A familiar Spanish saying defines the experience and worldview of Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya: Ni de aquí, ni de allá (“from neither here nor there”).
Before becoming president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2016, Maya collaborated with the religious conference in Mexico, an experience that taught her there are “two or three versions of the same story — whether it’s because there’s another language or cultural perspective or geography — and that’s important to keep in mind.”
Maya, who is Mexican-American, will transition to president of LCWR on Aug. 11, the final night of its annual assembly, held this year in Orlando. She will lead the conference as the rest of the U.S. church starts to tip from a majority-Anglo to a majority-Hispanic congregation.
“It makes a difference not to see the face [in leadership] of a minority, whether they’re Hispanic, black, or whatever ethnicity,” said Missionary Catechist of Divine Providence Sr. Esther Guerrero, a friend of Maya’s who is also of Mexican descent. “It’s like, we’re here, too.”
Maya’s position at the top, however, goes beyond simply representing Latina and minority sisters or the demographic changes of the U.S. Catholic Church. The perspective and attitude she’ll bring with her, her friends and colleagues say, are unique to a bicultural upbringing and friendly to the concept of change.
A lifelong interest in religious life
Maya was born Dec. 27, 1967, in Mexico City and grew up between Mexico and San Antonio. Her introduction to profound religiosity came from watching her grandmother pray the rosary and accompanying her to church.
As a kid, she thought everyone loved religion class (they didn’t, she learned), and by age 8 or 9, she had developed an interest in religious life. But she muffled that lingering thought until she was halfway through working toward her doctorate in Mexico City in 1994.
“I was like, ‘No one I know wants to be a nun,’ ” Maya recalled telling a priest. ” ‘Something is wrong with me. I need therapy. Give me the spell to get rid of this hex.’
“But he said, ‘You’ve got to try it; there’s only one way, and you’ve got to try it.’
“I said, ‘My parents are going to kill me.’ ”
Maya said her parents, Juan Manuel Maya and Teresa Sotomayor de Maya, are “nominally religious” and expressed disappointment in the news, wondering what was wrong with the life they gave her and how, after all her education, “this is what you want to do?”
When Maya spoke with a Dominican sister about her parents’ reaction, the sister asked her how long it took Maya to accept her own calling to religious life.
About 10 years, Maya responded.
“So why do you expect any less of your parents?” the sister asked.
Roughly 10 years later, her parents were at home with Maya’s calling.
“To this day, if I really need someone to pick a sister up at the airport, I call my parents, and they go,” Maya said. “If I invite someone to dinner, they add more water to the soup. There’s always a welcoming and willingness to help.”
Maya’s mother stayed at home to raise Maya and her two younger siblings. Maya’s father, who worked for a multinational corporation, was the reason she grew up back and forth between the United States and Mexico.
“He’s the reason we learned how to embrace the bigger reality than our parochial situation in many ways,” she said.
Maya graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale in 1989 and became a certified teacher at schools run by her eventual congregation, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, and at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Laguna, Mexico. At Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California, she earned her master’s degree in systematic theology in 1991 and eventually went on to El Colegio de Mexico-Mexico City, where she got her doctorate in Latin American colonial church history in 1997.
“She’s a lifelong learner,” said Sr. Glenn Anne McPhee of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, who met Maya in the early 1980s, when Maya came to the United States as a high school student from Mexico. “She’s a very high-energy person. It’s contagious, and it’s only gotten better over time.”
“She’s just a woman who continues to grow and seize the moment,” she added.
‘A bridge-builder and a change agent’
While studying at Yale, Maya was a school volunteer in New Haven, Connecticut, working in inner-city elementary schools with Latino children. The experience “changed my life forever,” she said.
She found herself doing a lot of “bridge work” between the students and their parents.
“My call to religious life came from my intellectual curiosity, but my passion for education has always been,” said Maya, who went from being a teacher in the United States to a principal in Mexico.
In 1995, Maya joined the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in Mexico City, where she went through formation and professed her final vows in 2002. Their charism — the Incarnation, the actualizing of God’s love as their mission — sold her, even after a lifelong Dominican education and visits to six congregations.
Once her congregation learned she could speak English and translate, she said, she began traveling back and forth between the two countries more frequently. Maya was elected to her congregation’s leadership in 2008 and found herself in the United States more often than Mexico, as the community’s headquarters are in San Antonio.
She is on her 16th year of being on the board for the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio and her ninth year in leadership in her community.
On Aug. 12, 2016, Maya was chosen as president-elect of LCWR, joining the presidential triumvirate with St. Joseph Sr. Mary Pellegrino as president and St. Joseph Sr. Marcia Allen as past-president. This responsibility was in addition to her role as congregational leader for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a four-year term that began in 2014.
“When I look back on the last few years, I realize my ministry is no longer education. It’s religious life itself: ensuring its viability, ensuring it stays focused on its mission, our own kind of love for our own life” she said. “It’s been a new learning. As I had to learn to be principal, I had to learn this is a calling.”
Guerrero first met Maya through their LCWR Region 12 but got to know her better when they traveled to Rome with the conference. She recalled Maya telling her that she was grateful for the opportunities she’s had in life, beginning in her home, education and congregation.
“She’s making good use of those opportunities, of her knowledge,” Guerrero said. “She uses them to serve not only her congregation but the church and is very generous with her gifts and time. She doesn’t blink an eye.”
Arturo Chávez, president of the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio, knows Maya through their common work with the college and the University of the Incarnate Word, as well as programs and associations intended for Latin American sisters in the United States.
“She’s both a bridge-builder and a change agent,” he said, using two phrases McPhee and Guerrero echoed verbatim.
