Remembering Sr. Thea,
"Teaching Scripture with the Spirituals"
On December 29, the fourth day of Kwanzaa, many celebrate the tradition of "Ujamaa," which means cooperative economics, "To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses, and profit from them together." As the community gathers on this day, it will enjoy a feast after each person sips from the Unity cup, representing the community's wisdom: wise sayings that strengthen African American Catholics to promote a strong economic base for the community. Before all of these activities take place, however, there is one crucial tradition that occurs.
At the beginning of this celebration, the leader must lead the community in a libation calling for our ancestors' presence. When calling these individuals' names simultaneously, the leader pours water into a plant or ground. We remember these individuals because we stand on their shoulders; they are the ones whose blood saturated the ground we stand. They are the sages who stony the road with rent parties to pay bills and established mom and pop stores to build our economy. Shoe-shines occurred in the corner stores without walls. People cooked, sang, and danced to support African American families and churches. The African proverb is right, "As long as you speak my name, I shall live forever." For this reason, this reflection points to the beautiful spirit of Sr. Thea Bowman, who shall live forever in the hearts of many Black Catholics.
Therefore, I rejoiced when canonization began for the Servant of God, Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, on November 13, 2018. Servant of God, Sr. Thea, freely gave to her community. She was an educator, actress, and singer who profoundly affected many in this world. One of her friends commented that she made people happy to be alive. In my own experience, while I attended the Black Catholic Congress in Washington, D.C., she shared this sentiment, "always feel free to express God's gifts to the Church." Of all Sr. Thea's readings, her lesson on teaching the scripture with the spirituals remains spiritually rooted for Black Catholics. In "Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star," she stated:
"Teaching the songs of faith required definite cognitive,
affective, and behavioral objectives; use of right and left
brain teaching-learning techniques; participatory learning;
reality-based learning; value learning; multi-sensory appeal;
involvement of intellect, memory, imagination, will and body." (p. 50)
Sr. Thea left us with nine steps to take when teaching the scripture with the Spirituals. (p. 51) Highlighted here are two steps that Catechists, Bible leaders, and small group leaders should consider in their groups. First, after singing a spiritual, "tell or read a Bible Story that relates to the spiritual," and then "talk about the story." By singing the song first, individuals are united and connected spiritually to a Biblical truth through repetition in the words of the spiritual, and then through an oral tradition of listening to God's Word, the Bible. Hearing the song and then listening to the scripture will help one remember and imagine themselves in the scripture.
Next, the leader must, "Talk about the story. Talk about its Biblical meaning. Translate the story into the language and idiom of those who have come to share the Word. Talk with your students about its meaning in their lives today and now." (p. 51) This step is so crucial when teaching the scriptures to any audience today. The teacher must bring God down from lofty mountains. This generation today is hungry for a God who walks with them in their garden.
For example, a popular Christmas song, "Go tell it on the mountain/ that Jesus Christ was born," is a spiritual (Song) sung during the slave era. In this song, there are several truths. First, the song admonishes the audience to "go" and spread the news of the virgin birth. Next,
the mountain image is a metaphor of heaven where God spoke to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Interestingly, there is no mention of the place where Jesus Christ was born. Another lyric in this spiritual said, "While shepherds kept their watching/o'er silent flocks by night/ Behold, throughout the heavens / There shone a holy light." Mentioning the shepherds has a twofold meaning, which was a regular practice in the spirituals to send coded messages to other slaves. This line references the "Infancy Narrative" of Luke's gospel and tells the slaves to keep watching the slave drivers, the shepherds before they make their escape.
Fredrick Douglass and other slave narrators have indicated how easy it was to escape from some plantations during the Christmas season because many slave owners were drunk from the Christmas celebration. Therefore, the slaves would watch the owners and then make their escape, looking at the holy light, which again had a double meaning. The holy light was Jesus and a star that slaves followed to freedom-land or the Underground Railroad. Consequently, this spiritual teaching should point one to reflect on the Infancy Narrative from Luke's gospel because of the many images: shepherds, flocks, heaven, and light.
Matthew's Infancy Narrative is much different from Luke's gospel. Undoubtedly, after reflecting on this spiritual mentioned above and Luke's gospel, small group leaders can lead participants to a deeper reflection on the scriptures. Participants can ponder why the author of the song selected Luke's gospel as opposed to Matthew's gospel.
Now some may wonder if this methodology is possible with the contemporary music of today. Servant of God, Sr. Thea, would say, "Yes." For example, Hezekiah Walker wrote a simple song titled, "I Need You to Survive." A very crucial lyric in this song is, "I won't harm you with words from my mouth." After singing this song, using the steps that Sr. Thea mentioned, a teacher can lead their students or audience to share moments when people harm one another with words from their mouths. With a historical perspective when referencing the language we hear on the streets, read in newspaper clippings, hear on television programs, rap songs, or in the material on the internet, one will have plenty of resources to add to their lesson plan. With so much violence in our cities and the murder rate steadily climbing in today's society, we need to have a conversation with our youth, young adults, and elders about how we can survive.
Here, the catechist could recommend two passages from the Bible to study with Hezekiah Walker's song: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who choose one shall eat its fruit" (Pr. 18:21). This proverb makes a comparison between "death and life." You will taste either a sweet fruit that gives life or a sour fruit that will eventually become bad and thrown away. It will be rotten. Moreover, in the New Testament, the Epistle of James said: "For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue" (Ja. 3:7-8). Here we can reflect on natural law and human nature. The teaching from this text causes one to ponder on how we can stop our tongues in the future from harming someone with words from our mouths.
From this one reflection, we can see that we should be grateful for the Servant of God, Sr. Thea's gift to us. She embodied a love for God's Word during her life by building up her faith community with a spirituality that draws others to come to know God. Her spirit points to the scriptures and to remember to sing as the psalmist said, "Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord!" (Ps. 150:6). After reflecting and singing and praying, calling this wonderful spirit to be present with us, we all can say, "Ashea (So be it)."
Author: Evangelist Michael P. Howard, MACS, Facilitator University of Dayton.
Prayer for the Beatification of the Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman
Ever loving God, who by your infinite goodness inflamed the heart of your servant and religious, Sister Thea Bowman with an ardent love for you and the People of God; a love expressed through her indomitable spirit, deep and abiding faith, dedicated teaching, exuberant singing, and unwavering witnessing of the joy of the Gospel.
Her prophetic witness continues to inspire us to share the Good News with those whom we encounter; most especially the poor, oppressed and marginalized. May Sister Thea’s life and legacy compel us to walk together, to pray together, and to remain together as missionary disciples ushering in the new evangelization for the Church we love.
Gracious God, imbue us with the grace and perseverance that you gave your servant, Sister Thea. For in turbulent times of racial injustice, she sought equity, peace and reconciliation. In times of intolerance and ignorance, she brought wisdom, awareness, unity and charity. In times of pain, sickness and suffering, she taught us how to live fully until called home to the land of promise. If it be your will, O God, glorify our beloved Sister Thea, by granting the favor I now request through her intercession (mention your request), so that all may know of her goodness and holiness and may imitate her love for you and your Church. We ask this through your Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
2018 Catholic Diocese of Jackson
Imprimatur: Most Rev. Joseph R. Kopacz, Bishop of Jackson, Mississippi