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Teaching Scripture with the Spirituals

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

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 Servant of God Thea Bowman

“A Cosmic Spirituality for Today”

Presently, six Black Catholics are on the road to Sainthood: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Henriette Delille, Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Mary Lange, Servant of God Julia Greely, and Servant of God Thea Bowman. These individuals lived a virtuous life exemplifying Christ's love. Black Catholics worldwide will celebrate the morning when their canonization is official. 

Of these six individuals, I am sentimental toward Servant of God Thea Bowman (1937-90) because of our encounter. Sister Thea, as a teenager, joined a school opened by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration from La Crosse. Through her years of formation and education, she never restrained her spirituality, openly expressing God's love. Her words encouraged me to express my love for the Creator and impacted my life when spiritually struggling to remain in the Catholic Church. I visited Protestant churches when Mass ended, freely expressing my love of God in their assemblies. My experience in the Protestant churches removed the shackles from my feet to dance spontaneously. Fortunately, after my encounter with this Holy Woman of God, I witnessed her dancing and joyfully expressing her love for God at a National Black Catholic Congress in Washington, D.C. 

While reading the life of Sister Thea, I discovered the idea of Cosmic Spirituality. In 1987, Sister Thea Bowman asked several provocative questions relevant today at the Religious Formation Conference in New Orleans. Sister Thea proposed that future ministers ask their congregation the following reflective questions: 

To what extent do they believe that you are serious about understanding them--their history, their experience, their culture, their heritage, their art, their music, their styles of prayer, their styles of meeting, their songs, their dances, their modalities of relationship? To what extent are you serious about sharing their spirituality, their styles of life and prayer, and relationship? i

Sister Thea's locus was to move prospective ministers in the Catholic Church to avoid propagating a spiritual hierarchy, harnessing a culture's spirituality. Far too frequently, some ministers formed in the Roman Catholic Church accepted new assignments with set rules, with a religiosity promoting one way to worship in Spirit and truth, because of comfortability. Regrettably, then and now, some ministers in the Roman Catholic Church fail to appreciate or embrace the cultural worship styles of Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Australians, AAPIs, and other ethnicities. 

For example, some priests fail to understand what Black Lives Matter means to Black Catholics. We learned that all lives matter in grade schools. However, do we matter to the Church? Do we matter to our Cardinals, Bishops, and priests? Sister Thea's questions mentioned above indicate that some may shun doing the work of understanding Black Catholics and other cultures, uniting us one in the Spirit. 

Sister Thea said that a Cosmic Spirituality means, "we come together, bring our gifts, bringing our histories, bringing our experience, bringing our positives and negatives, our arts, our skills, our teaching and learning methodologies -- all of them -- all that we have and all that we hold."ii The audience at the conference had to reflect on the meaning of Cosmic Spirituality for the future of their ministries. 

The idea of Cosmic Spirituality is not unprecedented. In the second chapter of Acts, the worshippers understood each other as they spoke in their native tongues. They asked, "What could this mean?" Peter reminded the audience that One Spirit fell on everyone foretold by the Prophet Joel. This primary facet of the Spirit gives witness to Cosmic Spirituality, One Spirit. Seen here is that no unique Spirit appeared for the "Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, and Egypt" (Acts. 2:9-10, NAB).iii Nor, for that matter, there is no extraordinary Spirit given to Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Australians, AAPIs, and so forth. 

Revealed in Acts is a verifiable account that only One Spirit descended to avoid giving credence to one culture over another. Or, as Paul said, "To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit..." (1 Cor. 12:7, NAB). And the first benefit that we receive from the Spirit is love for each other. Our Church documents say it this way, "Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men [and women] that He might move them inwardly to love God..." (Decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 5, 40). 

Moreover, St. Paul also displayed Cosmic Spirituality to the Corinthians while ministering in Corin. "To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews. …To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some." (1 Cor. 9:20-22, NAB). Paul's ministry mirrors the Cosmic Spirituality that Sister Thea desired for future ministers. Paul is demonstrating good evangelization practice. Paul abandoned his cultural and financial status to evangelize the Corinthians. Good evangelization will happen for us when we lay aside our differences and learn to embrace the spiritual traditions of the respective cultures. 

Of the many experiences of Cosmic Spirituality, one is particularly close to my heart. Before my mother transitioned to the Gates of Heaven, she reverted to her native language, Spanish. For weeks the family was unable to communicate with her. I would pray but felt no connection to my mom spiritually. Here, I, too, had to lay aside my comforts to effectively communicate. I decided to play spiritual music sung in Spanish. 

In those last weeks with my mom, the songs brought me peace by being still and open to the Spirit. Do I know Spanish? NO! However, I felt a fire within like the day of Pentecost. My mom smiled to the inspired lyrics sung in Spanish while I responded in English, Praise the Lord! Here we have two different languages praising God. A Cosmic Spirituality is feeling God's presence in all creation. We must accept the primary facet of One Spirit descending on all in God's cosmos and the second facet of the diversity of creative gifts. 

The Psalmist said it best, "Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the LORD!" (Ps. 27:14, NAB) The harvest is plenty. Pray for ministers with Cosmic Spirituality who will wait on the Lord to guide them. Pray they learn to accept the same Spirit that God breathed into us all, appreciative of the many different cultures. 

Therefore, while waiting for Servant of God Thea Bowman's elevation to Sainthood, let's pray with Sister Thea, "Oh, Father, give us the spirit of transformation [so] that your glory may be revealed to all the brothers and sisters, to the whole cosmos, to the limits of the universe."iv 

Amen, Ashe 

Evangelist Michael P. Howard, MACS 

Facilitator, University of Dayton, VLCFF 

Founder of Eat the Scroll Ministry 

"I ate it, and it was sweet as honey" (Ez. 3:1). 

Web page: 


i Cepress, FSPA, Celestine Ed. “Sister Thea Bowman – Shooting Star” Selected Writings and Speeches, Saint Mary’s Press, Christian Brothers Publications, Winona, Minnesota, 1993, p. 106-107. 

ii IbdI p.107. 

iii New American Bible “All Biblical quotes are from NAB” 

iv Cepress, FSPA, Celestine Ed. “Sister Thea Bowman – Shooting Star” Selected Writings and Speeches, Saint Mary’s Press, Christian Brothers Publications, Winona, Minnesota, 1993, p. 110.  

A Cosmic Spirituality for Today
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