Effie Caldarola

What is the nature of hope? Are we born to be either a pessimist or an optimist? Or is it up to us to decide?

At a day of reflection, a Sister of Mercy discussed the environmental threat to our planet. Then she asked us to stand up and choose a side — were we hopeful for the earth’s future, or were we despairing? I ambled over to stand with hope, but I was amazed at many of my friends who headed to the negative side.

Why was I hopeful? Not because I don’t worry that we’re headed for ecological disaster, but because, like Julian of Norwich, I affirm that “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” God is hope, and that’s where we have to pitch our beleaguered tents, even if we know storms lie ahead.

Like many people, especially in these rugged political and social times, I am not naturally or easily hopeful. I wake at night with anxiety, and I know this is the opposite of hope. I struggle to hope. I have to choose hope.

That’s why I was so inspired by a presentation I attended recently at Creighton University given by Stephanie Sinclair, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. Sinclair is a unique talent. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then her evocative and sometimes painful photography could fill volumes.

She has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But her most powerful work is in sensitive gender issues like female circumcision, practiced in many developing countries, and the plight of girls who escaped from Boko Haram, the terrorist organization in Nigeria that subjected them to horrendous rape and abuse. She has made a long study of child marriage, the coerced pairing of girls as young as 10 with older men.

These are not easy, lighthearted subjects. Sinclair’s stunning visual depictions of these female experiences bring their brutality home powerfully. Her pictures of married couples, tall, imposing older men alongside terrified little girl brides, render a gut punch.

Another topic she has covered is albinism — the genetic condition that reduces melanin in the skin, hair and eyes, resulting in porcelain-like skin and striking white hair. In many places in the world, albinos are considered a curse upon a family. They often face ridicule and exclusion.

Sinclair is petite, blonde and exudes hope, joy, energy and enthusiasm. Someone in the audience asked a question that basically amounted to, “How do you do it?”

I do not know if Sinclair embraces a particular religious faith, but the Spirit must embrace her. She told the audience that she knows that her activism in these issues, and her ability to bring them to the world’s attention, makes a difference.

She is, for example, the founding executive director of a nonprofit organization called Too Young to Wed, based on her photo-documentary series of the same name. Too Young to Wed strives to protect and empower girls and end child marriage.

In another remarkable example of commitment, Sinclair and her husband have adopted two albino children from a Chinese orphanage.

People like Sinclair, who plunge into activism for social justice, are people of hope. If standing on the sidelines induces our despair, action impels us to hope.

In 2017, Pope Francis gave a group of young people extensive advice on how to remain hopeful. He might have been speaking of Sinclair, or of all of us called to service, when he said, “The world goes on thanks to the vision of many people who created an opening, who built bridges, who dreamed and believed.”