At the end of an hour-plus interview, Sister Joyce Meyer — who traveled the globe as executive director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters for 12 years before retiring this summer — has one more story she can’t resist telling. In 2007, the Presentation Sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary was visiting a remote area in civil war-torn Sudan. Some Sudanese sisters, who ran a school funded by the Hilton Fund, survived by hiding in rugged mountain caves with their students. As Sister Meyer was approaching the makeshift school, she had to make her way through crowds of people singing and dancing over her arrival. Then she came to the cow, who happened to be lying down right in front of her. Not knowing what to do, she froze with a puzzled look plastered across her face. “And they said, ‘Sister, you have to jump over the cow as we cut its throat,’” the 70-year-old women religious recalls with a growing grin. “So that’s what I had to do. That was the welcoming ritual. And I made it over the cow, of course. I do yoga. I’m in very good shape.“Back home, my board [of directors] said, ‘We’ve heard of the cow jumping over the moon, but we never heard of a sister jumping over the cow,’” and she breaks up, sitting behind a curved desk in the Fund’s 10th-floor office suite near Century City. Even her coworkers, who have heard the tale many times, in a nearby row of cubicles are smiling now. Sister Meyer has had lot of other adventures — many inspiring and joyful, others being downright dangerous — during her tenure at the Fund for Sisters, established by Conrad N. Hilton in 1986 to support the apostolic work of Roman Catholic sisters, according to his Last Will and Testament. Sisters Farmers’ ProjectSpeaking of Sudan, the intrepid nun tried for three years to get a visa to visit projects until she finally obtained one through Maryknoll sisters. She traveled in a convoy through the desert with no roads. After visiting a school and program for girls, she ended up in a Land Rover with a dozen men with guns for 12 bumpy hours, then had to wait in a town for two days to catch a plane to Nirobi before heading to another war-ravaged nation, Angola, and finally winding up in the capitol of Rwanda.A “Sisters Farmers’ Project” in Zambia she visited helps women religious cultivate and develop land owned by their congregations. Agriculture education, in short, is teaching nuns how to be good farmers. Then they teach local women their newfound back-to-the-Earth skills. The project involves learning to plant fast-growing trees to replenish deforested areas for firewood. People are also introduced to more efficient stoves that burn much less wood. In addition, sisters there are now using biogas from animal manure to cook, heat and light their schools. The more precarious adventures include being chased by police in Vietnam. In 2001, Sister Meyer was going with a group of nuns from Ho Chi Minh City to their outpost in the mountains. But their coworkers waiting for their special guest frantically told her over the phone not to come into their town because the police were waiting to arrest her. So the sisters she was traveling with hid her out in a field, while the others back home tried to convince the police that no strange nun from America was coming to see them. Finally after hours, the police did leave and she was able to sneak into the town.Then only last year the executive director visited Afghanistan to check on a project started by nuns from Italy. In Kabul they had a school for children with multiple handicaps. “Children who had never walked are walking because of the work of one sister who’s a physical therapist,” she reports. “Children who couldn’t learn at school are now learning and being reintegrated into schools. It was an amazing experience.”It was also a dangerous one. She wore the dress of local women, including a veil. And the nuns told her she could only stay a few days or else she would be noticed. “So it was like living in a cloister working with these kids,” she says, shaking her head. “And that’s the way they live there day after day cooped up in this convent.” ‘It’s a terrible injustice’Sister Meyer says the on-site visits — which she took three times a year, hitting 30 to 40 projects each time in two or three countries mostly in Africa and Asia — were vital for a couple reasons. The first was to really see where the sisters were living and working so she could get a better understanding of their needs. The second was to monitor their particular project, making sure that the classroom was really being built or the egg-laying chickens actually existed and were on the job. What she quickly discovered was that most of the nuns the Hilton Fund supported in Third World nations were working in horrendous conditions. Moreover, they weren’t being supported by their local bishops. Basically, it was up to them — and them alone — to survive, never mind to cover the costs of their ministry.“The Church doesn’t support the sisters; the sisters are totally on their own,” she points out. “They don’t get salaries. They have to grow their own food. They get nothing. I mean, it’s a terrible injustice. They’re totally disenfranchised. So without us, they would have absolutely nothing.“After a bishop starts a religious community, they’re on their own after maybe two to four years. Or sometimes he’s moved and a new bishop comes in and totally ignores them. I’m sure there are some good examples. But the bishops start these pet projects with the sisters, and it’s basically slavery because they’re women. “And I’ve had so many visiting bishops from Third World countries come into our office and try to tell me how I should run my foundation differently,” she points out. “They want us to send the money directly to their diocese. You see, the sisters are competing with them because we send the money directly to the sisters.”The nun from Minnesota, who entered her community at 17 right after high school, has struggled with not becoming a cynical person. It makes her both sad and angry that the local Catholic Church in the Third World for the most part doesn’t recognize the special charism of its women religious, working with the rural indigenous poor in the bush, desert, mountains and other largely inaccessible locales. Frugal creativitySo what’s kept her from being burnt out during the last 12 years?Without any hesitation, Sister Meyer answers, “Because I just love the sisters,” sitting up a little straighter behind her big desk. “I mean, they feed my soul. That’s all I can say. They feed my soul. When I see their commitment and endurance and creativity, how could I not be encouraged by them. No, I’m far from burnt out.”Concerning creativity, she says it’s the very same quality that attracted Conrad N. Hilton to the sisters even before the Fund was established. When a nun would ask him for $100 to buy used desks for a classroom or $300 to keep the old boiler in the basement going at school, the hotel businessman saw how efficient, and frugal, these women of God really were. Since 1986 the Fund has awarded more that $72 million through about 7,200 grants to nun-run projects in 130 countries, including the U.S. Most grants have been no more than $10,000 for HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment, agriculture and food security, micro-credit services, vulnerable women and stop-trafficking efforts, prisoner rehabilitation, maternal and infant care, renewable energy sources, education from preschool to adult literacy programs plus hundreds of other grassroots anti-poverty social service, healthcare, environmental and social justice works. Seeing many of these projects firsthand has affected Sister Meyer tremendously. “There’s a lot of time when I’m saying to God, ‘Why is it this way?’” she admits. “And, yet, I think in a lot of ways the job has definitely strengthened my own spirituality and compassion and justice, particularly. “Just watching and being a part of the sisters lives, you know, just living with them in those conditions, it’s made me much more aware of the Earth and ecology. In the inter-congregational community I live in here in Southern California, I’m much more aware of how much water I’m using and many other things. So it’s been life-changing in the way that I see the world.”The card-carrying member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary has the work philosophy that all organizations need new leadership every dozen years or so, with different gifts and vision to bring about genuine change. And she believes Sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus Marcia Sichol, the new executive director of the Fund for Sisters, fits that bill.“I know she will find joy in this job,” says Sister Meyer. “I mean, it is the most wonderful ministry. It’s been the most amazing experience to get to know sisters in every part of the world, and from extremely remote and difficult situations. “I wish people knew more about the powerful contribution that sisters make in this world, and not just spiritual. Just to see the creativity that they have for projects that are trying to help the poor. They’re going to places that no one else will go. The development of these Third Word countries is so dependent on them, and the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters is the only fund in the world that is just for sisters.”The former elementary and high school teacher, formation and retreat director, president of her religious community — and missionary herself in Zambia for five years — pauses before adding: “I’ve had many adventures, and I’ve loved every minute here. Every minute. It’s been so much fun.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0923/hiltonsister/{/gallery}