansas City school and Chair of the current Congregational Schools Team (CST), was moved by the effort shown. “I know I speak for the CST when I say that we are proud and grateful to the Kansas City School and to all of those who worked to make this gathering a meaningful, memorable experience for both the students and adults who participated.”

Each day, one of the participating countries began by leading prayer about discovery of the holy in nature. The days then centred around a specific Sion value, such as openness, connection, respect, love and hope, in what 16-year-old Alessandra from France described as “an uplifting spiritual experience”.

Each day centred around a Sion value.

Reflecting on Laudato Si on Day 1.

The week’s activities moved from contemplation towards action, starting with initial reflection on the ethics the Sion schools share, and how those ethics can be applied within the context of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si encyclical on Care for Our Common Home. This was an eye-opener for Brynn Edwards, 12 years old, USA, who said she learned many things thanks to Laudato Si.

Sister Margaret Zdunich of the Congregational Schools Team and Director of the Sion Center for Biblical Formation in Jerusalem was impressed by the calibre of the students, who, she said, “presented as confident, articulate, knowledgeable and concerned about ecology. In many ways,” she went on, “their reflections and conversations were very mature.”

On the second day, students from the local Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy and the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City joined for a morning of interfaith connection and discussion on environmental stewardship across faith traditions. “I learned a lot about different cultures and how we are all connected throughout the world and have the same concerns,” reflected Rafaela, aged 15 from Brazil.

Day 2: interfaith connection.

The agenda included excursions around the theme of environmental protection and ecology. On the morning of third day, a day of experience, students set out for the Discovery Center of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, to learn about the conservation of natural resources in in the US Midwest.

Experiential activities at the Discovery Center of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Afterwards, they got involved as volunteers in local environmental non-profit organisations. Some, for example, shovelled and barrowed at Cultivate KC, where skilled farm workers have access to help in starting their own sustainable farm businesses; others got creative at ScrapsKC, which promotes upcycling and transforming the unwanted into something of worth.

A quick team brief then all hands on deck at Cultivate KC.

Chloe, 18 years old, from Canada, particularly appreciated this day: “I learned that to help the environment, we all as a community need to work together and put in an equal effort to make the world a better place.”

Bishop Johnston celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kansas City.

Highlights later in the week included a Mass celebrated by Bishop Johnston at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and the planting of a tree at each of the Kansas City campuses, as the students had done at the last student meeting in Costa Rica in 2019, to symbolise the commitment of Sion schools and students to protecting the environment and respecting the natural world. There was also much excitement about the “Eco Prom” evening, where students came dressed in recycled and upcycled outfits and danced to music with lyrics about environmental awareness.

Seventeen-year-old Sameera from Australia valued the connections and friendships with people from other parts of the world, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to join a Kansas City student’s family one evening for dinner in their home.

The idea of holding three-yearly international Sion student meetings was born in 2014, when it emerged that some schools desired greater connection with the Congregation and with other Sion schools. The sisters of Our Lady of Sion committed to supporting exchange among the schools, both to nurture a sense of global community, and to bring about transformation in the world by passing on Sion’s values of dialogue, justice, peace and love, in an intercultural environment.

Students wrote on paper leaves how they plan to be active in caring for our common home.

On the last day of the conference, dedicated to the theme of Hope, participants re-envisioned the pedagogical characteristics of Sion schools defined in Sr Patricia Watson’s book, Spaces of Dialogue, and made concrete plans and commitments for ongoing connections in caring for our common home.

“Our future and the future of our precious earth are in the very capable hands of these amazing young people,” concluded Alice Munninghoff. “Thanks to them, the future looks promising.”

Multilingual good-byes were heartfelt and emotional, but softened by the prospect of keeping in touch via social media and, who knows, maybe meeting again in three years’ time at the 4th international Sion student meeting, to be held in France.