To Live Fully: The witness of Sister Thea Bowman

While teaching an undergraduate course titled The Black Catholic Experience, an unsettling realization broke into my consciousness: How often the prophets and saints we most need to remember are hidden in plain sight among us. It is fitting and easy enough to celebrate the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as many parishes do, during Sunday Mass before the holiday commemorating his life. But maybe it is too easy for us to think that is all we need to do to fight the racism still present in our society today. Where might we find inspiration to continue to work for justice? The history of black Catholics presents us with a wondrous but too often forgotten cloud of witnesses. Could it be that the lives of these saints challenge many of us in ways that strike too uncomfortably close to home?

Gift and Challenge to the Church

Arguably no person in recent memory did more to resist and transform the sad legacy of segregation and racism in the Catholic Church than Thea Bowman of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a scholar and public speaker who inspired millions with her singing and message of God’s love for all races and faiths. Sister Thea awakened a sense of fellowship in people both within and well beyond the Catholic world, first and foremost through her charismatic presence. But she also did it through her willingness to speak the truth about racial injustice in society and the church and through her remarkable ability to express such truths in the context of God’s universal love.

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“We need to tell one another in our homes, in our church, and even in our world, I really, really love you,” she said. Indeed! But as Sister Thea taught us, we also need to sing the beautiful and demanding truth of God’s call into the mystery of love, justice and cross-racial solidarity.

In 1989, at the age of 52 and compelled to use a wheelchair by the ravages of late-stage cancer, Sister Thea spoke before a gathering of the nation’s Catholic bishops about the gift of black Catholic spirituality within the church. In their marvelous book, Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman, Charlene Smith and John Feister cite a number of witnesses of the remarkable encounter. Her “voice clear and resonant, eyes sparkling and hands animated,” Sister Thea did not hesitate to challenge and even chide the bishops for their complicity in a “church of paternalism, of a patronizing attitude” toward people of color. She said:

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 Sister Thea Bowman. Though her fame extended far and wide even in nonreligious circles, not once do I recall hearing Sister Thea’s name mentioned in the Catholic schoolrooms and white suburban parish of my youth. Not once. Nor was I taught the inspiring history (and often scandalous treatment) of black Catholic sisters, priests and lay parishioners across the country. Thus her challenge to another predominantly white audience in 1989 (when I was 25) 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?”

Points of Convergence

Like Daniel Rudd, Sister Henriette DeLille, Bishop Vincent Waters, John LaFarge, S.J., the Rev. Clarence Rivers and many others before her, Sister 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,” she said. It is also important to note that Sister Thea resisted the tendency of her fellow Catholics to elevate her into the status of a “saint,” which 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 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, as she put it, is it possible to unlock the “power of personal witness” and “get the word out”? How to ignite our baptismal freedom and go and do likewise? “My basic approach,” she said, “was to try to promote activities that help different groups get to know one another. As we learn to know [and] 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, characteristically, she added, “I think a sense of humor and a whole lot of fun can help.”

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.”

Fully, Joyfully, Creatively

Asked how she was coping with her cancer, Sister Thea 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 further on her life and death, 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 wishes, if God grants me the grace, is to make a pilgrimage with my family to Sister Thea’s grave in Memphis, Tenn. In the meantime, I pray for the faithfulness to choose courage over fear, understanding over ignorance and risk over inertia. In the memory of Sister Thea and a thousand other hidden saints like her, may the Spirit of Christ ignite in us the courage “to live fully until we die,” until that happy day when God calls us together again around the great welcome table.

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