“She has a deep kind of concern and compassion for people, her sisters, and other international sisters,” Chávez said. “That’s her passion: How can we be a bridge for sisters who are coming from other countries as they transition into ministry here or into community life here?
“At the same time, she has that no-nonsense, challenging energy that gets groups going and takes us as individuals or as groups into that uncomfortable place where we learn and grow and stretch beyond what’s comfortable into what is needed,” he added.
“Affirming,” “inclusive” and “challenging” is how he described Maya’s leadership style, her directness softened by her sense of humor, wit and ability to read people.
The connection the two share, Chávez said, comes from a mutual passion for “the coming together of different cultures and languages” in the church.
“We both have a passion for social justice issues, both external to the church — that the church is engaged in or needs to be engaged in — but also how people are treated within the church. And more particularly, we share a great concern for international sisters and how they are being recruited, welcomed and prepared for ministry and accompanied in that ministry,” he said.
Chávez was referring to their collaboration in the Association of Latin American Missionary Sisters (AHLMA, formerly known as ARHEU), intended as a network for Hispanic sisters in the United States, and their work together on Catholic Extension’s U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program, intended to equip immigrant sisters for their new ministries in the United States.
“She’s easygoing even though she’s got a lot on her plate,” Guerrero said. “Her whole personality is so life-giving.”
Hope and opportunity for religious life
While serving as president-elect of LCWR, Maya said she’s learned about the “incredible potential” of collaboration between religious institutions and congregations.
“Sometimes, you’re active in your congregation, and you get into the weeds of your own family issues,” she said. “So to get the opportunity to look over the fence, it fills me with awe and gratitude. I think there’s a call in that possibility that is really awesome. And maybe it’s part of the gift of being fewer, because now we need each other more.”
Right now, she said, LCWR is “owning its historical moment.”
“The very fact that that this country has gone into this division and fear, I think it’s the world calling religious and our conferences to witness, to the welcoming of the stranger, to the unity of the diversity, to civil discourse, to being respectful even if we disagree,” she said. “I think there’s a mission in the moment that we need to own, and I see that being fundamental to the next few years.”
Maya recalled attending a meeting in Rome in which a cardinal said there are no global problems, only local ones.
Because LCWR is a member organization, Maya said, “we are much more powerful in our witness to the poor and vulnerable locally. So if the conference can empower our leaders who are members and give them the tools to speak for those that we serve, to speak for the values that we hold, to speak to the Gospel we’ve been called to locally, that would be a great gift to his country.”
On March 30, Maya gave a lecture at Boston College on the subject “Women’s Voices: Conscience and the Role of Women Religious Into the Future.”
“I’m 50 … and I don’t want to be talking about diminishment and completion for another 20 years. … Ever since I entered the convent, all we talk about is numbers,” she said in her lecture, wondering aloud why sisters don’t use words like “leaven,” “potential” and “transformation” instead.
Women religious need to be pioneers of the future, “with this little energy that we have, with these old ladies that we have, with who we are,” she said. “Not with who we are not.”
When sisters lament how few they are today, Maya continued in her lecture, she thinks of their founding stories, when “there were just three, and two died, and yet here we are, and you’re thinking 100 is too little?”
Closing her lecture at Boston College, Maya recommended that women religious, in order to seize the future, consider the following: Let go, deinstitutionalize and uninstall themselves. In so doing, they will be freer to do different things; to embrace migration and be on the move to other cities or countries as they’re needed; and to be bridge-builders, making themselves more flexible and more capable of bringing the past, legacy and heritage into the future.
“At a time in this country where religious life numbers are dwindling, Teresa sees a great deal of hope, a great deal of opportunity for religious women to be a catalyst for growth and change and hope for the future of our church,” McPhee said, adding that these are critical qualities for religious leaders at this time.
Maya thinks back to her grandmother and how as women religious and as a church, “we need to love our church in the same way my grandmother loved our church.
“She loved it in its messiness, in its tradition and history, loved the incense and sweeping it in the morning — she loved everything,” she said. “I think we need to lean into that love of church. … We have to not be shy about it and move into mission with the same joy and same respect that Jesus moved among the people of his time — owning our identity but respecting other identities.”
Just as the United States is recognizing and celebrating its growing diversity, Maya said, so is religious life in this country.
And with regard to being a visible face for religious Latinas, Maya said her call is to just be who she is “because it witnesses to other Latinas and to other women of color in religious life that we belong, that this is also our life, our church, our time.”
Guerrero said while she doesn’t want to suggest LCWR hasn’t made efforts in reaching out to its diverse cohort, “it does make a difference when you have [a leader] who can truly speak to the experience.”
The Latino culture is particularly capable of getting into the “fiesta” mode that the pope is calling the church to, Maya said, a gift that the U.S. church can begin to utilize and run with.
The first time she attended Giving Voice‘s biannual gathering, a space for young women religious to reflect as a group, Maya brought along her sister-friends from Mexico. Until then, her Mexican friends had only seen older women religious back in Mexico.
“It was like a revelation” for them, she said.
That first conference was when Maya especially noticed that “the religious life that’s all bubbling up was more diverse than ever.”
And at the second gathering she attended, she saw how the language barriers between sisters from United States, Vietnam and Latin America were sorted out easily among themselves, with each sister helping another understand.
“It was such a sacred moment because I realized, we’ll be OK.”
“Diversity was not an obstacle,” Maya said. “Growing into the diversity, growing into the interculturality, the intercongregational life that they’re going to be leading, listening to their hopes and stories — it gave me a lot of hope in the future of religious life. It’ll be a different future, but there is a future.”
On the header picture: Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word Teresa Maya, front left, with fellow women religious at a Giving Voice retreat in Seattle in 2014.