Nuns and non-religious millennials find common ground

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Every few weeks for the last two years at the Dominican Center in Grand Rapids, a diverse group gathers to talk faith and social action.

Seated around the room are members from what seems an odd coupling: one group is mostly millennials who consider themselves spiritual but not religious; the other, older Catholic sisters based in West Michigan.

Together they are known as Sisters and Seekers, a group tied to a national effort known as Nuns & Nones devoted to uniting Catholic sisters and young, typically religiously unaffiliated residents, or "nones."

Last November, the Sisters and Seekers group held an 'Advocacy Night' and wrote their representative about issues important to them. Front to back, Ellie Hutchison, Kelsey Herbert, Morgan Bengel, Natalie Smith, Chelsea Smith, Liza Fongers, Molly Patterson, Sister Lucianne Siers, and Sister Mary Brigid Clingman.

The aim is mainly dialogue, but to the participants, the results can speak volumes about drawing meaning from tradition and dedication while examining approaches to life and spirituality.

“Groups like this are really vital for our spiritual well-being, but also communal well-being,” said Ellie Hutchison, a facilitator in her 20s. “It just shows the bridges that can be built.”

The gatherings coincide with other efforts in Michigan offering opportunities for nuns, whose numbers are declining, to influence younger generations and communities beyond traditional environments or institutions.

That trend, some coordinators say, is a natural partnership.

“I’ve just found that young adults are seeking depth, ways of making meaning in life, how to contribute to the world around them in meaningful ways,” said Sister Mary Kay Dobrovolny, who is active with the Sisters of Mercy and has focused on helping youths. “And they’re seeking partners in that who are willing to have in-depth conversations and are committed to authenticity.”

Sister Mary Kay Dobrovolny works as a pastoral presence for students at the University of Detroit Mercy. She’s seen inside the St. Ignatius Chapel on campus.

Finding common ground

Sisters and Seekers emerged from a quest to create a new, meaningful alliance.

By early 2017, Katie Gordon, then a program manager for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, had written several articles exploring the rising numbers of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion.

The Muskegon native, who had grown up Catholic but drifted away en route to earning degrees from Claremont Lincoln University in California and Alma College, mused that religious groups and “nones” could find common ground and share ways to enhance their communities. Soon after, she heard from sisters associated with the Dominican Center eager to meet.

Through her interfaith work, Gordon had already become acquainted with Dominican sisters and noticed how “they became some of my closest collaborators and favorite women to talk to,” she said. Knowing some of her spiritually minded friends might also benefit from older cohorts who shared similar concerns about social justice and deepening communal ties, she started exploring ways to unite them.

Gordon worked with Sister Barbara Hansen, an acquaintance who by then had been with the Dominican order for more than 60 years, to plan a formal meeting and invite their associates through email, word of mouth.

On Palm Sunday 2017, they met for the first time. Foreshadowing the reflection and overarching themes of future gatherings, the attendees discussed wide-ranging topics: differences between church institutions and communities; limits associated with labels and identities; the quest for answers to probing questions about daily life.

“It was just a miraculous gathering,” said Hansen, 80. “We reached a trust level almost immediately.”

The Sisters and Seekers gather for a potluck at a Grand Rapids home in 2018.  Front row, from left: Natalie Smith, Sister Mary Kay Oosdyke, Tracy Tiemeyer, and Chelsea Smith. Back row, from left: Katie Gordon, Sister Barbara Hansen, Ellie Hutchison, Sister Jarrett deWyse, Kelsey Herbert, Liza Fongers, Kendra Avila, Morgan Bengel, and Sister Lucille Janowiak.

Meanwhile, a movement had been forming nationally with much the same idea: incubating new communities, typically outside churches, in which millennials and religious sisters — “nuns” technically refer to those who live cloistered — address pressing issues such as affordable housing, health care, education and immigration.

It officially became Nuns & Nones. Sisters and Seekers members linked up with organizers and were incorporated as a chapter, joining others in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, New York, Seattle and Chicago.

The Grand Rapids arm, of which Gordon was an early facilitator, pursued its own path, selecting relevant topics for the academics and others who had gravitated to the group to discuss.

