Franciscan Spirit Blog

Sister Thea Bowman: Instrument of Peace

St. Thea Bowman? Yes! She is a saint urgently needed in this country as Americans of every color struggle to tell their stories, understand each other’s pain, and find healing.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was arrested in Minneapolis on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, as Floyd gasped “I can’t breathe,” handcuffed and face-down in the street.

Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old Black teenager watching from the sidewalk, pulled out her cellphone and began filming. She let the camera run, uninterrupted, and recorded the crime. As soon as her video hit the Internet, protests erupted coast to coast. Within days, demonstrators chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and “I Can’t Breathe!” took to the streets.

I watched Darnella’s footage more than once. Nine minutes of a man gasping for breath—with a police officer’s knee on his windpipe—in full view of a crowd. I was outraged. I have to do something, I thought. But what? You are a writer, I told myself. You are a filmmaker. You are a storyteller. Use that. Say something. Tell a story.

And then I remembered Thea Bowman: The charismatic Franciscan Sister—the only Black member of her La Crosse, Wisconsin, congregation—the English professor, preacher, singer, and advocate for racial justice. The celebrity who charmed crusty Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes and persuaded the US Bishops to stand, lock arms, and sing, “We Shall Overcome.” That Thea Bowman who, in 2018, became a candidate for sainthood.

I found lots of media featuring Thea. She was modern—and the Internet offered many videos, photos, and clips of speeches. But I found no coherent telling of her life.

Source: NewGroup Media

I continued to dig. Thea’s childhood friends, her former high school students, her Franciscan Sisters, her faculty colleagues and friends—all were alive and available for interviews. The Bowman family home in Canton, Mississippi, where Thea lived and died, was open to us. There was a film waiting to be made.

I called the bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, and said: “I want to make a broadcast documentary film on Thea Bowman. I will raise all the money. I will never ask you for money. You will be the executive producer with editorial control, and in the end, the Diocese of Jackson will own the copyright to the film.”

After a very short silence, he said: “What’s not to like? Yes!”

After two years of work, we delivered a film for broadcast on ABC stations across the country.

The nine-minute video of the George Floyd murder forced millions of people to admit the reality of systemic racism and police brutality toward people of color—especially African Americans. TV did that: nine minutes of horrific TV.   

My hope is that our 58 minutes of television will continue to expand the public’s consciousness with the story of Thea Bowman, a Franciscan instrument of peace and joy whose preaching, singing and prophetic calls for racial justice ring as urgently today as they did in her lifetime.

St. Thea Bowman? Yes! She is a saint urgently needed in this country as Americans of every color struggle in fits and starts to tell their stories, hear each other, understand each other’s pain, seek and grant forgiveness, and find healing. Thea Bowman, our Franciscan Sister, pray for us!

Learn about Sister Thea Bowman!


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