What can nuns and ‘nones’ learn from one another?
Late in November 2016, people from all over the country gathered in Cambridge, Mass., for an experimental meeting in an austere room at Harvard Divinity School. It was deeply cold outside, and just weeks after the election, many of the participants were feeling shaken.
Around the table where they had gathered were two demographic groups that rarely encounter each other: millennials who describe themselves as having no single religious practice (better known as “nones”); and Catholic women religious, who mostly prefer to be called sisters but will settle for being called nuns.
They had gathered to share experiences of community, spirituality and activism. More quickly than anyone had anticipated, they discovered enough common ground to lead one of the sisters to tell the millennials, “I believe that we are more alike than we are different.”
Although the number of nones is growing, making up nearly 25 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center, they are far from apathetic about what religion can offer, and many are self-described spiritual seekers. At the same time, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of sisters is shrinking and aging, with fewer than 50,000 sisters alive today, and nearly 90 percent of those sisters are over the age of 60. But women religious are often the first to tell you that they aren’t experiencing a narrative of decline, because they still have millennia of wisdom and experience to share.
I believe that we are more alike than we are different.
The Nuns and Nones project seeks to bring these two groups together in order to explore new forms of community life, help millennials see models for sustainable activism and create an intergenerational network of connections, what the project’s website describes as “an unlikely alliance across communities of spirit.” Different people emphasized different turning points in the origin of the project, but the sisters and millennials I interviewed all agreed: It began with a gathering, a circle, and it began with conversation.
The Harvard Nuns and Nones gatherings were co-sponsored by How We Gather, a project led by Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, two postgraduate fellows at Harvard Divinity School. How We Gather explores how millennials are building communities of meaning outside of institutional religious structures.
They were organized by the Rev. Wayne Muller, who is in his mid-60s and was ordained in the United Church of Christ, and Adam Horowitz, 31, who grew up in a secular Jewish family and now runs a nonprofit called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.
The two met at a retreat run by Mr. Muller, who in 2000 wrote a book about the sabbath that has the distinction of being blurbed by both Henri Nouwen and Mr. Rogers. Mr. Horowitz then realized he and Mr. Muller are neighbors in Santa Fe. They began taking long walks, “just bringing our questions and curiosities.” This model of intergenerational and interdenominational conversation and resource sharing was the catalyst for the Nones and Nuns project.
At some point in these conversations, Mr. Muller, who worked with Maryknoll brothers and sisters in the 1980s and with Henri Nouwen, mentioned that he had connections with Catholic sisters. Mr. Horowitz, who has spent time exploring spiritual questions with a group called Open Masters, also realized that the age and experience of the sisters Mr. Muller knew might lead to an interesting conversation, and thus the first Nuns and Nones meeting at Harvard was born.
At their first gathering, Mr. Muller heard the same question over and over from the millennial participants: “How do I meet the nuns near me?” And Mr. Muller says one of the sisters asked of the millennials, “Are there like more of you?” At which point, he added, the whole room burst out laughing.
In the year and a half since the first Nuns and Nones gathering, the growing level of interest in these meetings among both sister communities and millennials has led Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Muller and a team of volunteers to stage regular regional gatherings across the country. One of the longest-lasting of these has been in Grand Rapids, Mich. Grand Rapids is home to a large number of Reformed Christian churches, as well as Calvin College, which holds the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing, which itself attracts a large number of spiritual seekers. But Grand Rapids is also home to a community of Dominican Sisters.
Last year, Barbara Hansen, O.P., who is in her early 80s, found herself in conversation about hosting a Nuns and Nones gathering with Katie Gordon, who is in her late 20s. She was then a local interfaith organizer and journalist and is now a student at Harvard Divinity School.
On Palm Sunday in 2017, about 20 nones gathered at the retreat center of the Grand Rapids Dominican sisters, and, according to Ms. Gordon, “It was just like magic.”
“That one-to-one conversation left us all totally inspired and speechless about the potential of that group. And so we decided to keep meeting every other week for an hour and a half to just see where the conversation went,” said Ms. Gordon.
That group, which is evenly balanced between sisters and millennials—now going under the name of Sisters and Seekers—has been meeting regularly ever since, to see what they can learn from one another about activism, faith and community life.
At the end of each meeting, the group talks about what they would like to discuss at their next meeting, and an email is put together for the next event with the topic and some suggested readings. Sister Hansen says many of the millennials get a lot of their spirituality from Krista Tippett, host of the popular podcast “On Being,” and her guests, and they have recently read and discussed “On Being” episodes along with essays on race and law by the Berkeley law professor john a. powell (who spells his name lowercase), and essays on L.G.B.T. Catholics by James Martin, S.J.
Sister Hansen mentioned that one of the challenges in these discussions was a need to develop some guidelines, since conversations that are both cross-generational and between women religious and nonreligious adults have layers of challenges. For example, the sisters do not share some of the cultural references of the millennials or their ease with technology.
For the millennial participants, Sister Hansen said, one of the biggest challenges has been adapting to the sisters’ comfort with silence, “the way we appreciate silence, the way we can live with silence.” She recently took a group of millennials to a Mennonite retreat center near Grand Rapids for a silent retreat, and since then, attracted by the opportunity to unplug from technology, several of those millennials have returned on their own for retreats.
