I am the daughter of an atheist and an Episcopal Sunday school teacher. Today I am an agnostic, married to a Hindu woman. Not exactly the kind of person you might expect to have spent the last three years of my life making a film about catholic nuns.
Growing up, I had no exposure to sisters, at least not that I was aware of. I believed the stereotype that all sisters still wore habits and lived in convents. But in 2010 a new friend, Erica Meiners, told me about the sisters she worked with to found a school for people who were formerly incarcerated. The fact that this friend, a genderqueer atheist was so close with a possy of nuns intrigued me. Having turned away from organized religion but still feeling a need for spiritual leadership, I was excited to learn from these sisters who had dedicated their lives to a spirituality of social justice. When Erica agreed that the story of these powerful women needed to be told, I went with her to meet one of her best sister friends, Jean Hughes.
Of course, Jean did not fit my stereotype of a nun. She smoked (she has recently quit), drinks Diet Coke all day, curses and has a biting sense of humor. She isn’t pious and that’s why she quickly became a powerful spiritual role model for me. Jean finds God in the people she serves and communion in the sharing someone’s journey towards healing. And she is fearless in her critique of the institutional Church. Jean has been willing to speak on camera about the institution’s oppression of women, even sharing her discomfort with the feeling that, as a Catholic sister, she has propped up this system for over 55 years.
Soon after meeting Jean, we began having conversations hundreds of sisters, looking for two additional subjects for the film. We soon connected with Sister Simone Campbell. Many know and appreciate Simone for her authorship of the “Nun’s Letter” in support of the Affordable Care Act (which the USCCB opposed), her willingness to speak publicly about the Vatican’s censure of the LCWR and for her leadership of Nuns on the Bus. I’m most intrigued by her personal theology and spirituality, which undergirds these bold public actions. I had the opportunity to film with Simone during one of her daily 5am meditations and to speak with her about her practice. Simone describes her spiritual practice as “walking willing,” and she has cultivated the powerful ability to step into the unknown, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide her.
We decided to film Christine Schenk because we wanted to tell the story of a sister who is directly organizing around church reform. Chris is powerful because she parlays her eternal optimism into community organizing acumen. Like all church justice activists, she believes that the apparent patriarchal monolith that is the institutional Church can and will change. Even when it seems like her efforts may not bear fruit, she continues her work for women’s leadership and decentralization of authority in the Church because it’s the right thing to do. This is another spiritual value I’ve learned from the sisters over the past three years: that acting in accordance with your values, regardless of the immediate impact is a source of tremendous inner-peace and empowerment.
In addition to filming with Sisters Jean, Simone and Chris, I followed Erin Saiz Hanna and Kate Conmy as organizers of Nun Justice Coalition and, of course Women’s Ordination Conference. I filmed them delivering the Nun Justice Petition at the 2012 USCCB meeting and was awed by their tenacity. When the USCCB had rebuffed previous attempts to communicate, Kate and Erin staked out in the bar at the bishops’ hotel and approached them one by one looking for someone who would accept the petition. Of course, they prevailed and the petition was accepted the next morning at a prayer vigil and in front of national news cameras. During the conclave, we traveled to Rome with them and Sister Chris where filmed Chris’ pilgrimage to sites of women’s leaders in the early Church, the now famous pink smoke vigil, and the group’s reaction the evening Pope Francis was announced.
Reflecting on these last three years, I’m reminded of the Emma Goldman quote: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution,” which Kate and Erin printed on their flyer for the women’s ordination flash mob at CTA 2012. More than any other social justice organizers I’ve worked with, the sisters and other church justice activists I’ve met know how to party for change. Their work is truly infused with joy and reverence life. I can’t wait to finish editing this film and share this story with the world.
Rebecca Parrish is a documentary filmmaker living in Chicago, IL. Visit the Radical Grace Kickstarter page http://bit.ly/RadGraceKick to watch the film’s trailer and to help fund this project. A Radical Grace benefactor has offered to match the next $20,000 raised starting until midnight Feb 28! Help make this happen!