My grandmother was one of the most faithful people I’ve ever met. In my fondest memory of her, she is walking through the house on a warm summer day, watering plants while singing spirituals—those Christian songs created by enslaved people in the United States as a form of prayer and worship. Whether Grandma was caring for her grandchildren, assisting people in the community or doing chores, she presented her faith through song.
Along with her songs, my grandmother’s way of helping others also became a form of prayer. When I was in fourth grade, I remember rushing to her house after school on an extremely cold winter day. While passing through the vestibule, I heard her say, “Have as much as you’d like, we have plenty.” There was a family of three sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of soup. After saying hello, I joined them at the table. I learned later that the family had been living in their car. My grandmother’s generosity, humility and grace were infused by her faith.
Grandma also inspired me to start my first faith-sharing group in elementary school. Nine of us sat in a circle on someone’s front porch and opened with prayer before sharing. I know we discussed biblical stories, but now I recall the fellowship more than the discussions. At the end of each gathering we held hands and thanked God for our time together, praying: God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. Amen.
My family was raised in the African-American Baptist Church. Influenced by my grandmother, I continue in that tradition, but I also had the awesome privilege of being surrounded by several faith traditions as a child. We lived in Baltimore, Md., where I knew people who were Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Jews. Learning about each of these practices taught me to be respectful of God’s presence in different forms and helped me to have an open mind when interacting with people of other faith traditions. Out of respect for one of my Jewish friends, we were mindful to not hold our faith-sharing meetings on the Sabbath, nor did we eat foods that might have insulted his kosher lifestyle.
Bearing witness to the merciful spirit of my grandmother helped to build the foundation for my desire to create community today. Her example helped me to see the importance of not limiting my faith community to the boundaries of one denomination and instead to allow God’s teachings to be the cornerstone of my faith.
This mind-set allowed me to be open to new opportunities when my family and I moved to North Carolina in May 2008 to enjoy a slower pace and lower cost of living. Six months after our move, my employer went out of business. Unemployed, I volunteered at area schools. About a year later, I was offered a position as part-time secretary. In January 2011, I learned that my part-time position was being eliminated. I was devastated at the thought of going from underemployment to unemployment again. This was one of the most vulnerable times of my life.
Four weeks later, I learned of an administrative assistant position with the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont, N.C. Before the interview process began, I prayed to work someplace where I could openly talk about my faith and be with likeminded colleagues. Fortunately, I was offered a position to support the sisters’ Office of Association and the Office of Justice. This is where I was introduced to the life of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy. I would have never imagined how much Mercy Association and social justice would become a part of my life.
In truth, the Sisters of Mercy had been around me my entire life, though I hadn’t realized it. Some of my very close friends were educated by the Sisters of Mercy. I remember going to dances and community programs at those schools and feeling drawn to the spirit of compassion and hospitality. There was a sense of great consideration for the betterment of the students and affiliates of the school as well as the overall community. The relationship between the students and sisters felt familiar. In many ways I compared it to the appreciation that my grandmother had for her community. Both the Sisters of Mercy and my Grandma were purposeful in their affiliations in order to foster positive relationships within society. I wanted to be like them, too.
Learning about Catherine McAuley felt like meeting an old friend with a common interest in serving the unmet needs of marginalized people. Life taught her about the vulnerability of indigent people. Her legacy inspired me to identify prejudice toward God’s people and advocate for change. Unknowingly, this was an introduction to Catholic social justice. As a woman of faith, I didn’t know what to do with this sudden eruption of passion, because becoming a vowed member of the Sisters of Mercy was not an option. I am a Protestant, married mother of three. During this time, I was introduced to Mercy Association.
Mercy Association is an alliance of lay women and men who are called to share in the mission of Mercy while maintaining independent lifestyles through a covenant with the Sisters of Mercy. After a period of prayer and discernment about Mercy Association, it became very clear that I was called to be part of this community. I joined on Sept. 24, 2012, and now help to organize the associates in my region.
The charism of Mercy inspires and challenges me to confront issues of overlooked populations with compassion. It provides a platform by which I can wholly honor traditions of my culture and my faith while moving forward in Jesus Christ through service, prayer and community. For the first time in my life, I choose not to ignore the person on the corner asking for help. I pay attention to the people around me because my covenant and community hold me accountable to live with devotion.
Upon reflection, I see the spirit of Catherine McAuley in the life my Grandma lived. Like Catherine, she had a great desire to meet the immediate needs of the people around her while living Gospel values. Both women have inspired me to do the same, because I believe God ultimately wants us to become partners on the journey. As I continue to grow, I thank God for the manifestation of faith in my life. With love and mercy, I can’t help but be thankful and embrace the varied paths of faith surrounding me.
My journey has been an awesome blend of sharing and learning. For instance, as part of an Association antiracism workshop in Mississippi, our participants attended Mass at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. There was a mix of all races and a Gospel choir. There I sat intimately with God amongst friends and acquaintances of every age, sex, race and religion—in hope and community with one another.
Some may ask, how does an African-American Baptist woman identify with an order of apostolic vowed Catholic religious? It is actually very simple: The presence of God exists in both places. As a society, we must learn to build intimacy with God and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us how we should go. Catherine McAuley and my grandmother worshiped God by doing the works of mercy. I praise God for each part of my journey. Between my Grandma’s mentorship and my relationship with the Sisters of Mercy, I can fully embrace God in both traditions.