by Frida Berrigan
Nuns. If the picture that jumps to your mind is from “The Sound of Music” or “Lilies of the Field” or even “Sister Act” (one or two or on Broadway), it is time to take another look at sisterhood. On the picket line, the police line-up, the convention dais, women religious are living their faith out loud.I started thinking about nuns on the way home from Chicago, where I helped the Eighth Day Center for Justice celebrate 38 years of fighting the good fight. Made up of congregations of nuns, Eighth Day works to end torture (throughout the world, but also right in Chicago, where the police and correctional departments have committed grievous crimes against inmates), organizes to end the war in Afghanistan (they were on the streets every day NATO deployed to Chicago) and supports local union organizing efforts. Back in the day, each congregation sent a nun to participate in Eighth Day organizing, but with so many fewer nuns now, the group is now a hybrid of older women religious (nuns) and young people hired to represent many of the orders. The younger generation brings new energy, flair and ideas to the group, enriching it in many ways. In turn, these young people enter into a real and rich relationship with wise and feisty women. The event was an awesome display of intergenerational cooperation — hip and diverse and never a minute behind on schedule.
Even with their total commitment to punctuality, women religious are radically free. One walks away from the possibility of family and motherhood in order to see all of creation as family, all young people as your own children. It is inspiring to consider their contributions and daunting to try and walk in their footsteps. Let’s listen to the voices of a few of our Sister sisters.
Sister Simone Campbell, SSS is no habit-wearing slump. In fact, she told Stephen Colbert that she and other habit-eschewers were going back to their roots in wearing simple dress in order to be approachable and able to walk with the people. Dressed simply but with flair — a white blazer rolled up from the wrists and long blue patterned skirt — the head of NETWORK (A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby) stood before the Democratic National Convention on September 5 and spoke truth to power. NETWORK organized the Nuns on the Bus, a nine-state road trip that Sister Simone described as an opportunity to “stand with struggling families and to lift up our Catholic sisters who serve them.” Again and again, they found sad stories, great need and good work, and as Sister Simone told the Democratic party faithful, this “work to alleviate suffering would be seriously harmed by the Romney-Ryan budget, and that is wrong.”
To say that Sister Megan Rice would rather wear handcuffs than a wimple is an exaggeration (no one wants to wear handcuffs, but those headdresses were not that comfy either), but maybe not a large one. The 82-year-old Society of the Holy Child Jesus sister walked on to the “reservation” of the Y-12 Oakridge National Laboratory and into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility in July with two friends. They passed signs that warned they were entering a deadly force zone to pour their own blood in the new $500 million building, marking the site as a place of suffering and blood-letting. Outside, they painted slogans, hung banners and waited for several hours to be arrested. It is, according to nuclear experts, the “biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.” Y-12 spent $150 million on security personnel, equipment and procedures in 2012.
This is not Sister Megan’s first action, but it is the first to land her on the front page of the New York Times. In the article she decries the nuclear industry, pointing out that “We spend more on nuclear arms than on the departments of education, health, transportation, disaster relief and a number of other government agencies that I can’t remember.” Being a nun, she said, allows her to follow her conscience. “We’re free as larks,” Sister Rice said of herself and her older religious friends. “We have no responsibilities — no children, no grandchildren, no jobs … So the lot fell on us … We can do it. But we all do share the responsibility equally.”
That is a sentiment that many sisters share: not having a family means they have the freedom and responsibility to take risks. Sister Anne Montgomery certainly believed that. The Society of the Sacred Heart nun died at the age of 86 in August, leaving a long and rich legacy of peace making and risk taking. Waging Nonviolence contributor Kathy Kelly eulogized her beautifully here. The peripatetic peacemaker traveled to Iraq, Guantanamo, Jordan, the Occupied Territories and all over the United States. Liz McAlister, plowshares activist and cofounder of Jonah House (and my mom) wrote that Anne’s work:
was the fruit of years of reflecting on the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Anne lived that prophetic, educational mission with courage and grace, whatever side of the prison walls she inhabited for more than 30 years. She was not just about abolishing weapons; she graced each space with a spirit of compassion. She again and again said: “Who’s going to do this if we don’t? If anyone should take risks, it should be [women] religious.”
What is riskier than washing the feet of New Yorkers? I can’t think of much. But Sister Susan Wilcox and others in Occupy Catholics did just that on the night before the big May Day action in New York City. The Sister of Saint Joseph is young by current nun standards, and has been engaged in the day-to-day grind of Occupy: scaling the fences of Trinity Church property, being church in the streets, bringing [Jesus’ radical message of love and justice to the craven corporations committed to the exact opposite. At a recent Occupy meeting, Sister Susan stood up and said:
I’m Sister Susan. I am an Occupy Catholic and a nun. Nuns have been criticized lately by the hierarchy of being radical feminists and too involved with social justice. Hmm — sounds like Occupy? … To me it seems that Occupy and nuns are allies in the struggle! And I know many other nuns who were in the encampments all over the country with you! God Bless Occupy.
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? Try hanging out with Sister Simone, Sister Megan and Sister Susan. Try learning more about Sister Anne’s life. Amen!
Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.