Read

How Thea Bowman Set an Example for a Divided World

Published:
May 21, 2024
June 22, 2020
Read about Thea Bowman, the nun who challenged racism with joy.|Read about Thea Bowman, the nun who challenged racism with joy.

Last year, I was among the estimated one million millennial mothers to give birth. Like everyone else, I spent inordinate amounts of time scouring baby name websites in search of the perfect moniker for our daughter. But unlike most of my peers, I didn’t pull our final selection from one of the dozens of popular lists I’d viewed. Instead, I named her after a relatively unknown, dead, black Franciscan nun.

My daughter is named Thea after Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA — a woman who saw a vision for who we could be and was fearless in urging us to get there. If my daughter follows her example, she’ll be a person of conviction, joy, and compassion.

Sister Thea Bowman was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1937 into a black Protestant family, but the precocious Thea embarked on her own spiritual journey at an early age and convinced her parents to let her convert to Catholicism when she was just 9 years old.

Thea’s natural mysticism was equaled by her intelligence. She joined the Franciscans and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America before going on to teach at Xavier University, where she helped found the Institute for Black Catholic Studies.

With a dynamic presence, sharp mind, musical talent, and charismatic personality, Thea Bowman became a popular teacher and preacher. She considered one of her primary callings from God to be the facilitation of interracial dialogue within the Catholic Church. A passion for unity and cross-cultural understanding undergirded Thea’s life message — so much so that she was recruited by the diocese of Mississippi to develop outreach to nonwhite communities and serve as an intercultural advisor.

Thea was adamant about the need for different races and cultures to listen to one another’s experience, but she was not interested in it happening within a church building alone. “I don’t think it starts in church, I think it starts outside of church,” she said. “I think when we love one another, when we become friends, then we can walk hand in hand into the house of the Lord and celebrate. But to me, to pray together when our hearts are not one, when we’re not at least trying to bridge the gaps, is sacrilege.”

Thea personally held the tension between the two most important parts of her identity — her blackness and her Catholicism — and encouraged others to do the same by bringing the gifts of their unique cultures and communities to the Church. She was particularly concerned with making space for minorities, and spoke frequently and boldly about the need for non-European traditions to be integrated within the Catholic Church. To practice what she preached, Thea often wore elaborate African dress and sang African-American spirituals in her presentations.

In 1989, months before her untimely death from cancer at age 52, Thea was invited to speak before a gathering of U.S. bishops on the subject of black presence in the Catholic Church. Here she unapologetically critiqued a patronizing attitude toward blacks within the Church at large. In the most quotable speech of her life, Thea said:

“What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? 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 traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement as teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the Church.”

As outspoken as she was, Thea was also a gifted peacemaker — one who demonstrated rare joy and optimism at the often daunting work of facilitating interracial dialogue and understanding. “I can introduce my black friends to my Hispanic friends to my Anglo friends to my Asian friends to my Native friends,” she said in one interview. “I can be the bridge over troubled waters. I can take you by the hand and take you with me into the black community. I can walk with you into your community. And if I walk with you into your community, I don’t walk as a stranger, I walk as your sister.”

Thirty years after Thea Bowman’s death, our nation is as divided as ever — sometimes it seems the Church is no different. In such a polarized climate, her example proves timely — a would-be saint who points us toward listening, unity, and pushing beyond our comfort zones. Sister Thea Bowman is a bridge-builder to look to in a time when our society desperately needs bridges, and I hope both my daughter — and I, myself — might live up to her example.

Creators:
Shannon Evans
Published:
May 21, 2024
June 22, 2020
On a related note...
"In This Place, I Find Hope"

"In This Place, I Find Hope"

David Liambee Gbe

Finding Comfort in This Medieval Woman’s Words

Finding Comfort in This Medieval Woman’s Words

Mary Frances Myler

St. John the Apostle Spotify Playlist | #GrottoMusic

St. John the Apostle Spotify Playlist | #GrottoMusic

Grotto

3 Celebrities Who Were Tuned Into the Supernatural

3 Celebrities Who Were Tuned Into the Supernatural

Grotto

AGLO is Answering the Call to Love

AGLO is Answering the Call to Love

Grotto

3 Ways Introverts Can Maximize Their Gifts

3 Ways Introverts Can Maximize Their Gifts

Lauren Fritz

The Magic of Mythical Storytelling

The Magic of Mythical Storytelling

Jacqueline Rose

Giving to Charity Isn't the Only Way to Help Those In Need

Giving to Charity Isn't the Only Way to Help Those In Need

Chuck Lamphier

Teaching English and Building Community with Immigrants

Teaching English and Building Community with Immigrants

Grotto

Why This Engineer Chose a Year of Service After Graduation

Why This Engineer Chose a Year of Service After Graduation

Grotto

How I Found True Joy at Christmas

How I Found True Joy at Christmas

Matthew Flynn

Planting Crosses to Remember Migrant Lives Lost in the Arizona Desert

Planting Crosses to Remember Migrant Lives Lost in the Arizona Desert

Grotto

Feeling Tedious? Change Your Perspective of Time

Feeling Tedious? Change Your Perspective of Time

Dan Masterton

What to Do if You Have No Friends

What to Do if You Have No Friends

Marye Colleen Larme

How This Quote Saved Me From My Post-Grad Slump

How This Quote Saved Me From My Post-Grad Slump

Theresa Sullivan

Giving Hope and a Future to Women with HIV/AIDS

Giving Hope and a Future to Women with HIV/AIDS

Grotto

These Ballplayers Are Embracing the Unexpected — Even Off the Field

These Ballplayers Are Embracing the Unexpected — Even Off the Field

Grotto Shares

"The Holy Family"

"The Holy Family"

Judith Sornberger

Jesus' Favorite Podcast EP 10: Healing Energy with Herman Petrick

Jesus' Favorite Podcast EP 10: Healing Energy with Herman Petrick

Grotto, Ebony Moxey, Javi Zubizarreta

What I Learned When I Took a Leap of Faith

What I Learned When I Took a Leap of Faith

Josie Kuhlman

newsletter

We’d love to be pals.

Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll meet you in your inbox each week.