The compassionate dolls of Françoise Bosteels

Françoise Bosteels at FLT meeting in Leuven, 080508

Guest to the Forum for Liberation Theologies (Faculty of Theology, K.U.Leuven) on May 8th, 2008, was Françoise Bosteels, a Belgian religious sister who has been working in India for the past 30 years. Her commitment to a life shared with the poor in the villages and to formation, as well as her love for dolls and her sharp qualities of observation of people and of the webs of pain and injustice in which they are caught up, have stimulated her to make dolls picturing scenes of daily life in India as well as of shocking injustices and suffering. The dolls allow her to enter into a deep conversation with her public and stimulate people to touch their own pain and to even creatively attempt to express in dolls or other art expressions their life experiences. She has published photographs of the dolls accompanied by poems of many friends in two fascinating and stimulating books: The Dolls Speak and Through the Needle’s Eye: Everyday Life of Everyday People. In response to her own spiritual development she is now working on evangelical doll scenes, which will be published soon in a third volume.

The theological importance and qualities of Françoise’s creations have been recognized both by EATWOT theologians (EATWOT = Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians) and the ITA, the Indian Theological Association, to which she belongs along with Samuel Rayan, an Indian Jesuit theologian and great admirer of Françoise.

Françoise’s presentation of her work, using and commenting on photographs of her dolls, is a moving experience. One is drawn into (re-)discovering one’s own compassionate depth, the fact that one can be touched by what happens to fellow human beings. It is as if the dolls in their simplicity, beauty and vulnerability break through the defense mechanisms that we construct shielding us off our own feelings of compassion, as we now that they entail responsibility and challenges, to which we are afraid to commit. So, out of fear to commit, we hide away from the compassion that lies at the core of our being human. Françoise’s dolls do not allow us this evasive movement: they unleash our compassion and so our deepest humanity. This gives a sense of consolation and responsibility.

From a theological point of view, particularly from the perspective of a liberation theologian or a theologian who takes at heart Cardinal Joseph Cardijn’s “see-judge-act”, this liberation of our compassionate heart is crucial. Her dolls go beyond the unleashing of compassion. By situating the dolls in plots, by provoking people into narrating the stories connected to the dolls – something they can only do out of their own experiences – a process of analysis of the enslaving structures of injustice takes off. Compassion and analysis constitute “seeing” and Françoise does a wonderful job on that. The fact that she now will also reach out into the depths of the gospel, using exactly the same dolls, opens the activity of judgment by connecting the gospel stories to the real life stories of people. Françoise acts on our lives, confronts us and ultimately invites us to action, by making our own dolls – workshops for making dolls took place in Bolivia while she was visiting and seem to begin also in India – and discovering in their plots our own change oriented action.

One Indian participant to the Forum said: “your presentation and your dolls make me feel homesick” and another of his fellow countrymen admitted: “is it not remarkable that you, a Belgian woman, breaks open our compassion in the midst of a situation that we claim to have known so well?”. Participants were profoundly touched and I can only hope that Françoise’s work will grow and allow people to discover the hopegiving and energizing perspectives of their own life plots.

Those of you who would like to look at some photographs of this meeting of the Forum for Liberation Theologies can consult this webpage.

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