The guidelines developed by the group include making room for “generous listening,” “extending grace,” an “unhurried pace” and speaking from personal experience to avoid generalizations.
Ms. Gordon says that taking part in these conversations has also given her an appreciation for how sisters understand time. “Just walking around the Dominican retreat center,” she said, “you can see the history of social activism that they’ve been part of for decades and decades.”
Sisters show how to be women within a church that doesn’t always recognize women to their fullest leadership capacity.
For the “exhausted” millennials who are themselves involved in activism, Ms. Gordon said that “sisters are an example of women who have been involved with these issues for 50 plus years and have found ways to sustain themselves.” For millennials who have felt marginalized due to church teachings on their sexual identity, and for young feminists, according to Ms. Gordon, sisters show how to be “women within a church that doesn’t always recognize women to their fullest leadership capacity” has also provided a model for seeing “what gifts come with being on the edge of a tradition, and what challenges are there as well.”
Brittany Koteles, another millennial member of the Nuns and Nones organizing community, described a similar desire to learn from the activism of religious sisters. Based in Washington, D.C., she spent the summer interviewing women religious on a road trip with Alan Webb, a fellow organizer.
Ms. Koteles, reached on the road, told me she and Mr. Webb had visited eight different communities of sisters over the course of a month. Even as the future of their aging communities is called into question, Ms. Koteles sees the sisters taking the long view when it comes to care for creation and the relationship between communities and place. For Ms. Koteles, that model is a form of the “spiritual nourishment” seekers like herself, who subscribe to a variety of beliefs, are searching for. It would be a mistake, she said, to leave behind the “ancient wisdom” sisters embody.
Unlikely Companions, Unlikely Friendships
In Berkeley, Calif., I met with Sarah Jane Bradley, who has participated in several gatherings with the Dominican Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy, who are both based in the southern part of the Bay Area. Ms. Bradley suggested a local café that was crammed with millennials poking at phones and sipping kombucha. Ms. Bradley is a community organizer and grassroots educator, having co-founded The Open Master's and Alt*Div, a self-organized divinity school for activists, artists, and community builders. She grew up Catholic in Utah, where Catholics are a small religious minority among Utah’s overwhelmingly Mormon population, but she was exposed to “pure social justice brand” Catholicism, learning about Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero. In her later studies of world history, however, Ms. Bradley, who is an activist for black and indigenous land rights, found herself troubled by the church’s history of allegiance with colonial powers, which moved her away from regular church attendance.
But like many millennials drawn to the Nuns and Nones project, Ms. Bradley is a seeker who has continued to look for ways to delve into spiritual practice. The first Bay Area Nones and Nones gathering in 2017 was a two and a half day retreat that left Ms. Bradley surprised to discover that the sisters are “quiet revolutionaries,” who run everything from N.G.O.s to retreat centers, always working in marginalized communities. The level of independence sisters have was something she was not familiar with, but as an activist and organizer herself, she was immediately drawn to the models provided by the sisters of what feminist, nonhierarchical leadership can look like, and what “beloved community” can be. “Their way of life,” she said, “is medicine for our times.”
Judy Carle, R.S.M., a member of the Sisters of Mercy, wound up participating in the Bay Area gatherings through a connection to Mr. Muller and Mr. Horowitz. Of those gatherings, she said they usually “start out with just a question that’s coming up from your heart and your experience, and that kind of sharing gets deep rather quickly.”
Sister Carle, who is now on the advisory committee of Nuns and Nones, says she gets inspiration and energy from the millennials at these gatherings, but she has also noticed that many of them do activist work and have reached a point where they need to take a break “for the sake of going deeper.”
She recognizes the spiritual longing of millennial seekers as profound. “Their searching is coming out of a deep place,” she said, motivated in part by loneliness in the digital era and the stress of living in one of the most expensive parts of the United States.
Sister Carle, who is “quote unquote retired” from a long career in teaching and health care but still helps run a center for formerly incarcerated women, says that the desire for spiritual depth has been an unexpected experience she shares with millenials. At this stage in her life, she said, “as you get deeper into the divine, doors open, life happens and life invites.”
Through the gatherings, Sister Carle said she has learned that both sisters and seekers “live on the edge and challenge the middle.”
Gloria Marie Jones, O.P., a member of the Dominican Sisters, agreed with Sister Carle that the depth of spiritual seeking is something the sisters and millennials have in common. Sister Jones recently shifted from being the prioress of the Dominican Sisters’ community in Freemont to living in their convent in East Oakland, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with a large immigrant population. Two blocks away, an urban farming community called Canticle Farm lives by the Franciscan charism, and Sister Jones has taken millennials from the Nuns and Nones project to visit there.
Of her neighborhood, Sister Jones said, “I feel like this is the kingdom.”
The California Dominicans, Sister Jones said, arrived here in 1876 “in response to human need and a call to make a difference.” At the first Bay Area Nones and Nuns gathering, she heard much of the same desire being voiced by the millennials, and realized both groups together are “giving birth to new ways” of continuing this project.
