November is Black Catholic History month. While teaching a new course on “The Black Catholic Experience” this semester, the one thing that’s been driven home to me and my students time and again is this: How often the saints we most need to remember and hear from – some of us perhaps for the first time – are hidden in plain view right among us! Black Catholic history, right up to the present day, presents us with a wondrous but too often forgotten cloud of witnesses.
Arguably no person of recent memory has done more to resist and transform the sad legacy of segregation and racism in the Catholic Church than Sr. Thea Bowman, a Franciscan nun who inspired millions with her singing and message of God’s love for all races and faiths. Sr. Thea awakened a sense of fellowship in people both within and well beyond the Catholic world first of all by her charismatic presence. But she also did so through her willingness to speak the truth about racial injustice in society and church, and her remarkable ability to express such truths in the context of God’s universal love.
“We need to tell one another in our homes, in our church and even in our world, I really, really love you.” Indeed, how we do need to tell! But as Sr. Thea taught us, we also need to sing the beautiful and demanding truth of God’s call into the mystery of love.
In 1989, at the age of fifty-two and confined to a wheelchair by the ravages of late-stage cancer, Sr. Thea spoke before a gathering of the nation’s Catholic bishops about the gift of black Catholic spirituality within the church. Her “voice clear and resonant, eyes sparkling and hands animated,” she did not hesitate to challenge and even chide the bishops for their complicity in a “church of paternalism, of a patronizing attitude” toward blacks and peoples of color.
What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my church fully functioning. I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become, I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the Church.
It is a point of some embarrassment and even shame for me to admit that as a young Catholic I knew nothing about Sr. Thea Bowman during her lifetime. Though her fame extended far and wide even in nonreligious circles, not once do I recall hearing Sr. Thea’s name mentioned in the Catholic schoolrooms and suburban parishes of my youth. Not once. Thus her challenge to another predominantly white audience in 1989 (I was twenty-five) still resounds with prophetic urgency, poignancy, and love, as though she were speaking directly to me: “Are you with us? We can stop and explain this stuff, but I’m asking you, Are you with us?”
Sr. Thea believed that Catholicism was uniquely equipped to forge healing relationships across the color line. “The beauty of universality is that the church is able to speak to people in whatever language they understand best—and we’re not just talking about verbal language.” It is also important to note that Sr. Thea resisted the tendency of her fellow Catholics to elevate her into the status of a “saint,” insofar as doing so would relieve us of our own baptismal freedom and Christian responsibility for love. “I know people are looking for sources of hope and courage and strength. I know it’s important to have special people to look up to. But, see, I think all of us in the church are supposed to be that kind of person to each other.”
This seems to me the key insight, the pearl of great price in the story of Thea Bowman: all of us in the church are supposed to be that kind of person to each other. How, then, to unlock the “power of personal witness,” as Sr. Thea put it, and “get the word out”? How to ignite our baptismal freedom and begin to do as she did?
“My basic approach,” she says, “was to try to promote activities that help different groups get to know one another. As we learn to know one another, we learn to appreciate one another, then we grow to love one another. [You bring people] into situations where they can share your treasure, your art, your food, your prayers, your history, your traditions, the coping mechanisms that enabled you to survive.” And she added, characteristically, “I think a sense of humor and a whole lot of fun can help.”
This kind of mutual sharing opens the way for “points of convergence” to emerge between strangers. “I can introduce my black friends to my Hispanic friends to my Anglo friends, to my Asian friends, to my Native friends. I can be the bridge over troubled waters. I can take you by the hand and take you with me into the black community. I can walk with you into your community. And if I walk with you into your community I don’t walk as a stranger. I walk as your sister.”
Once asked how she was coping with her cancer, she replied, “Part of my approach to my illness has been to say I want to choose life, I want to keep going, I want to live fully until I die.” Asked whether she had reconciled with her disease, she said: “I don’t want to reconcile with cancer, I don’t want to reconcile with injustice . . . racism . . . sexism . . . classism. I don’t want to reconcile with anything that is destructive.” Reflecting a moment further, she said: “I wish I had danced more, I wish I had run around more, I wish I had used my body more joyfully and more creatively.”
One of my goals in the next few years is to make a pilgrimage with my family to visit Sr. Thea’s grave in Memphis, Tennessee. In the meantime, I pray in all things to choose courage over fear, understanding over ignorance, risk over inertia. In the memory and spirit of Sr. Thea Bowman, and a thousand hidden saints like her, may God ignite in each of us the courage “to live fully until we die,” until that happy day when God calls us all together again around the great Welcome Table.
Postscript: This post is adapted from Chapter 9 of Hope Sings, So Beautiful. For a lively introduction to Sr. Thea’s story, see this wonderful video, “Are You Walkin’ with Me?,” or the award-winning book by Charlene Smith and John Feister, Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman (Orbis, 2012). On the “segregated sisterhood” of racial politics in the history of women religious in the US Catholic Church, see this excellent piece by Dr. Shannen Williams. Dr. Williams visited my class a few weeks ago and her presentation on the racial history of women religious blew us all away.
Update (Dec. 18, 2013): Another superb piece by Dr. Williams in reference to cultural stereotypes and historical ignorance surrounding women religious.