Making history in the nation’s capital

IMG_3806The year was 1973. I was fresh out of college, idealistic and impatient to make my mark on the world. For all the protests back then, even Republicans believed in government and its power to provide liberty and justice for its people. So like countless other young people, I went to Washington to lend a hand, working for a consumer group and sharing a crumbling house with other meagerly paid interns.

Like everyone in town, I was fascinated by the year’s central drama – Watergate. Daily scoops by two young Washington Post reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – slowly revealed that a “third-rate” break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee was part of a vast system of political dirty tricks. Those disclosures ultimately led to the indictments of 40 administration officials and the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

I went to Washington again last week to visit family and see how the city is dealing with another president under siege. As in 1973, the Washington Post reports daily on the missteps and frustrations of President Trump. Congress is once more distracted from the business of governing and calculating how this young, disruptive presidency will play with voters back home.

But Washington is a city of history, packed with marble monuments, plaques and busloads of middle-schoolers roaming between museums and food courts. Thanks to them, I thought less about the latest tweets and headlines than about the lessons from other troubled times. In the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, I pictured black college students sitting at lunch counters, being cursed and spat upon for asserting their right to eat hamburgers. I learned about thousands of slaves risking their lives by rushing toward the advancing Union Army and volunteering to fight in an army that paid them less than their white peers. 

At the hilltop cottage where the Lincolns spent summers during his presidency, I imagined President Lincoln, heavy with the death of his boy Willie and the terrible weight of the Civil War, riding his horse each day to the White House. Yet when British visitors stopped by the cottage late one evening, he greeted them with a smile and a question: “What do you think of our great country?” Even in the midst of secession and fratricide, he saw the nation’s greatness.

Looking back, history often looks inevitable, the product of powerful men’s wisdom, greed or foolishness. But lunch counters and slave uprisings reminded me that a million individual choices nudge it this way or that each day. And so for half an hour, I stood across from the White House with my sister holding signs to protest President Trump’s policies. A Japanese tourist snapped a picture. The draperies in the East Room didn’t stir. The men guarding the grounds looking unconcerned. But when the history of this time is written, I and all those who have been stirred to greater activism will be a part of it.

The throne of mercy

This Easter season, I thought a good deal about the nature of Christian faith and the wildly different varieties on display these days.  The persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Pope Francis’s call to mercy. American fundamentalists’ campaigns to expel immigrants, outlaw abortion, expand gun rights, shrink government and tilt the economic system even more in favor of the rich. An alien from another planet would be understandably confused by the message and meaning of that Judean man from 2,000 years ago.

Had I the chance, I would not take that visitor not to the triumphant hallelujahs of Easter. We would go instead to the living stations of the cross mounted on Good Friday by the Latino members of my church, Incarnation/Sagrado Corazon in Minneapolis. Even for me, raised from childhood on the story of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation, it was a revelation and reminder of one core belief of my faith — mercy.

Let me take you there: It is supper time and overcast. The unlit church – a century old, marble-floored, high-ceiling — is packed with hundreds of young Latino families, mothers, fathers and children, and a handful of Anglos, who sit in attentive silence. A quiet dirge plays in the background as a young man with an expressive face and sturdy build appears at one side of the altar, kneeling in front of a panel painted as a garden.

A single spotlight follows him and other performers around the church, illuminating scene by scene the story of Christ’s painful, lonely end. His plea in the garden – “Take this cup from me” – and acquiescence – “Not my will but your will be done.” His public humiliation, the mocking of his claim to a kingdom, the torture of his body, his anguished cry from the cross: “Why have you abandoned me?”

After studying Spanish for two years, I understood maybe a quarter of the words. No matter, I know the story well. But this year, I understood more profoundly its meaning. Around me sat hundreds of immigrants, many undocumented, many afraid to drive, shop or answer the door for fear ICE agents will separate them from their children and cast them out of a country where they’ve built their lives for decades. Sitting with them, I felt afresh Christ’s pain when his disciples abandoned him.

I felt too the power of sharing another’s pain. When a woman stepped forward to wipe Christ’s bloody face – Veronica, tradition tells us – I felt the power of that small comfort and the call to do the same.