In one session, the members watched “Radical Grace,” a documentary that chronicled three nuns fighting for social justice. Talk soon turned to how the sisters attending, some in their 60s or older, were passionate about such work — whether tackling immigration or supporting marginalized groups.

“It was eye-opening for a lot of millennials to see there are sisters who are fighting for the same issues we care about,” said Hutchison, who grew up in Minnesota and attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids. “For people like me who are not as familiar with Catholicism, I held that stereotype of a nun. I didn’t realize I had as much as common as I do.”

Perceptions were further shifted as months passed and bonds deepened. The sisters and seekers have attended demonstrations for immigrant rights and coordinated an "advocacy night" to write lawmakers.

The exchange impressed Kendra Avila, 29, who works for a housing nonprofit in Grand Rapids and has been active with Sisters and Seekers since 2017. The Tennessee native grew up an evangelical Christian but eventually became critical of church structure. Congregating with a diverse age group focused on relationship-building, she said, broadened her perspective.

“The community has helped me recognize that with humanity, there’s nuance,” she said. “To be able to embrace the complexity of my own spirituality instead of putting it on the shelf — it’s been life-giving.”

When more difficult questions about theology and faith emerged, the older generation welcomed the chance to hear each other out — an act Sister Justine Kane, who is in her 60s and teaches at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, believes women devoted to God perform easily.

“We’re good at hospitality and helping people feel comfortable in their own skin,” she said. “We really try to be open to others’ points of view, and we’re naturally interested. We love hearing from younger members of the community.”

Issues for value

In 2017, the Pew Research Center found about a quarter of U.S. adults say they consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

Meanwhile, the country had an estimated 44,117 religious sisters last year, down from 68,634 in 2005 and nearly 180,000 in 1965, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Brian Wilson, an American religious history professor at Western Michigan University, notes that in the past, “a lot of great institutions in the United States were built with the work of nuns,” from Catholic schools to hospitals.

Today, he added, “even though their numbers are declining, their impact is becoming a lot more visible because here we have people who really are devoted to issues of value in a society that is fixated on profit.”

The sisters' work tackling poverty, inequality and other issues important to a younger generation often mistrustful of institutions is the foundation for efforts drawing both demographics together, Wilson said.

Kendra Avila and Sister Barbara Hansen of the group Sisters and Seekers meet at the Global Infusion cafe and fair trade store in Grand Rapids.

“Maybe this signals a new willingness to engage with the community in ways that would have been unheard of 20 or 30 years ago. ... Maybe this does signal a renaissance of intentional communities in the United States,” he said.

In southeast Michigan, some sisters have welcomed new ways to reach others and demonstrate their spiritual gifts.

Dobrovolny is a vocation minister with the Sisters of Mercy but doesn’t encounter enough women seeking religious life, so she donates her time in various settings with young adults. She has traveled with college and high school students on mission trips to Belize and West Virginia.

The Nebraska native, who turns 50 this month, is also affiliated with the University of Detroit Mercy ministry and recently moved into a residence hall on campus through an arrangement to have a sister's presence there.

"I have this passion around trying to break down the borders and walls and divisions that keep people separate, whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation, national status," she said. "How do we form bonds that bring us together in ways that transform us individually and transform our world?”

Sister Helen Marie Burns, a 77-year-old former educator based in Farmington Hills, routinely mentors through video calls a young woman on the East Coast through Call to Action, a Catholic reform organization.

The calls, designed to further spiritual development, have been eye-opening for Burns: “It’s satisfying to see the quality of young people and the seriousness of their faith journey."

Sister Janet Stankowski, an Adrian Dominican for more than 50 years, has long had a chance to see youths of varying spiritual commitment while active with Voices for Earth Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental issues she helped launch in the early 2000s.

The Detroit native, who is now board president of that group, regularly attends community meals it hosts and connects with activists, volunteers and others. Though driven by faith, the 72-year-old stresses that she anchors her conversations in a commitment to change.

“I’m not big on talking about organized religion. If they just want to do some reflecting on all these crisis things that are happening, and they feel called to change our focus on consumption, then that’s all good,” she said. “I’m ready to start where they’re ready to start.”