Tag Archives: racial justice

Black Catholic History Month Reflections: Sister Josita Colbert

Black Catholic History Month Reflections: Sister Josita Colbert, SNDdeN

Susan Dennin and Virginia Schilder
November 29, 2023

Sr. Josita’s involvement in Black Sisters’ organizing began in August 1968, when Sr. Martin de Porres Grey, a Mercy Sister in Pittsburgh, organized a weeklong conference for about 200 Black Sisters at Carlow College. This was the beginning of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

Sr. Josita Colbert, SNDdeN

“[At that conference,] there was a lot of education about what the Black Power movement meant. It was an educational and spiritual experience. There was singing and music that made liturgy much more meaningful. We had a Black priest there, and at the first Mass, Sister Teresita Weind, SNDdeN preached. It was so refreshing there, even though the meetings were long! And we had speakers who would come in. They were really trying to explain the whole system of the Black Power movement and Nguzo Saba principles. We had Jesse Jackson… a lot of famous speakers. It was a little over a week, the first time we met. We met a couple of times at Carlow, and then we moved marto Dayton.”

A central theme of those early meetings, according to Sr. Josita, was that coming to know and love oneself, especially as Black women religious, is critical for being able to teach and empower others.

“During that time, the organizers were trying to help us learn about ourselves and appreciate who we were as Black religious women — but also how to better empower those who we taught, because most of us were teachers. It was almost like a reeducation, in terms of how we could teach differently, especially about Africa. It was learning to respect our people, the way we look, our hair, our features… that they are all beautiful, and God made us. It was a whole learning of oneself, and respecting of oneself. The intent was that if you believe these things about yourself, and internalize them, then it’s reflected not just in what you tell other students, but what they see.

We had workshops that would empower you, whether it be in spiritual direction, or working in civic, political, or church activities. They taught us how to enhance those who you were responsible to, and how to build their leadership skills. I think my style of teaching was different as a result of going to the conference.

When I think back about it, my own family and the people in our church— lay people who led various activities—they also taught us these skills, and about taking on responsibilities. My family was very active in the church, and they were very open and accepting of people. When I came to the conference, they were telling us about being open and sharing with others the skills you have. That’s what the people in the church did. That connected with me, in terms of how I taught and interacted with others. I learned not to have rash judgments of people, and instead to try to accept them.”

Sr. Josita cited a few Christian principles of Nguzo Saba as central in her formation:

“One was Nia: having purpose in whatever you do. When I think about the life of Jesus, or some of the early saints, they focus on what they were called to do, and helping others learn more about God and themselves. Another one is Imani: faith, and believing in God. I look back to my family: they were faithful in what they did and how they treated other people. It’s believing in God, that God will see us through, and also believing in yourself. And certainly if you do that, then you have a belief in others and a respect for the personhood of other people.

And then the other is a long word, Kujichagulia: self-determination. That’s what the educational part of the conference was all about. You hear so many negative things about Black people; you hear about those orders of priests and nuns who would not readily take in Black women or Black men simply because of the pigmentation of their skin – blatant racism. Self-determination meant to me to be focused on what you’re supposed to be about, as a Black religious woman, as a Christian. Focus on that. Don’t dwell on the negative stuff, because it gets in the way of the mission, what we’re supposed to be doing.

Those are the three principles that I stuck with, all relating to God and to self.”

Sr. Josita shared about her experiences of Black Sisters working together, providing support to one another and to young people, as advocates and mentors. In particular, she spoke about supporting Black women in vocations to religious life.

Sr. Josita Colbert, SNDdeN speaks at NETWORK's 50th anniversary celebration in Washington in April 2022.

Sr. Josita Colbert, SNDdeN speaks at NETWORK’s 50th anniversary celebration in Washington in April 2022.

“I try to tell younger ones today, when they talk about what they go through, to focus. … I have had opportunities to do workshops in various parishes. These have been learning opportunities for me, helping students and young people to be involved in their churches, to be active members of the church. There are a lot of African American youth that were so involved in their communities, but not in their Catholic Church because we didn’t provide them with opportunities. They have to be a part of the conversation.

In those days, we had a committee. If one of the younger sisters had a problem, we’d ask to speak with the superior, and work with them, to be advocates and mentors. We’d work with Black sisters and with the community.