Most of the time, we work hard to distance ourselves from pain. Our opiate crisis is a self-destructive sprint away from our own pain.  Our politics has become a series of appeals to narrow identities and interests, a stubborn refusal to feel the pain of others.

After the actor was taken from the cross, the lights went on and our pastor pointed to the empty cross – “trona de misericordia,” the throne of mercy. Misericordia blends two Latin words – those for suffering and heart. The combination produces mercy — “kindness in excess of what might be expected or demanded by fairness.”

I carry with me now that image – the cross as Christ’s throne, the throne of mercy. The generosity of God’s mercy for us, God’s call for us to show mercy to one another.

Living in our own dirt


Now begins the latest chapter in our new President’s dissembling.

Before cheering crowds in Florida last weekend, President Trump declared his resolve to deport “gang members – bad, bad people.” But in the crowded basement of my church in Minneapolis on Sunday, tearful women worried that their children will return to empty apartments, effectively orphaned by our president’s pledge to deport anyone who is in the U.S. without the proper papers except those brought here as children.

No matter that many of those children’s parents have been here for 10-20-30 years, working hard, buying cars and houses, paying taxes without receiving benefits, and contributing in countless ways to our churches, schools, businesses and neighborhoods. Under the Executive Orders on Protecting the Homeland released Tuesday, no one is exempt.  Anyone in the country illegally is declared a “removable alien.”

These “removable aliens” – language that makes people sound both rubbishy and extraterrestrial — are not the people I know. I know cleaning women and roofers, car mechanics and cooks who were born in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Some were drawn to the U.S. by the promise of jobs or hopes of going to college. Some fled here out of fear or desperation, because gangs threatened their children or because they could not feed them.

If there had been any possibility of becoming U.S. citizens, they’d have grabbed it. But it’s been 30 years since Congress last created a pathway for undocumented workers to become citizens.  That fix hasn’t stopped the flow – the number of undocumented workers has more than doubled since 1986 – because of patchy enforcement and higher-than-expected employer demand for immigrant labor.  But rounding up  millions of people and deporting them without giving them a chance to see a lawyer or call their children is neither practical nor humane.

Consider these facts: An estimated 11 million people are in this country illegally, a number staggering in size and heartbreaking in its potential for broken lives. Some 8 million of them are working, threatening massive disruptions in many workplaces.

In 2012, illegal immigrants were 3.5 percent of the U.S. population (1.8 percent in Minnesota) and 5.1 percent of the nation’s labor force (2.5 percent in Minnesota). Immigrant men are more likely to be in labor force than native-born men (91 to 76 percent). Undocumented immigrant women more likely to have young children at home, 22 percent compared to 7 percent of native-born Americans. Most of Trump’s “removable aliens” are workers and mothers, not “bad, bad men.”

Last week, while driving back from New Mexico with my husband and friends, I spent a night in Garden City, Kansas. Most of west central Kansas is a lonely expanse of corn and wheat fields, so we were surprised to find a vigorous community of 27,000, bright with new motels and restaurants and fragrant with the smell of feedlots and packing houses.

A few days later, a report on National Public Radio explained the reason: The town – now half Hispanic – has welcomed immigrants and refugees who are willing to do the hard, dirty work of turning cattle into steaks and hamburger for Tyson Foods and other meat producers.

“I think our community would be a dying community without the immigrants that have come to fill in the gaps and to grow businesses,” Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue told the NPR reporter. The biggest  crime in Garden City in recent months was a foiled plan by three white supremacists to bomb an apartment building where Somali immigrants live. Now Bascue will be called on to deport the very people who have made his community thrive.

The number of illegal immigrants has been falling since the recession of 2007, but they remain a significant portion of the labor force in many tough, low-wage jobs.  Nearly a quarter of workers in landscaping and private household employment are undocumented. In apparel, manufacturing, crop production, laundries and building maintenance, roughly 1 in 5 workers are undocumented.

These are not the jobs the Michigan factory workers or West Virginia coal miners want. If they did, there would be no demand for undocumented immigrants.

