I grew up celebrating Black History week first, before it was officially designated Black History Month in February. Through the years, I developed a deeper appreciation of Black history, remembering our contributions in many areas of society. In the last two years, I have seen what can only be described as the reversal of some of the racial progress and equity gained after the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, I have also witnessed a kind of waking-up of white consciousness. This awakening was spurred, in large part, by the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The challenge to dismantling racism has been very compelling these last few years. I find it especially significant at this time, that the mantle has been taken up by both black and white Americans, from all walks of life and culture, especially the culture of religious life.
As a Black religious sister, I have been deeply heartened by the way many religious communities and religious organizations are in the forefront of addressing and educating themselves and others about racism. My own congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, has studied, provided resources, offered presentations, and engaged in dialogue opportunities among our members. Our Leadership team and our congregation have been open to engaging in difficult conversations about race, bias, intercultural living, and systemic inequity. Why? I believe it is because grappling with these issues is part of the future that is unfolding in religious life. While the number of women entering religious life are fewer than in the past, those entering are very diverse culturally. I think this diversity is an important part of the unfolding future of religious life. Preparation and openness are key to this future success.
Black History Month in 2022, found me reflecting on the Black religious women on whose shoulders I stand, some still alive, but many more in the presence of God. Historian Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D. in her upcoming book, “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle” wrote about the hidden histories of many women of color, who either entered or attempted to enter white religious orders in the past. She has given some fascinating presentations from her research. I invite you to view this short video clip with Dr. Williams here. My reflection led me to think about two Black religious women who played an important role in my discernment and journey into religious life–Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, OSP and Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA.
Mother Elizabeth Lange was a Haitian refugee and one of the foundresses for the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of religious sisters founded in 1829 for women of color in Baltimore, MD. The Oblate Sisters of Providence continue their mission today of the education of African American children. I was an Associate with the Oblate Sisters of Providence for three years. I still remember the experience of entering their motherhouse for the first time and seeing Black sisters walking the halls of the convent. It was here that I discerned my call to “something more” was not to Associate membership, but to vowed religious life. I also felt called to a broader expression of religious life than being in an all-Black congregation.
Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA was also an important role model for me. The reason why is summed up in this quote from her, “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 gifts to the Church,” and I would add–to religious congregations. Sr. Thea Bowman modeled the concept of “unity in diversity.” Thea modeled that I could be true to who I am as a Black woman and a religious sister. She is not the only Black religious to model this, but she was important to my religious discernment. I honor both Sr. Thea’s contribution and Mother Lange’s contribution to America during Black History Month 2022. I invite you to read here about Mother Lange and Sr. Thea Bowman along with four other Black Candidates for Sainthood in 2020.
I end with these thoughts. This quote is often attributed to actor, Morgan Freeman, “Black history is American History.” It is a truth this country continues to struggle to recognize. I believe that only in our efforts to reconcile and learn from the past, will we emerge into a more loving and radiant future. I also think that vowed religious and all people of goodwill have a part to play in bringing about such a future.
Perhaps you are being called to help bring about a brighter future of love for all people– as a Sister? Call us, we would be happy to help.