We’d also have conversations with leadership of various communities, to talk about tips for working with and inviting African American women to religious life — and what to do when they’re there, visiting all-white communities. In the early days, we tried to educate white religious communities, but it didn’t seem to change the behavior. Most women would say, ‘We’ve never been around Black people.’ And then you point out, ‘What about sister so and so?!’ Were they invisible? They weren’t seen.

One sister called me and said, ‘Things in 2023 have not changed – what did we do back in the 60s and 70s?’ I said, I’m doing things differently. It may be through writing, talking, engaging, having meetings with LCWR, with the National Religious Vocations Conference… we need to get on those committees. Shirley Chisholm said, if you go to the table and there’s not a seat, take a chair up there! We were trying to explain that God calls Black people to the religious life as well. … And it was so important to know that there were others doing the same work. You could call people, you could write – you knew there were others out there doing the same thing.

Most of my life I did teaching and then I became a vocations director, listening to women’s stories. I worked with women who were white, Black, Latina. It made no difference: [they shared] what they felt God called them to do.”

Sr. Josita also spoke at length about the role Sr. Thea Bowman has played in her life, especially as a source of courage and grounding in clarity about “who and whose you are.”

“You are Black, you are Catholic, you are a religious woman. You bring yourself to the Church. sr. Thea’s thing was that, you don’t turn me off because I’m Black. At a conference, she sang a Gospel song and people would look at her strangely, not realizing she was a keynote speaker.

Her thing was that you had to be clear about who you were, and feel certain about that, so that you don’t let anyone tear you down because of who you are. [It’s about] doing the right thing, being like Jesus, and if you’re religious looking at your mission statement and constitutions that are written so very beautifully, being accepting and open…

We as humans sometimes do just the opposite of the things we’ve written. What is our mission statement trying to guide us to do, and what does that mean to me as a Black woman? Sr. Thea spoke truth. Trying not to hurt anyone; just trying to share. Sr. Thea was a humble woman. She loved life. Do what it is the Spirit moves you to do – that’s always the right thing to do.

When I think about Sr. Thea, it’s about remembering who and whose you are, so that you can then go out and do the mission, do what you have to do, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone violently or tearing anyone’s personhood down. We try to respect others as human beings. That’s what Sr. Thea did.”

Sr. Josita cited Angela Davis’ “I’m changing the things I cannot accept” as a point of guidance for her prayer and justice actions. Through her teaching, vocational mentorship, and service on various committees, Sr. Josita shares her voice in service of a more just future for Black Catholics.

“We place ourselves in situations in which we can strive to effect the changes that can be made. We look at how we can invite members of leadership teams, vocation directors, and organizations to be a part of conversations and education. It’s not just us being educated, but trying to work with other people.  We’re trying to get people to read Subversive Habits by Shannon Dee Williams!

[At the Black Sisters conferences,] we learned that it’s important that you’re a part of the decision-making. Bring the chair with you! I was on a bishop’s advisory board. If something was not inclusive, I tried to make sure that whatever the documents and mission statement and goals are, they are inclusive to all, not just one group of people.

A seventh grader asked me, “Why do people hate Black people? What’s wrong with me?” I’m saying, Oh God, how do I answer this question? I said, there’s nothing wrong with you. God made you, God made all of us. We need to learn how to accept and respect the differences that exist among us. We’re supposed to be like Jesus, and Jesus didn’t reject anyone. I fight the fight so that those behind me don’t have to do it, so that they won’t have to endure hatred, so that they’ll be accepted for who they are and their contributions.

Sr. Thea had a way of getting across to others, speaking on behalf of Black people and on behalf of what was just and right. It’s not easy! You have to have a relationship with God, otherwise it’s not gonna work. How do we do this with others not so much in words, but in deeds and actions in our churches, schools, work and ministries?”

Happy All Saints Day and Black Catholic History Month

Happy All Saints Day and Black Catholic History Month

Listen to Sr. Patty Chappell’s Reflections on Sr. Thea Bowman

November 1, 2023

November 1 is All Saints Day and the beginning of Black Catholic History Month. Take a couple minutes with Sr. Patty Chappell, SNDdeN. Hear about how she found community with other Black Sisters and first encountered Sr. Thea Bowman, who is now on the path to sainthood, in their midst.

