Nuns Prove Sisterhood Is Powerful

Every Friday since 2007, a group of nuns has stood outside Broadview (Ill.) Detention Center praying with families of immigrant deportees and eventually boarding the buses taking them to the airport. A scene from the new documentary Band of Sisters shows one nun, probably in her 60s, step in front of a police officer who’s yelling for the group to get off the center’s  property. “There isn’t a problem, sir,” she says bravely. The nuns had lobbied the state and won the right to be there.

For nuns, pushing social and cultural change is more than a habit. (They gradually stopped wearing those dark cover-ups after Vatican reforms in the 1960s—which is also when they started focusing on politics alongside charity)Band of Sisters documents the nuns’ current efforts towards  justice, seen in the historical context of the past 50 years. We see nuns starting organic farms, building low-income housing projects and starting holistic wellness programs for the poor.

Band of Sisters, which premiered at a sold-out Chicago theater last year, is still screening around the country, and opens Jan. 17 at Cinema Village in New York City. The Ms. Blog spoke with director Mary Fishman about the power of sisterhood.

Ms. Blog: How did the idea for this film originate?

Mary Fishman: Partly from my sister’s suggestion to read this book called Aging With Grace, which is about Catholic sisters—a particular congregation called School Sisters of Notre Dame who were involved in an Alzheimer’s study. The book really gave you a good insight into who they were as people and how much they’ve contributed. I had nuns [as teachers] in elementary school and high school, so they were always kind of mysterious. I didn’t have any idea that they could be funny and had favorite sports teams and [drank] beer, that kind of stuff. I started researching their history in this country. They’ve been here for 300 years and they’ve built so many of our institutions, [but] they don’t get credit for what they’ve done.

What difference do you hope your film will make?

Fishman: I hope that it will put to rest the stereotypes people have about sisters—that they’re stern disciplinarians or that they’re naive and out of touch with the world. What Catholic sisters have done should be thought of as a central part in the American story. It’s women’s history, it’s Catholic history, it’s American history.

It was striking how the nuns in your film were keen to push against authority to create social change.

Fishman: I think that’s what a lot of people are really impressed with: they don’t give up, they’re very strategic, they find the right people to help them. And I think that what makes them different from a lot of activists is that they really are committed to the nonviolent, loving approach. Doesn’t mean that they’re pushovers, or they don’t see reality, but they feel that the means are as important as the ends.

Did you have this perception of nuns before you started filming?

Fishman: The thing I had been surprised by was how involved they are in social justice and how progressive they are. I knew that before I started filming, but I was still a little bit intimidated, still remembering being a kid and having nuns as teachers and being kind of scared of them. When I started interviewing them, I could see they’re funny and very hospitable. And they make you feel at ease.

Why is it import for viewers’ stereotypical perceptions of nuns to change?

Fishman: I would hope that people see nuns as a model. I think that the sisters give a good example of how to … combine a life of activism with reflection, contemplation and prayer, meditation. And [they show] how to speak out against injustice in a way that’s strong and that people can hear what you’re saying and not be put off. They’re so good at studying an issue and praying and reflecting on it and coming up with really creative ways to approach solutions.

You don’t usually hear about religious environmental activism.

Fishman: That was another big revelation to me. Not only are the nuns doing it for the same reasons we all are concerned about—taking care of the earth and making sure we have something [to sustain] future generations—but they see the earth and the universe as a revelation of the divine. So it’s kind of an insult to God when we degrade the environment and mistreat animals. We have this outmoded idea that we’re the top of the pyramid and that God gave us the right to exploit everything.

What would you say to those who use the term “leftist” as an insult toward U.S. nuns?

Fishman: I would say Jesus was a leftist. I think that calling people leftist and thinking that’s going to silence them or put them down is an outmoded way of being. That’s part of the problem— that we tend to categorize people and dismiss them. And I would just say they’re doing what Jesus called all of us to do, and I don’t want to limit it to just Catholicism—that people of any faith, they have this tradition of trying to make the world more just, so that all people and all creation has a chance to flourish.

Considering the Vatican’s condemnation of the main U.S. organization of Catholic nuns for focusing too much on issues such as poverty and economic justice instead of fighting against abortion and gay marriage, are you experiencing any controversy around your film?

Fishman: I think that criticism of the film mostly comes from the people who haven’t seen it, or who see the trailer and think that any questioning of what the Vatican does is disloyal. The film has been seen by tens of thousands of people at this point. A large number of them are sisters, some priests. It’s been shown in some Catholic universities and Catholic parishes, and people of other faiths have seen it. I don’t think anyone takes away the message that it’s bashing the Catholic Church in any way. I didn’t want to create polarization; I didn’t want to demonize anyone. I was trying to follow the spirit of the sisters.

Band of Sisters is now available for educational use and the home-viewing DVD will be available in early 2014 via the film’s website.

Photos from filmmaker and Flickr user sevenpillarshouse under license from Creative Commons 2.0.