We are celebrating the life of a Sister whose legacy continues to unfold. Sister Thea Bowman died 25 years ago today, at age 52. And Sister Thea’s life was a life of song.
I never got to meet Sister Thea in person. Yet, through the communion of saints and our shared membership in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, I feel quite connected to her. I first heard of Sister Thea during my first telephone conversation with the FSPA Membership Director in 2003. Sister Dorothy encouraged me to pray to Sister Thea for guidance in my discernment journey. Even before she met me in person, she said that I reminded her of Thea. When I visited St. Rose Convent and learned more about Sister Thea a few weeks later, I began to understand the connection that Sister Dorothy sensed.
Now, much of who Sister Thea is and what she stood for continues to enliven me and my life of Gospel living. In her, I get to know some of the freedom that being a FSPA gifts me. She models a life of authenticity and spunk. She shows me how to speak up for justice, even if I am speaking to power. I pray that I also express joy and proclaim a fiery message of inclusion and equality.
Here is a video of Sister Thea’s famous speech to the U.S. Bishops about Black Catholic spirituality in 1989.
Our Church has a lot of work to do, to fully integrate Sister Thea’s vision– just as we have a lot of work to do to live out the invitations of the Gospel.
As we work for the Church we hope for, we shall sing. So, today is a day when I have lively African American spirituals in my head and on my lips. Today is a day when I am praying for a Church that lives out the message that Sister Thea proclaimed, a day to celebrate the joy that comes from knowing Jesus.
One of my core faith principles is that God will provide for all our needs. Recently, a little sisterly community experience re-convinced me of this.
Last week I renewed my vows. It was a beautiful, joyous event. Several sisters gathered in our chapel, Mary of the Angels, for Taize’ prayer and meditation Friday night. After a prolonged period of silence I stood up and professed to “live poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in community for one year, according to the Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis and the Constitutions of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.”
Getting ready for this exciting event required a lot preparation for me. In addition to readying my heart and mind with a lot of prayer and contemplation, I also had to get my outward self ready. I got a new haircut and a nice new dress, but then I began to fuss about what to put on my feet.
As a Franciscan Sister and a disciple of Jesus, I don’t have really have that many possessions. Living simply is really important to me and I don’t like to have more than I need. In fact, for several years I have been very content with having only one pair of multipurpose sandals.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Could I wear my dirty, worn out Chacos® for the special occasion? Could I go bare foot? Should I just wear my wintry dress shoes or look for a new pair of dressy, brown sandals that I could also wear for teaching and other occasions? No matter what, I knew that I didn’t want to spend much money or contribute anymore to the destruction of God’s creation by being a consumer.
I hemmed and hawed a while and decided that if it was God’s will for me to wear nice shoes for my vow ceremony then God would provide. This seemed like a safe way to think about it, although in order to receive guidance and gifts from God I need to be open, pay attention and do a bit of work. To have what God wants us to have, it seems we must be willing to seek.
Once I decided that I was okay with having a pair of new sandals, I wondered how to find them. First, I began checking out the feet of all my sisters, hoping to see a pair I might borrow. I went to Goodwill and studied their shoe options with no luck. I asked the sister in charge of our community clothing exchange if she knew of a pair that had been donated and might serve my purpose. I looked at everything she had in the closet with no luck.
Then I started asking sisters what they thought I should do. Several of them assured me that it was appropriate and acceptable to buy brand new shoes. I didn’t like the idea, but I was trusting in the wisdom of my elder sisters. So, I asked Sisters Kathy and Mary Ellen, who I live with, if they wanted to help me shoe shop. With a hope and prayer we went out to the stores and quickly became overwhelmed with options–most were completely impractical and just too trendy. Eventually, we realized that it is hard to buy sandals this time of year because they are all so picked over.
Sisters Kathy and Mary Ellen were being very patient and helpful. I was starting to feel a little bit of unnecessary, goofy guilt that they had been putting up with my picky indecisiveness for over an hour. Strangely, I started to use that guilt feeling as my guidance. After spending so much time and energy I didn’t feel like I should leave empty-handed or disappoint the other sisters, so I bought a really dressy pair and home we went. I still felt unhappy about the new shoes or the price but convinced myself I should make them work. (Duh! I know and believe that when we “should” too much, we just get stuck in a big pile of “should” and it really stinks!)
Later that night after prayer in our house, the three of us told Sister Laurie about our shoe store adventures. I said I was concerned for the fact that I have hurt my ankles every time I have tried to wear heals, but if I practiced walking in them I’d be fine. I didn’t admit that I chose to buy the shoes for the wrong reasons, but I think I knew it.
For practice, I put them on and tried walking up the stairs. It was awkward–I wasn’t smiling and my stomach even felt weird. I was trying to be a good sport. Sister Laurie was tuned into me.
She took the shoes off her feet and said “Here, try these.”
I did. I hadn’t noticed her shoes before. They were pretty much exactly what I’d been looking for and fit perfectly. “Wow. What size are they?!”
“Seven and a half. Keep them.” she offered.
“What?! Just for Friday? I can give them back to you after the vows.”
“No. Keep them for good. They’re yours. I don’t need them.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” I said, delighted and relieved. I could take the other shoes back to the store and, after all, God provided just the way I was hoping for.
I am so thankful for my new shoes and for the generous, sisterly love I experienced as I prepared for my vow day, on my vow day, and everyday in this wonderful Franciscan community. I am thankful for all the simple lessons I learned through the experience of getting these new shoes. Wow–thanks be to God! Amen.
Brothers and sisters: As you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also. For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. Not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs, that there may be equality. As it is written: Whoever had much did not have more, and whoever had little did not have less. -2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15