I am learning much about the anger and frustration that led many Americans to vote for Trump. I understand their anxiety about the security of their jobs and families in a world that is changing with dizzying speed. I recognize that no country can accept all comers without overwhelming its systems and provoking a backlash like we now see.

In a perfect world, our leaders would be busy discussing how to better share the spoils of technology and globalization, how to prepare our kids for the changing world and how to keep the nation secure while integrating immigrants who have lived, worked and honored our country for years.

But this is an age of scapegoats, not solutions. So immigrants are demonized as criminals rather than the women who clean our hotel rooms and serve our Big Macs, the men who roof our houses and butcher our meat.

Promising to Make America Great Again by attacking cleaning women and meat cutters is dishonest and cruel.  We may be surprised by the results. A Mexican friend with the thankless task of cleaning toilets and wiping down sweaty machines at a health club says acidly: “Americans will have to live in their own dirt.”


Preparing for the long haul


How happy I was to march in St. Paul last Saturday with my husband, daughter-in-law and an estimated 90,000 other Minnesotans with signs, chants and pink pussy hats. We stood together to support a range of causes – from contraception to Obamacare, immigrant rights to public education. We were even more united by our opposition to much of what our new president stands for –ignorance and isolationism, bluster and contempt for evidence, resentment of immigrants and minorities and salacious disdain for women.

But now, four days later, I awake to the anxious reality of a Trump administration. This morning’s headlines tell of jump-starting construction of a wall with Mexico, muzzling scientists at the EPA, and restarting construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Today there will be more provocative tweets from the potus account and tomorrow more headlines…

Meanwhile, in Congress, a kind of cross-your-fingers game is being played in confirmation hearings on Trump’s cabinet choices. The nominee for budget director promises to educate his boss about the dangers of deficits while the Man Himself promises not to touch Medicare or Social Security but spend $1 trillion more on infrastructure. Sigh.

And so Trump’s authoritarian style and agenda of resentment bound forward. How do those of us who marched last Saturday prepare for the long fight of advancing different values and different policies?

Here are a few guidelines I’ll use:

  • Base resistance on core values. For me, foundational values come from my Christian faith and my conviction that “liberty and justice for all” includes every American and that our nation is vastly stronger thanks to its diversity and openness to the world.
  • Decide which nets to drop. Last Sunday’s gospel told of Jesus calling his disciples. “‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.”  It’s easier for me to pick up new nets than drop old ones, but the result is often exhaustion and a sense that I’m doing nothing well. If I’m to make resistance as regular a part of my life as exercise or writing, what will I give up to make room?
  • Pick your issues. Because of family and community connections, I have personal stakes in health care, immigration policy and treatment of poor families. I’ll focus my political energy there for now.
  • Take at least one action daily. A young friend listed on Facebook all she’s done since the election – ranging from diversifying her media consumption to making monthly donations to favorite causes. Abortion opponents have been marching on the Supreme Court every January since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Liberals must cultivate the same staying power.
  • Share hope. Right now, this feels like a long, lonely battle. There must be joy in the effort. Support those who are marching with you.
  • Build bridges. Krista Tippett, host of the Public Radio show ‘On Being,’ puts it this way: “Coming out of this election year, I think what we absolutely have to find a way and a place and a vocabulary to talk about is moral imagination: the human effects of policies and the question of how we create common life and who we are to one another.”   I was saddened to read that abortion opponents were discouraged from joining Saturday’s march and that some who did were heckled. For more than 40 years, there’s been a standoff between those who believe abortion is murder of innocents, pure and simple, and those who believe it’s an essential right for women. When our interests intersect, as last Saturday, we should rejoice at the chance to explore our shared values and seize the chance to build on them.  In our personal lives, we need to do the same.

Hook-ups, football players and the question of morality

tcf-stadiumI got 13 pages into the University of Minnesota’s report on football players’ sexual assault of a young woman last September before I had to stop for a time. Reading the account of football players piling onto a young woman in a teammate’s bedroom was like witnessing a deer brought down by one wolf and other pack members rushing in to tear off a piece of flesh. The young men jostled for position, asserted rights to “my turn” and assaulted her two or three at a time while she clutched a blanket to cover her naked body. Even wolves wouldn’t Instant message videos inviting others to the scene.

