Debra Zanella, 2 February 2023
As Debra Zanella ages, her understanding of ministry and liturgy have broadened, reaching across many aspects of her life in both the personal and work realms. She describes ministry as “my response and acceptance of God’s call for who I am, that gets embodied in the work that I do.” This has led her to various ministries or areas of work, but always with the key element of service.
Debra was born and raised in Perth to Italian parents. The family went to church together and belonged to the parish and school community. Debra still goes to the same church with her mother and sister, which she reflects is quite remarkable! She has “always been open to wherever I have been drawn to, or to use religious language ‘called to’”, which has varied over the years. Debra’s career path has spanned nursing, teaching and in later years senior executive and CEO roles in the community services. It has been this work in community services that “have been the most meaningful in terms of ministry.”
Debra has worked for the Servites in Education, MercyCare (Sisters of Mercy) and the last 7 years for Ruah Community Services, which was founded by the Daughters of Charity. Ruah was started by “remarkable women religious whose belief and commitment to a relationship with God was expressed through a commitment to serve others.” In 1990, Ruah was handed over to lay leadership, and it has remained true to the founders’ dedication of service to the marginalised in the areas of family and domestic violence, homelessness and mental health services. In recent years it has added legal services as well.
Debra speaks of a seminal moment when she started as a CEO in community services, after reading a sermon delivered by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He wrote, in effect, that for the Christian believer the unique relationship between God and the individual tells us that “every person is related to God before they are related to anything or anyone else”. Therefore, “it means that there are no superfluous people, no spare people in the human world. All are needed for the good of all. Human failure is tragic and terrible because it means that some unique and unrepeatable aspect of God’s purpose has been allowed to vanish”.1 This view reflected by Williams was pivotal in shaping Debra’s understanding of leadership in this space. Debra seeks to recognise the ‘I and Thou’ – it is “our responsibility to find the divine in our own self and respond to that in the way life presents the circumstances.”
Even when there are no religious or spiritual words, Debra finds the best liturgical experiences in her workplace. It is the very ordinary, average occasions of genuinely being with each other that move her. She suggests reflecting on the definition of liturgy as “a religious phenomenon that is about a communal response to and participation in the sacred through activities reflecting praise, thanksgiving, remembrance, supplication, or repentance. It forms a basis for establishing a relationship with God.”2 Debra says that whilst the activities of liturgy may not be as they are in formal liturgical settings, she does experience all of them in her community service work, in the way they unfold in the lives of people who live on the margins and seek wholeness, safety and love. People seeking forgiveness for things they have done or done to others; people seeking healing from abuse, neglect and lack of self love and understanding. And when those changes occur that creates a sense of healing and wholeness for the people we work with, there is a communal response in celebrating that.
Debra remembers a particular man who had a very important job, but then suffered a physical injury and had PTSD. He was homeless for many years and finally spent 3 months in ICU as result of his time living on the streets. Through this time, the Ruah staff journeyed with, supported and believed in him. Some years after he was permanently housed, he started his own business and has now been able to buy his own home. To this day, Debra feels that “that was an incredibly liturgical moment. The joy and happiness in his face as he shared his news with a group of people, was a moment of celebration and acknowledgement that we all participated in.” It also reminded her again of her Christian calling – to work so that everyone is whole. It is as simple and complex as that.
Debra’s nourishment comes from her own spiritual practice and reflection, her work and connectedness to her faith community. Whilst a surprise to Debra herself, she still attends the same church that she did as a child, and actively participates in the life of the parish. While she has struggled, and continues to do so, with liturgical experiences and theology not always reflecting the reality of women’s lived experience within the institutional Church, she has been moved by the “capacity of the community to create a sense of connectedness”. This was especially evident in the genuine love and care shown as her father, a long time parishioner who died in 2022. The compassion shared with Debra, her aged mother and family, has brought home the centrality of loving connection, this “sense of community that is created around a shared common belief in God and God’s presence amongst us.”
Finally, Debra reflects once more on the people she works with and liturgy. If liturgy is about our communal response to, and participation in, the sacred, and about connection with the divine, then it must reach those who are marginal. For the Church to remain relevant in the future, “it must meet people where they are at and speak to the diversity of people.” It must find a way of speaking to and welcoming those who are broken and wounded and feel excluded by the Church. For those whose wounds are hidden and are already present within our Church, we must find ways to recognise and value their lived experiences within our liturgical processes.
Debra asks, “how do we use our woundedness as a Church, as victims/survivors of suffering, to create liturgy that speaks to people’s pain, acknowledges their truth and provides hope?” For every woman that has experienced sexual violence, harrasment or abuse – of which there are many in our Churches – how does liturgy speak to them? This should be our work as communities of faith! Debra has seen the power of great liturgy. She has also seen the power of women healing from abuse, from being disempowered; she has seen them protect and raise children amidst incredible tragedy. She has seen the power of the human spirit overcome adversity. Therefore it is only natural that women in the role of deacons, like their male counterparts, be as the Greek word from which deacon is derived the “messenger” of God’s healing love; the “minister” to those who seek God. Whatever our stories are, Debra’s learnings over the years have been that so often, “our greatest wounds are our greatest gift in healing.”
1 “Christianity: Public Religion and the Common Good”; 12th May 2007 St Andrew’s Cathedral Singapore: Archbishop Rowan Williams http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1165/christianity-public-religion-and-the-common-good.html