You probably have not heard of Thea Bowman (1937–1990).
She was an African-American, Roman Catholic nun from Mississippi. She was an educator for 16 years. She was instrumental in the production of the first Catholic hymnal directed to the black community. Her bishop recruited her to speak to the larger African-American community, resulting in her becoming a popular speaker in her final years on issues of faith and spirituality.
In her writings and speeches she had a gift for addressing our need for diversity and inclusion, while bringing a spirit of joy and celebration for the gifts that all people brought to the table. In 1989 she addressed the U.S. Catholic bishops by asking the question, “What does it mean to be black and Catholic?” She responded:
“It means that 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 tradition, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the church.”
If the church desires to be open and welcoming and affirming, then we need to move beyond tokenism. It is not enough to point and say, “Look, we have a black member or a Hispanic member or an LGBT member or ….” Moving beyond tokenism – using the words of Sister Thea – means that all people bring their whole selves as a gift to the church. All people – black, white, immigrant, native-born, gay, straight – participate and celebrate and lead within the community of faith.
Sister Thea challenged the bishops about how to do this: “Go into a room and look around and see who’s missing and send some of our folks out to call them in so that the church can be what she claims to be.” What would happen if we all started to do that? Looking at who is missing and then reaching out to them and calling them in?
Sister Thea spoke of this not just as a woman of color, but also as a lay-person and as a woman. While acknowledging that women could not serve as priests or preach in the Catholic church, she proclaimed that preaching was never intended to stay within the church: “I can preach in the streets. I can preach in the neighborhood. I can preach in the home. I can preach and teach in the family. And it’s the preaching that’s done in the home that brings life and meaning to the Word your priest proclaims in his official ministry in the pulpit.”
These words visualize the “priesthood of all believers.” The church was never intended to be done by the priest or pastor or limited to a building for an hour on Sunday. Church is what we live out every single day: “the church is calling us to be participatory and to be involved. The church is calling us to feed and to clothe and to shelter and to teach.”
Yet, perhaps what challenges me most about Sister Thea is how she spoke to the Catholic bishops from a wheelchair as she was dying of cancer. In the midst of her pain and struggle, she described herself with the following words: “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 …. I don’t make sense of [pain and suffering]. I try to make sense of life. I try to keep myself open to people and to laughter and to love and to have faith. I try each day to see God’s will.”
What would happen if each of us approached our lives with that same openness and faith that Sister Thea showed? Can we begin to imagine what the Spirit would do with us?
Perhaps my favorite words of hers occurred in an interview she did with Mike Wallace on the show “60 Minutes” when she said:
“I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle we’d have a tremendous light.”
I pray that we can all light a candle of faith and love and kindness and that together we will be that tremendous light.