The events of September 2 encompass enough themes to supply a TV series material for a full season. The young woman downed 4-5 shots of 100 proof vodka before going out with girlfriends at 12:30 a.m. looking for parties. The young men, a high school recruit and several first-year members of the Gophers, exchanged Instant messages bragging about hoes and bitches. They were so bonded that one player expressed more regret about trashing a teammate’s room than about the young woman they’d assaulted there.

Binge drinking, the demigod status of young athletes, the objectification and insecurity of young women – it’s all there.

Let’s be clear: The events of that night had nothing to do with consent, something to do with hook-up culture and a lot to do with a society that has so degraded sexual intercourse that a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals is elected President.

To quote Michelle Obama, “This has shaken me to my core.”

Because the players were black and the young woman presumably white, some may want to view this episode through the ugly, old, racist lens that casts black men as sexual predators. Others will blame the sexual revolution that decoupled sex from marriage and the power of young women to control their fertility with contraceptives and abortion. I disagree.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the sexual lives of women were bracketed by the Pill and Roe v. Wade. Getting pregnant in high school could still get you expelled, but there were no more shotgun weddings or forced adoptions. We were too young and lusty to be persuaded by the lines from 1 Corinthians: “The body is not for sexual immorality…Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” But the question of morality was still part of how we decided whether to have sex.
“Is your relationship moral or immoral?” my mother challenged when I came back from one date with my blouse buttoned wrong.

“It depends how you define immorality,” I challenged back.

My norms were these: Good girls had sex, but we  didn’t go all the way outside a committed relationship.

What’s normative today is drastically different. A 2013 survey of research studies on hook-ups estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of U.S. college students have had some sort of brief, uncommitted sexual experience. Researchers cite two main reasons. First, the widening period between the onset of puberty and the time one settles down to create a family. Second, pervasive media messages that uncommitted sexual relationships are prevalent and a turn-on physically and emotionally.

The reality is more complex. Asked how they felt the morning after a hook-up, most of the young people surveyed were positive, although men far more than women: 82 percent to 57 percent in one study. But long-term reactions are more complex. In a Web-based survey of nearly 1,500 undergraduates, 27 percent reporting feeling embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect, and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner.

One-night stands are a particular source of regret. One researcher found that men had stronger feelings of being “sorry because they felt they used another person,” whereas women had stronger feelings of “regret because they felt used.” And women were more likely to hope that a one-night stand would be a prelude to a deeper relationship.

I was at that football game last September, when the Gophers won the first game of the season against Oregon State. Classes had begun a few days earlier, and the stadium held the bright promise of a new semester and a new season.

Long after my husband and I were home and fast asleep, that young woman and those young men were downing shots and heading in the warm fall night, looking for parties, people, pleasure. Their actions that night will cost them dearly. But they acted within a context that is equally disturbing and also to blame.

Show up, ask questions, listen

I joined a protest march on Saturday for the first time in more than a decade. It wasn’t particularly satisfying. My feet froze, and the potluck of battered signs (anti-war, pro-Gaza, Black Lives Matter) made our purpose unclear even to me. When I gently chided a younger protestor for spray-painting FDT (f… Donald Trump) on lamp posts in an already battered neighborhood, he turned on his heels, surely dismissing me as a fussy old white lady who cares more about property than shaking a fist at the system.

I wish he’d stayed to talk. In what Toni Morrison aptly calls these “days of dread,” when our president-elect mocks information and opinions that challenge his own bristling complacency, I crave open, searching conversations with people who see the world differently than I do. Not the bloviators and demagogues, mind you, but the people who have more to fear from his victory than I do and those who propelled his win with their fears of a changing America and their pain at feeling socially and economically left behind. For if we’re ever to overcome the terrible divide that produced this strange and bitter election, we’ve got to talk.

