Robby Selby is pictured at age 9. He died of cancer the following year. (Courtesy Janie Selby)
Robby Selby is pictured at age 9. He died of cancer the following year. (Courtesy Janie Selby)

Danny Rauda began his job as social justice coordinator for St. Anthony Parish in Tigard at the same time George Floyd’s death ignited the largest civil rights movement since the 1950s and 1960s.

Rauda was eager to foster constructive conversations around racial justice, but he also knew talks could easily dissolve into unproductive conflict.

“We are divided as a country, and you can see that reflected in our own broader church and political ideologies,” he said. “As soon as someone mentions race we go into our respective camps.”

To bring ideologically opposed Catholics together in fruitful discussion, Rauda has stayed focused on church teaching and nurturing relationships. Emblematic of his approach was a Feb. 22 dramatic presentation of the life of Sister Thea Bowman, the granddaughter of slaves and a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who is being investigated for sainthood.

“Discussions around racism often focus on negative events, but with this presentation of Sister Thea, there were discussions of difficult topics through a lens of joy — the joy of justice, unity and peace,” said Rauda. “It was an accessible way to enter into a broader dialogue about race.”

The Zoom-based event was co-hosted by the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, a coalition of Portland-area faith groups, unions and helping agencies, and featured ValLimar Jansen, an Oregon Catholic Press singer, composer and recording artist who leads worship and prayer workshops across the United States. Held with Spanish-language interpretation, the evening was bookended by prayer and included a breakout session for participants to reflect on themes from the presentation and the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.”

The nearly 65 attendees primarily were from 13 parishes in the Portland Archdiocese, but the event drew people from Canada, California and Wisconsin.

Father John Henderson, pastor of St. Anthony, led the opening prayer. The priest met Sister Thea at a conference in the 1980s and recalled how she brought out the best in people.

“I had no doubt in my mind that she was in love with Jesus, and she always shared her love,” said the priest. “But she never watered down her desire for peace and justice.” 

Elise Shearer, a longtime parishioner of St. Anthony, attended the February presentation and said it was a wisdom-packed mini retreat.

Donning traditional African garb, Jansen used Sister Thea’s own words, drawn from her biography, and wove in African spirituals — among them “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Come By Here, My Lord” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Sister Thea often used music in her presentations.

ValLimar Jansen, an Oregon Catholic Press singer, recording artist and composer, gives a dramatic presentation on Sr. Thea Bowman Feb. 22.

Shearer found the reenactment of Sister Thea’s 1989 address to the U.S. bishops especially poignant. By then the religious sister was ravaged by late-stage cancer and spoke from her wheelchair. Jansen began with a song, then launched into a portion of the address with rhythmic cadence.

“What does it mean, bishops, to be Black and Catholic?” Jansen asked in the recitation. “It means I come to my church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experiences, my culture, my African American song and dance and movement and gestures and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as gift to the church.”

Jansen explained that when Sister Thea finished the powerful talk, she invited the bishops to cross arms and sing with her “We Shall Overcome.” The room of mostly white men had erupted in thunderous applause and many shed tears.

Born in 1937 in Canton, Mississippi, Sister Thea converted to Catholicism at age 9 after being inspired by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who taught her. She eventually entered the order as the only Black woman. “I wanted to love like these sisters love,” said Jansen, using Sister Thea’s words.

“My mother always hoped I’d be a proper and sophisticated and sweet young lady,” continued Jansen in the recitation. “Unfortunately for her, God had other plans. I was bold, loud and exuberant. Being outspoken and active was not an admirable trait in the Jim Crow South. What folks refer to as uppity or spirited could get you killed.”

With a sharp mind, beautiful voice and a charismatic personality, Sister Thea went on to share the message of God’s love through a teaching career before a Mississippi bishop invited her to become a consultant for intercultural awareness.

St. Anthony parishioner Janie Selby said like many Catholics she knew little about the sister, and the presentation, mixed with humor and skillful storytelling, inspired her to pursue further study.

“Storytelling has a way of breaking down barriers whether in the secular world or a faith environment,” said Selby. “It can connect with people’s experiences, and ValLimar Jansen did that so beautifully.”

Following the dramatic presentation, participants met in small groups to ponder several questions. Attendees first were asked to share where they grew up and what their experiences were like among people different from themselves.

“I think the questions were inviting so that people felt safe to be there, no matter where they were at in terms of political or ideological beliefs,” said Rauda. “This was not an anti-police forum or for people who don’t believe we should acknowledge race exists. It was for everyone.”

When it comes to authentic change around racism, “it’s about empathy, it’s about connecting with each other,” said Selby.

“If you can do that, you see barriers diminish. We cannot be argumentative but must first look inward and see how we all struggle. Because we have to be honest with ourselves. Everyone has some level of prejudice; it’s a human trait. But if we can connect in a compassionate way with humility — the way Sister Thea did and how it was expressed by Jansen — I think we can make headway.”