Women religious, Sister Jones said, “have opted for another way,” a life of simplicity and community-based decision making. For millennials, women religious can provide a model of a different kind of life.
In turn, Sister Jones appreciates interactions with millennials precisely because they offer perspectives she would not encounter in her community. “[Millennials] have stretched me, and I’ve learned more listening to them because it’s outside of my religious boundaries,” she said.
Maybe sisters are the perfect group of people to do intergenerational healing work.
For Ms. Bradley, her friendship with Sister Jones has been an unexpected one, but one that she immediately described as “delightful” because it took her by surprise. Ms. Bradley is tall and dresses in jeans and boots; Sister Jones is petite and wears a Dominican white habit with a veil, and yet they spend time together like any other pair of friends. Because there is so much generational separation between them, according to Ms. Bradley, “there’s a genuine curiosity.”
Sister Jones goes to Ms. Bradley’s regular hangout spots and answers questions about her religious community, or they take walks together and talk about Ms. Bradley’s struggles with the history of Catholicism and indigenous communities. The feeling is always one of “love and acceptance,” Sister Jones said, both at the gatherings and in one on one conversations.
Of the generational divide bridged by their friendship, Sister Jones said, “maybe sisters are the perfect group of people to do intergenerational healing work.”
The future of Nuns and Nones
Because nones come from such a wide range of religious backgrounds, including some raised without any formal religion, the question of how the sisters talk to the nones about faith without sounding as if they are trying to convert or proselytize came up in all of my interviews. And in each case, both millennials and sisters told me that the prayer from Isaiah that the Leadership Conference of Religious Women, the governing body of women religious in America, has used for years has become a central statement in the Nuns and Nones project. In Isaiah 43, the prophet says, “Behold, I am making things new; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
For the sisters, understanding the range of religious and spiritual beliefs practiced by nones is mostly a matter of meeting the millennials where they are. The project, for Sister Jones, is not about “pulling in vocations” but about “an invitation to walk together and allow what’s deepest in our hearts, in values, in spirits, to be gift for each other.” This, she says, is also what Jesus did: he walked with people, had conversations, “and helped them believe in the spirit inside of them.” Doing this with millennials has, for her, “opened up the Gospel call in ways I’d never experienced.”
Sister Hansen sees some of this surge of spiritual seeking as bubbling up from our political moment. “It’s interesting for those of us who have lived through more than one national crisis to see how it is,” she says, “how you react when in reality, this may be the first time that they’ve had an experience about what’s happening in America. I think one of the things that we give them is a sense of time, that everything doesn’t have to be instant.”
Sister Carle sees these conversations as an opportunity to do missionary work, in the sense that missionary work has shifted from the work of conversion to “finding the spirituality of the people and to live and serve in that particular milieu.” Sisters, she says, are getting older, but she does not see this as an experience of diminishment; instead, the opportunity to connect with millennials, whatever their religious beliefs, is a chance to “find a common language and come to a deeper understanding” of their spiritual lives. For Sister Carle, out of that arises a way to understand how the church can work in the world.
The future of the Nuns and Nones project is something all the participants are curious and hopeful about. Mr. Muller talks about the “barn-raising” lineage in American culture, the history of collective efforts to help the common good, and how sisters and millennials both like to have a “horizontal rather than vertical infrastructure,” one that works more on the margins, is welcoming and inclusive and creates a sense of community that is about the collaborative good, the commonweal.
Mr. Horowitz sees the local Nuns and Nones communities having the opportunity to work together in social justice projects around immigration and climate change, a “shared social action.” Both sides are also beginning conversations about the future of sisters’ living and working spaces and whether they can be saved and reinvented rather than sold for commercial redevelopment as the number of sisters declines. Mr. Muller says both millennials and sisters see property and land as an issue of “stewardship rather than ownership.”
A pilot program exploring residences where millennials and sisters could live together has been launched, and meanwhile, they hope to keep expanding the local gatherings. For now, however, the priority is to fully embrace the window of time available. It is true that sister communities are aging, and that millennials are as well. For now, according to everyone I spoke to, it is the opportunity for community building, relationships, mentoring and mutual knowledge sharing that matters most.
Between 2012 and 2015, I interviewed dozens of nones for my own book about them; and in each case, the seekers I spoke to said the same thing: They were looking for, and failing to find, a place where they could air their doubts and questions about faith and be met where they arrived. The future of religious life in the United States does not have to be a relentless narrative of decline even as the number of nones continues to grow and the number of sisters shrinks. To see this only as a decline is, in many ways, is a failure of imagination and a failure of communication.
Nones and Nuns gives us a different model: an opportunity to find common ground and shared concerns rather than yet another example of drawing a line between a religious “us” and a nonreligious “them.” As Sister Jones says, Jesus walked with the people around him. “Behold,” says the prophet, “I am making things new.”
Correction, September 10, 2018: A previous version of this article stated that the first “Nones and Nuns” gathering was sponsored by How We Gather. In fact, the event was co-sponsored by How We Gather. This article has also been edited to clarify Ms. Sarah Jane Bradley's occupation.