My model is “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Arlie Russell Hochschild’s deeply insightful book about Tea Party members in the small towns and bayous of southern Louisiana. Propelled by a paradox – that the very people who could benefit from effective government programs fervently oppose them – the noted Berkeley sociologist spent five years talking to people in their homes, churches and political gatherings, probing their “deep story.”

There are many parts to that story. Anger that urban elites mock their intelligence, religious faith and allegiance to traditional gender roles. Resentment that they’ve waited for decades for real wages to rise but believe that women, minorities and immigrants have bumped in line in front of them, in part because of affirmative action and immigration policies. Grief, especially over severe environmental damage to their beloved bayous caused by petrochemical companies. Resignation because they’ve been trained to believe that environmental destruction is the cost of having high-paying jobs in the oil industry.

Lest we urban elites deny our own bigotry, I quote a column about Trump voters (the “Sheeple”) that appeared recently in my neighborhood newspaper: “Now they can sit back in their La-Z-Boys and go full-on Wall-E and watch the stupidfest.”

My inspiration these days are people who foster conversations across our great divides. A friend works for a trucking company whose owner distributed Truckers for Trump caps around his office. My friend stopped him in the hall and suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. Why? the owner asked. After all, Trump is likely to favor deregulation and lower taxes. Yes, my friend answered. But many of the firm’s drivers are Muslim, and the hats might make them believe the company shares Mr. Trump’s extremist views. It could make it harder to retain Muslim drivers or to attract more. To his credit, the owner acknowledged that perhaps he’d been thinking too narrowly about what was good for business.

Talking across divides is slow, uncertain work, requiring equal measures of persistence, courage and gentleness. Not everyone has the stomach for it these days. As an African American friend told me: “I’m not interested in learning about people who aren’t interested in learning about me.”

There’s another march on my schedule – the Women’s March Minnesota on Jan. 21 in St. Paul.  As I search for ways to stand up against hatred, work for the values I hold dear and build bridges across the lies, prejudices and fears that produced this awful election, I can do this: Show up, ask questions and listen.


What life expects of us: Finding hope in a time of Trump

In these weeks since the election, as President-elect Trump names plutocrats to high office and makes reckless, unsubstantiated claims about millions of illegal votes, I struggle with a mild sort of despair. Perhaps that’s one reason I spent yesterday in bed with a head cold, blowing my nose and reading people who can help confront this age of division and manipulation with a measure of courage and clarity.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who spent more than three years laboring in Nazi concentration camps, was there beside the Kleenex and throat-coat tea. So was Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkeley sociologist who spent five years talking with Tea Party members from rural Louisiana to probe the “deep story” of anger and mourning that informs their fervent anti-government views.

Hochschild explores the deep divisions that produced this election. Frankl describes the effort and courage required to carry on when the world around you seems hopeless. Their work highlights the hard, patient work needed to understand the experience and views so different from mine, and the faith and determination required to live and work daily for my values.

First to Hochschild. In Strangers In Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she probes what she calls The Great Paradox: that people struggling with economic decline and environmental devastation caused by petrochemical companies are drawn to politicians who want to slash environmental protection and further increase the political and economic power of multinational corporations.

Over countless cups of coffee and visits to homes, churches and political meetings, she found among the older, white residents of Cajun bayous and small towns a tremendous pride in family, religious faith, hard work and community. She found also confusion and grief that many of the things they most value – secure jobs that will support a family, strong communities, marriages that endure, clean water and stately trees of their beloved bayous – have disappeared during their lifetimes.

They find consolation in the healing touch and heavenward focus of their churches. They do not blame state officials who cut public education and health funding in order to subsidize multinational corporations. Neither do they blame the state for failing to hold petrochemical companies accountable for their environmental destruction. They accept that giving corporations unfettered freedom is necessary to produce good jobs, even when automation and outsourcing means that few jobs materialize.

Instead, fed by a steady diet of the alarmist spin of Fox News and talk radio, they blame the federal government, affirmative action, immigrants, Muslims and big-city liberals who dismiss them as ignorant rednecks.

The people in southern Louisiana feel grief, anger and confusion, as I do. The challenge is bridging our vast differences to find common cause. That’s the work of political parties. It’s also the work of individual writers, teachers, religious leaders, citizens to find the words, actions and means for fresh perspectives and common ground.