Sr. Patty recounts how, “when [she] saw that some of the Sisters were in habits, some were wearing dashikis, some had pressed hair, some had full blown stylish afros, all from different religious communities, different skin tones … oh the beauty of our Sisters!”

Sr. Patty shared these thoughts in a panel at the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University on May 3, 2022. Check out the full video here.

Jarrett Smith, NETWORK Government Relations Advocate, is pictured at a June 16 reparations event near the White House alongside Nkechi Taifa.

The Moral Imperative of Reparations

The Moral Imperative of Reparations

Movement on H.R. 40 Is an Act of Justice for Black Americans
Jarrett Smith
November 15, 2022
Jarrett Smith, NETWORK Government Relations Advocate, is pictured at a June 16 reparations event near the White House alongside Nkechi Taifa.

Jarrett Smith, NETWORK Government Relations Advocate, is pictured at a June 16 reparations event near the White House alongside Nkechi Taifa.

Last year, the U.S. government honored Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This recognition came 155 years after the first celebration marked the anniversary of formerly enslaved people and families learning of their liberation in Texas. While the majority of Congress voted in favor of commemorating this day, more is required to fully incorporate the formally enslaved into the American project following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Our national will to act and repair must not end there.

It is time to create a system that protects Black people by putting an end to economic and employment inequality, a failing healthcare system, housing segregation, and state-sanctioned police violence. The passage of H.R. 40, a bill first proposed by Rep. John Conyers in 1989, could put the nation on solid footing toward such a process. The bill would create a commission to research and quantify the persistent economic disparities that Black people continue to suffer due to slavery and the discriminatory federal laws and regulatory practices that followed in its wake, and develop reparations proposals for African Americans.

The passage of H.R. 40 would be the first accounting of the role of the federal government and U.S. institutions in the atrocity of slavery, the legalized discrimination that followed, and action needed for atonement. Despite widespread and growing support to reckon with the legacy of systemic racism, H.R. 40 has not been brought to the House floor for a vote.

This reality calls to mind how much who we elect matters. It’s also why NETWORK Lobby calls on President Biden, as a Catholic Christian and U.S. president committed to justice, to sign an executive order to enact H.R. 40 now. It is a moral imperative.

There are precedents for federal-level repair. The federal government has examined and honored claims for reparation from other communities in the past — in 1946 to federally recognized Native American tribes, and in 1981 for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Federal financial support to residents following a natural disaster is an example of reparations. This action happens every year. FEMA is the government’s reparations arbitrator. Repair was made because of a harm suffered. As people of all races and backgrounds grapple with the question of what our country’s history means for us, people of faith have shown up repeatedly to drive this point home. Last year, over 200 faith organizations and leaders, including the African American Ministers in Action, the American Muslim Empowerment Network, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and the Union for Reform Judaism, signed a letter to House leadership asking for legislation to study redress. In May 2022, dozens of secular and faith-based organizations and racial justice advocates sent a letter to the White House urging President Biden to sign an executive order that would create a federal commission by June 19.

Supporting such proposals should be second-nature to Catholics, whose faith believes in reparatory justice in pursuit of reconciliation. We saw this lived out boldly with Pope Francis’ visit to Canada in late July, in which he met with Indigenous people and apologized repeatedly for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

Dr. Ron Daniels, Amara Enyia, Bishop Paul Tighe, Nikole Hanna-Jones, and Kamm Howard meet at the Vatican's Dicastery for Culture and Education on July 18 to share ideas regarding reparations for Black people in the U.S.

Dr. Ron Daniels, Amara Enyia, Bishop Paul Tighe, Nikole Hanna-Jones, and Kamm Howard meet at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education on July 18 to share ideas regarding reparations for Black people in the U.S.

That same month, a delegation from the Global Circle for Reparations and Healing met in Rome with Bishop Paul Tighe, an official of the Dicastery for Culture and Education. A leader in the Vatican’s efforts to grapple with emerging issues, including social media and artificial intelligence, Bishop Tighe suggested the time is “ripe” for the church to consider these issues and agreed to share the delegation’s findings with others.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that America had given Black people a bad check “which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Wide support from faith-based and secular organizations today demonstrates the conviction of people in the U.S. that our country must address its original sin of slavery.

