Document 16: Shawn Copeland, OP, "Women in Solidarity Panel," National Assembly of Women Religious National Convention, August 1975, pp. 27-29, National Assembly of Women Religious Collection (CARW), 30/10, Archives of the University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame, Indiana.
Shawn Copeland's "Women in Solidarity" talk, like Mario Barron's, challenged the complaisance of white feminist women religious. As a feminist African-American sister, Copeland had many loyalties, but found herself compelled to speak in favor of her African-American brothers and sisters whom she viewed as victims of near genocide. In the starkest terms, Copeland rebuked women religious for privileging their own liberation over that of other oppressed peoples and people in poverty.
S. Shawn Copeland I'd like to try and divide my comments into three areas which I think are thematically pertinent for minority religious women--perhaps more for myself on the event of this gathering--as opposed to your agenda, your hopes, the address which was given this morning. And I'm fairly compelled to do that, because when I came this morning and asked how many sisters were in attendance, the sister told me there were probably 700 sisters, 700 women religious. And what overwhelmed me, and pained me, and continues to pain me is the fact that if each of you in this room were a black religious woman, you would be all of the black religious women in America. That fact continues to pain me as I sit here and will continue to pain me for sometime.
I'm trying to organize my thoughts around three areas which relate to the title of this panel, and to the prayer card which reflects your approbation from August of last year. I came across it and what I noticed on this prayer card were three large words: that you affirm, recognize, and admit. This panel is on Women in Solidarity. And I want to reflect out of my experience this morning on coming here and looking at the number of religious women in this room, and what that means to the black religious women across the country.
I want to reflect on the solidarity of the past, our solidarity in the present, and our solidarity of the future. There's a recent book out, The Future of the Future. Some of you may have come across it by now. It's been out a year. In it, in a very small kind of kernel out of which the entire book grows is a statement, which I hope I remember properly. The author writes, "In the future of the past is the present; the future of the present is in the future; and the future of the future is in the present." He tells us a great deal, not just about our technology and our science, but also about our attitudinal development and about our emotional evolution, which in turn tells us a great deal about our attitudinal evolution.
I use those three divisions because in this prayer card of NAWR there is a commitment, "We commit ourselves to pray, to work for reconciliation, especially during the Holy Year, for all the alienated, witnessing first to reconciliation between Sisters on the deepest level,…" What I noticed is the desire of people to develop the analytic imperative to find some fundamental value around which society stands, in speaking with people earlier today. Perhaps finding that value leads one to discover some frame of analysis within which the Church can approach our society and our world; out of which one develops and evolves, out of which one can cast some light and some shadows on some of the pertinent issues of our time.
Let me say that my fundamental frame for analysis comes out of a search for those deep divisions. And I can find no deeper divisions. I can find no more cutting edge in our society than that of racism. Because racism affects not just black people; it affects people of all colors. For me, this is the thread which runs through our analysis of how our society malfunctions. It is the discrimination against people because of color which thwarts the aspirations, the hopes of brown people, of red people, of yellow people and black people. So when you talk about
wishing to be reconciled with your sisters on the deepest levels, then I wait for your reconciliation. I do not wait for your apology; I do not wait for your guilt; I do not wait for your fear but I wait for your reconciliation.
To talk about solidarity in the past--we have had none. Because women of color have always been forced to be separate in religious community we are forced to admit this. The very existence of black religious orders in this country is an indictment against the Roman Catholic Church. And is an indictment against those women who proposed to be leaven for the Church.
To talk about a solidarity in the present--I think there is little, I think there is very little. I hold out a great deal of respect for the work and struggle that the American sister has done for education in this country; when I look around and see the interpretation of Pastoral Ministry to mean the abandonment of the classroom in cities like Detroit and Newark and Chicago and Philadelphia and Boston and New York, I raise this as a very serious issue. I raise very serious question as to the motivation; I raise question as to the analysis of how to serve whom we serve. When I see the American religious woman fascinated to exclusion of other matters with an obsession for ordination, then I ask you, "Will you be any kinder to black people? Will you be any kinder to red people, and brown people and yellow people once the holy oils of Holy Orders have been poured upon you?" I think not. I think not. Once you raise the question in this same area, concern about our interpretations and fascination with Gospel commitment, I want you to think. Whom have we designated to be poor? Whom have we designated to be meek? Whom have we designated to be humble of heart? And whom have we designated to inherit a polluted earth while others explore the moon? What kind of people are we encouraging to be poor? To be meek? To be long-suffering? To be patient? And whom are you encouraging to holy anger and sacred impatience?
This card again tells me that you affirm that religious life is a visible sign of a call--to service. I strongly object to the encouragement that black people should take the vow of poverty--when they live in poverty. I strongly object to the fact that black people should take the vow of obedience--when their very life, their very lives from birth to death are governed by a systematic institutional obedience through forms and formulae. This card tells me that you recognize diversity in our response to the call pledged within a community.
Talk about solidarity in the future. I firmly believe that the air we breathe needs to be microscopally, scientifically and chemically analyzed for racism. The air that we breathe needs to be analyzed for racism. I think the American sister, and when I speak of the American Sister, I can only speak of those 130,000 or 140,000 women all around me. I think the American religious woman needs a smaller vision. I think the American religious woman needs to look in her own neighborhood, her own city, her own state, her own country. I think the American religious woman needs a smaller vision for practical action. I think the American religious woman needs a more intense vision so that she can SEE the air that she breathes just as she sees the smog that hangs over Gary, Indiana; as she sees the smog that hangs over Pittsburgh, PA--a more intense vision so that she can see racism in its unconscious manifestations. I think that the American sister needs a more practical, smaller, intense vision for work in the future, to eradicate the causes of causes, to eradicate that thread which my analysis tells me runs through the oppressions in this country and abroad.
I am not arguing with any hope. I do not offer any. I wish that I could because I wish that I could turn some of my perceptions around so that I could truly again believe in the great power and potential of the American religious woman. In the book, The Choice, the author tells us quite frankly and pessimistically that there is no future for black women in American [sic], that black people are obsolete, and eventually will be eliminated from this country through genocide. I believe that, profoundly and painfully. I believed for a long time that the Church was the last possible institution for societal criticism. I believe that no longer. Intellectually, in moments of great delusion, I hope for it once more and in that moment of great delusion, I hope the American sister will be the leaven which challenges the Church. And when I sleep at night with disturbing dreams, I feel that that's not true. And what I feel most profoundly about the American religious woman is that unless she narrows that vision, unless that vision becomes more intense, unless she sees the presence of racism in our air, soon there will be no black people, soon there will be no black Americans, soon there will be no black parents.
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