It seems grandiose to compare disappointment in an election to despair in a concentration camp. But there are lessons, especially the need to seize opportunities for “right action.”

Frankl says it best: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This means, in part, the acceptance of suffering and attentiveness to small actions we can take to sustain hope. For Frankl, it was a camp official who slipped him a crust of bread, the chance to bolster the hope of fellow prisoners, the power to imagine life after imprisonment

“The right example was more effective than words could ever be,” he writes.

Today along with thousands of others, I will mail a postcard to Mr. Trump, asking him to remove Steven Bannon from his future White House staff. The night before Thanksgiving, I helped gather pies so that Anglo and Latino members of my church could eat and talk and support one another after a bilingual Mass. In Boston, a friend hosts a fundraiser for the resource-strapped marching band at her local high school. In a thousand small ways, we attend to what life asks of us.

The morning after

I woke up today – like half of America – with a hangover from an election party I didn’t enjoy and a fear that the sick feeling could last a long time.

With a strong cup of coffee at my side, I read news reports and answered anguished Facebook posts, consoling especially my young friends of color. There were calls to action. One friend pledged to get off his complacent liberal duff. Another proposed a Million-Woman march on Washington.

Afterward I sent three messages:

  • To tell my brother, a Trump supporter, that I know he has a loving heart, not one filled with hate.
  • To assure a Latina friend who has lived and worked without papers in the U.S. for a dozen years that my heart is with her.
  • To remind 9th graders I mentor that high school isn’t just about algebra and biology. It’s also about learning how to be citizens and  doing our part to make this a fairer, more united country.

Then, I ordered a book by Arlie R. Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at UC Berkeley. Hochschild has made a distinguished career of exploring with great care and compassion the people displaced and disoriented by our radically changing culture – workaholics, Filipina nannies, two-career families.

Hochschild’s latest book — Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right  — stems from five years she spent with Tea Party members in rural Louisiana. In the preface, she pays tribute to the Tea Party woman who first introduced her to the world of rural factories and profound mistrust of government. The woman’s trust and outreach that helped the Berkeley sociologist begin construction of what she calls an “empathy bridge”:

“We on both sides imagine that empathy with the other side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

My Facebook feed is a symptom of what ails us: Among the dozens of posts I read this morning, there was no relief that the seething frustrations of white, blue-collar men have been heard at last, that for better or worse, the complacent, polarized paralysis of Washington has been upended. I move in a world of college grads, journalists, writers, not the world of less-educated whites, where life expectancies fell by four years between 1990 and 2008.

When I look at the sharp divisions in yesterday’s vote – by race, education, geography, gender, income –  I recognize how wide these gaps are and how difficult they will be to close. The divides also demonstrate how important it is to begin.


At the monastery there is always singing

Last week, I visited a friend – a Benedictine sister – at her monastery near St. Cloud. Some years ago, when we worked together on social justice issues, I savored her energy, lively sense of humor and commitment to hard, incremental work. I admired too her private critiques of priests who sought to rule their parishes and female colleagues with princely sovereignty.

Like me, she grew up Catholic during a tumultuous time, when many institutional doors were opened to change and subsequently closed halfway or slammed shut altogether. Unlike me, she committed her life to the service of that church.

My friend is in Rome this week, and I thought of her yesterday when I heard the disappointing, though expected, news: Pope Frances, richly compassionate and refreshingly open-minded on so many issues in society, told a Swedish reporter that the Catholic church will likely never ordain women as priests. His reason: 2,000 years ago in a traditional Jewish culture, Christ chose only men as apostles. Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that exclusion.

Aside from my general disappointment – haven’t the past 50 years demonstrated in field after field women’s capacity, gifts and calling to lead? – I feel a particular discontent on behalf of my friend and the other women who live as religious sisters in the U.S.

Over the past half-century, between 1965 and 2015, the number of American nuns fell from 180,000 to fewer than 49,000. The number of priests fell as well, but far less precipitously: from 59,000 to 38,000.

