Diocesan News

Nuns to Nones: Religious Sisters and Millennials Talk

Religious sisters from local congregations talked to millennials about spirituality, life, community and love in small group discussions as part of New York’s City’s first Nunes and Nones event Feb. 10 at St. Joseph H.S., Downtown Brooklyn. (Photo Antonina Zielinska)

Nuns and Nones made its debut in New York City Feb. 10 at St. Joseph H.S., Downtown Brooklyn.

Religious sisters from local orders sat down for brunch, a movie and deep non-judgmental conversation with young adults, many of whom do not identify with any religion.

“It’s been my experience that sisters have been most open,” said Chelsea MacMillan, one of the conversation’s facilitators. She encouraged everyone to speak their hearts and listen with their hearts.

MacMillan is the cofounder and director of the Brooklyn Center for Sacred Activism in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. She defines herself as spiritual, but not religious. She is a young woman living in an intentional community working for social reform with other people who consider themselves spiritual.

Disillusioned by Institutional Religion

She grew up with the Evangelical Church and said she understands where many people who have left institutionalized religion come from, many have been “disillusioned at the very best, or at worst traumatized.”

Her co-facilitator was Brooklyn Vetter, associate director of the St. Joseph the Worker program. She grew up Catholic but has felt herself drift away. She joined the St. Joseph the Worker program as a participant and felt herself revitalized in the faith. But she is still questioning.

She said it is important to have events that tackle spirituality and community, both of which can help in the fight for justice.

MacMillan said that one of the things she feels missing in her life is the presence of community elders, especially female elders. She identified the Sisters present as elders to be respected and cherished.

Casey Ronsengren, a participant that identified himself as spiritual but not religious, said he came from a place of questioning the wisdom of institutions. He said he does not feel as if he can get behind institutional religion, at least not yet, which leaves him with a lack of community. He asked the group, in earnest, how to find community.

Sister Maureen Welch, O.S.U., spoke about the two faces of community living: structure and relationships, and said ultimately, community is about relationships.

Sister Joan Gallagher, C.S.J., invited the Nuns and Nones program to New York. She’s the co-chaplain for the St. Joseph the Worker program and serves on the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood.

Sister Joan said community life is evolving. She added that sisters now look to place relationships first, and how to help create a helpful structure, as opposed to the other way around.

Eddie Gonzales, who also considers himself spiritual but not religious, said he has not felt the need to return to organized religion. When he decided to leave organized religion, he said he did so with a prayer. He said he prayed to God saying that he must leave, but if God was out there, he would surely find Him. After leaving, he felt he had grown greatly in spirituality and has come to learn much.

Hamala Harilal said she has learned much from Catholic elders. She went to a Catholic school her entire childhood. She credited Hinduism as the treasure handed down to her from her parents who wanted to make sure that their daughters received an education that would form them to be good people. Her parents believed a Catholic education would allow her to grow in her own faith and be molded in good virtue.

They were right, she said. She did, however, have many questions coming her way, such as the differences in her religion. She said people tend to like to talk about differences, but she believes, it is far more important to talk about similarities. When starting in common ground, Truth may be easier to discover.

Many young people and nuns from different congregations had turned up and spoke from their hearts. It was hard to end the conversation, which ran half an hour past schedule, but Sister Joan assured everyone: “This is just the beginning.”

She has everyone’s email now and intends to not lose the momentum.

Nuns and Nones is a nationwide movement that started in 2016 to bring together religious sisters and millennials who are asking the deep questions of life and existence.

It has become a strong network of people who are looking for a way forward.

Nuns and Nones was very willing to help set up the first-ever event in New York City.

“The Church should be able to hold everybody,” Sister Joan said. “You don’t need to be judgmental. When you understand someone’s story, you get to know them better.”

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