A seed group for a growing effort that brings together women religious and religiously unaffiliated Millennials—nationally called Nuns & Nones—knows itself locally by another name: Sisters & Seekers.
“We are all sisters and seekers,” says Sr. Barbara Hanson, OP, who helped initiate and host one of the group’s original gatherings, at Dominican Center at Marywood in Grand Rapids, MI, on Palm Sunday evening in 2017.
Writing in a news release for the Dominican congregation newsletter, Sr. Barbara said of the Millennials she has come to know as a result: “These Millennials are seekers. They have many questions and concerns. They find pat answers to existential questions unsatisfactory. They want to explore life’s meaning and have it ok to have doubts. Loneliness and lack of meaningful community are big issues for them. Spirituality is attractive and inviting. They are extremely altruistic and wanting to make a difference.”
In June 2017, Sr. Maureen Geary, OP, prioress of the Grand Rapids Dominican Sisters, attended a subsequent, larger gathering of Nuns & Nones in Kalamazoo, joined there by two others in congregational leadership. Among topics discussed were the need to find other uses for the facilities of longstanding religious communities, and the contributions Millennials might make to this planning.
“We are all pilgrims on the journey; it is good to have new companions for the adventure,” said Sr. Maureen, quoted in the Dominican newsletter article. “Fresh insight and eagerness to be about the good works of religious congregations, built on relationship, can lead to new ideas.’”
In a recent email recalling the early conversations that gave birth to Sisters & Seekers, Sr. Barbara recalled:
“A young Millennial in her early-mid 20s, a recent graduate of Alma College [Alma, MI], was hired by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute here in Grand Rapids as a program director. Her name was Katie Gordon. She was raised a Catholic until time for confirmation when her questions were not respected—for a while she considered herself an atheist and now more an agnostic. As part of the Institute she was responsible for setting up interfaith groups on our local college campuses (Calvin, Aquinas, GVSU in particular) and came in contact with a host of Millennials who were also ‘NONE.’ At the same time I was producing and hosting TV shows about nonprofits at our Community Media Center and so interviewed Katie a few times on issues. We’d go to coffee now and then.
“In November 2016 Wayne Muller and Adam Horowitz convened a gathering at Harvard with both Sisters and Millennials present. Wayne, in his work giving conferences at retreat houses and such on his Sabbath book had learned about the way women religious were planning for the future regarding their property and legacy. At the same time, he and Adam knew the spiritual searching of Millennials. Hence the audience for that conference. I was not there. Katie was.
“Perhaps because of that conference Katie wrote one of her regular pieces from Kaufman for our local news outlets about the rise of the Nones. I sent her an email complimenting her on the article and expressing interest in learning more. In winter 2017 Katie and I had one of our infrequent but always enjoyed meetings over coffee at a local coffee shop. During that conversation she informed me of the conference and how this ‘movement’ around Nuns and Nones was germinating. Did I think the Dominican Sisters—Grand Rapids might be interested? (Katie had many interactions at our Spirituality and Conference ministry, Dominican Center at Marywood, through her work at Kaufman since we often hosted the Tuesday Talks Dinner series at which tables of folks from Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Sikh, and Muslim and other religions met over a meal and talked and listened to a presenter or a panel on some interfaith topic. She had also taken some classes at the Center and met some of our Sisters. She is a SEEKER.)”
And so about 20 Dominican Sisters and Millennials gathered that April Palm Sunday, and Nuns & Nones was born. Sr. Barbara further described the Sisters & Seekers group.
“We’ve had bumps along the way. We set some guides for conversation since no matter how you try to be equals, there is a tendency for young adults to defer to Sisters. There is no proselytizing or recruiting. Some have chosen at times to join us for liturgy. As Millennials, they are very aware of the LGBTQ cultural conflicts. One of our discussion topics was ‘Queer Theology’ and the James Martin book. Dominican Center seems ‘safe’ to them, which has added to the comfort level. A lot of the Millennials had found the Center and campus before and knew they were welcome there. Many express that it is ‘peaceful.’ We’ve met in homes a few times for gatherings of a more social nature. Some meetings have had one-on-one conversations to get to know each other better—Sister and Seeker conversations. Sometimes we’ve formed groups of three or four to discuss. We always start and end as a total. Locally we call ourselves Sisters and Seekers where we mean we are all sisters and all seekers.”
Sr. Barbara, who will turn 80 in October, signs her emails: “Let us not grow weary in doing good” (Galatians 6:9). That spirit of perseverance in all circumstances is one of the attractors of these lifelong religious women to Millennials, she says. A veteran educator, college administrator, and parish worker, she also served in congregational leadership for 12 years, including six as prioress for her order. After 13 years interviewing nonprofits for television programs at the Grand Rapids Community Media Center as their Community Outreach Coordinator, she “retired” in December 2013. Her post-retirement slate of activities would tire many half her age, however.
Again, writing in the congregation’s newsletter, Sr. Barbara describes the mutually enriching relationship she finds between religious sisters and young adults: “The level of trust and sharing has been unexpected and wonderful. The women religious are open to learning the world in which this generation exists with challenges and opportunities way beyond anything most of them experienced at their age. The Millennials are open to and seeking wisdom from the lived experience of the Sisters with living community and being committed to service. They are interested and perhaps fascinated at how women religious remain committed to institutions that don’t always recognize their gifts and presence. One Millennial shared that she has noticed Millennials tend to give up or move on when disappointed when organizations don’t meet their hopes. Whereas, she observed the Sisters remain engaged for longer periods of time to question, propose and try to effect change.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Press Research