Religious sisters are a dying breed, without the new recruits essential for survival. According to researchers at Georgetown University, 91 percent of religious sisters in the U.S. in 2009 were 60 or older. Only one percent were younger than 40.

Much of this is due to vast number of opportunities that are open to women. Equally important: The daunting challenge in today’s ferociously secular world of vowing to live under the constraints of poverty, chastity and obedience.

But some of young women’s lack of interest in religious life is surely due to the stubborn constraints on how women are allowed to serve in the Catholic Church. Countless women, from Jesus’ mother Mary to Mother Teresa, are venerated by Catholics. But only men are allowed to administer sacraments as Christ’s representatives on earth.

For 12 years, through elementary school and high school, I was taught by nuns. Their exoticism fascinated me. I admired their intelligence, craved their approval, feared their ferocity.

The days of sisters providing cheap, abundant labor in Catholic schools and hospitals are long past. At convents and monasteries these days, nursing homes are growing. Leaders plan for the day the last sister turns off the lights for the last time.

Last week, as I joined my friend and a few dozen grey-haired sisters for noonday prayers and a simple meal, I recognized how much these women still have to teach me. How to live in hope in the face of aging and disappointment. How to live in community, with prayer, hospitality and work at the center. How to share old talents in new ways. How to listen for what else God has planned for us.  How to plan for our own extinction.

I was struck by the girlishness of the women’s voices as they sang, without the strain or cracks that often come with age. My friend had a simple explanation: The sisters gather for prayer four times a day. There is always singing.



Rankine and Robinson: A conversation on compassion and community

When they go low, we go high, Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. Wednesday night, as the presidential candidates reached new lows in their final debate, I went instead to hear two of the country’s most profoundly reflective writers — poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marilynne Robinson — in quiet conversation before a packed house at the University of Minnesota.

Both are students of the intimate gesture that wounds or heals, divides or embraces, what Rankine calls “the small things we do to take care of strangers.” Yet at first glance, their work seems so dissimilar. Rankine, a black poet who won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and MacArthur fellowship this year, limns the emotional toll that racial fears and isolation take on black Americans. Robinson, a white novelist, examines the fierce bonds, loving care and emotional distance within families and communities in white, small-town America.

Wednesday’s conversation – the University’s annual Esther Freier lecture  – allowed these two artists to explore how their work resonates. The theme that emerged was our shared longing for community and the possibility of creating a place where people care for each other regardless of differences.

Robinson challenged the notion that the darker forces of America’s history are inevitable. A student of history and religion, she recalled that Iowa had schools integrated by gender and race in the 1830s. “America has a history of being good to each other. Every good thing I know comes from watching other people.” These shining examples get lost in collective memory – and not by accident, she said, for there are always some who benefit from our divisions.

Rankine too spoke of possibility: “We all have the capacity to fail each other. We have to actively reroute the habits of our culture.”

There was none of the defensive, divisive language of so many conversations about race. Instead, we witnessed two writers working the way improvisational musicians might – listening closely and responding with sharp, refining intelligence.

So Rankine proposed: “If we could see people as human beings we could love them.”

And Robinson responded: “If we could love them societally, we don’t have to love them individually,” for it’s impossible to love every person we meet.

Asked questions about optimism and anger, they claimed neither, reaching for the subtler, more complex reactions that lie below the surface emotions. Rankine said: “I don’t think of myself as describing anger. I spend a lot of time being disappointed.”

Asked what they would tell black teenagers on the east side of St. Paul, Robinson offered not advice but sympathy and a challenge to the more privileged: “Start out with a strategy of general alleviation. Poverty means feeling insulted in the day-to-day condition of their lives. The one thing they have easy access to is awareness of more privileged lives. The exclusion must be terribly profound.”

I’m challenged to convey the salving tenor of that evening — how Rankine and Robinson listened intently, responded thoughtfully and paused at length to think and leave room for the other to speak first. Among writers these days, there is much talk about cultural appropriation — whether one has the right to write about identities and experiences that are not one’s own.  What Rankine and Robinson demonstrated Wednesday was the importance of working to understand another’s experience and to build community based on caring for one another. And so beautifully, the writer’s role in helping us accomplish that.