People of faith are called to carry on the legacy of working for civil rights and to use their collective power to call on leaders in Congress and the Biden administration to make good on their pledge to tackle systemic racism. Bypassing the opportunity to understand, analyze, and financially quantify this devastation would be more than a missed opportunity; it would be a moral failure.

This story was originally published in the 4th Quarter issue of Connection. Download the full issue here.
Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS

Black Sisters Testify: To Oppressed People, Let Us Bring New Life

Black Sisters Testify: To Oppressed People, Let Us Bring New Life

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS
November 1, 2022
Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS

When I think about my own story and the story of every Black woman religious, there is a unifying theme, whatever the congregation we have membership in: We all testify that we have experienced the hand of God laid on us and a strong invitation to follow, to surrender to being loved by God and called to love and serve God’s people and to live together in a way that generates life.

The power of God’s call has been, and continues to be, the “why” and the “how” behind the determination and courage to move into the storm, whatever it feels like, whatever its form.

I often fall back to the beautiful lyrics by Curtis Burrell:

“I don’t feel no ways tired.

Come too far from where I started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy.

I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.”

In 1968, when the National Black Sisters’ Conference was founded, I was 30 years old and had been perpetually professed for three years. For that first meeting I traveled from Denver to Pittsburgh, to the Mercy Sisters’ campus to meet about 100 of myself! Although I had not seen many other Black Sisters before, I knew immediately the feeling of home.

Sister Martin De Porres Grey, RSM, was the woman of vision who convened us. Together we reclaimed (or reaffirmed) our identity, with the realization that Blackness is Gift to ourselves, our people, our congregations, the church, and beyond. From that first meeting until now, I have seen NBSC as a support and resource for the continuing growth of Black women religious, an advocate for justice for all people and a voice of conscience within the structure of the Catholic Church.

Nearly 40 years after the founding of NBSC, in 2007, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams stumbled upon an old news article, with a photo of four smiling African-American nuns at the first NBSC meeting. Dr. Williams was intrigued to discover that Black Catholic Sisters existed, not to mention that this large group of them had met to strategize on how to strengthen their impact for the sake of the liberation of their people.

As historian and educator, Dr. Williams knew she needed to find out more about these women, but little did she know that her own life would be radically changed by the work she was about to undertake. Her research led her to locate and interview the hidden storytellers who knew the story of the foundation of NBSC and wanted to share it.

Dr. Williams eventually tracked down Dr. Patricia Grey, formerly Sr. Martin De Porres, founder of NBSC. Dr. Grey’s prophetic words to Shannen were: If you can, tell the whole story of Black nuns in the United States. “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Struggle for Freedom” did indeed tell the whole story.

As I read the book, what stirred a strong and painful reaction in me was the narrative of the foundation of the three Black religious Orders: the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of the Holy Family, and the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary. No doubt it would be terribly difficult for small bands of Black women doing works of mercy on behalf of oppressed people. To those served by the Sisters, education, health care, social services, and advocacy would serve as lights on the path to a new life.

What was so deeply painful was the description of the outrage and resistance by white nuns to the mere thought of African-American women becoming consecrated religious in the Catholic Church and offering the ministry they were called to give. That the three Black Congregations are alive today gives witness to the mighty power of God’s Spirit ablaze within these faith-filled women.

I am profoundly grateful that this book about Black Sisters has been written. Dr. Williams did more than full justice by chronicling so magnificently what has been achieved, at what cost, and that the struggle goes on.

I venture to think that most/many congregations would welcome the gifts of Black recruits. There is awareness that each congregation has an obligation to support and encourage the culture of the persons who enter, a new level of responsibility on the side of the religious communities these young people come into. Like their predecessors in religious life, I pray that young religious today feel God’s hand firmly upon them and know in their hearts that God is and ever will be a Promise-Keeper.

Sr. Barbara Beasley, RGS, is a Sister of the Good Shepherd and a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference.

This November, NETWORK observes Black Catholic History Month in collaboration with the National Black Sisters Conference, centering the voices of Black Sisters and sharing their testimonies with our spirit-filled network of justice-seekers.