Franciscan Spirit Blog

Sister Thea Bowman: Resistance, Persistence, Transcendence

Sister Thea Bowman teaches us to let our little light shine, wherever we go.

Over the last 30 years, I have often reminisced about my first encounter with Sister Thea Bowman. We both presented at a gathering of the National Black Catholic Administrators Association at Techny, Illinois, in 1985. I was disconcerted by her forceful presence in the evening prayer service—until she began to sing.

The embrace fashioned by her voice was transformative. We worked together the next summer when, at her invitation, I joined the community of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans. That bond that was forged that summer lasts to today. And it fills me with such joy when I think of who Thea Bowman was, is, and will be for so many of us for as long as her spirit embraces us.

For me, the essential pillars of African American culture are resistance, persistence, and transcendence. How relevant those qualities are in learning the complex qualities of the life of Sister Thea. We have all been washed clean and healed by the songs she sang. Those songs, found in the very atmosphere of her upbringing, are the foundational instructions passed on to us all by the Black prophets, singers, and saints who chose to live, even in the utter degradation of enslavement.

The songs by which Sister Thea was most known illustrate the themes I have just mentioned. “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “I Shall Not Be Moved.” The composers and curators of those songs knew what the virtue of resistance meant for their survival—mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual survival. No matter what anyone may say about you, or how they attempt to define you as less than your fullest potential, “You Tell Them You a Child of God.”

Source: NewGroup Media

Thea Bowman needed those songs to keep alive the fire that fed her vocation to be a member of her religious community. Those songs kept her focused on learning how to respect and rejoice in what the “Old Folks” taught her before she ever plunged into formal learning strategies. And when she was challenged by those who wanted her to be more respectable, more self-contained, less challenging or threatening, she breathed in the spirit of prophecy and listened to the call of those elders.

Persistence. She knew that if they told her to “Wade in the Water,” their own journey was testimony that she could succeed against all the obstacles that sought to hinder her on her journey. No one who ever entered the circle where she taught could remain unmoved when she sang the song that became a constant in her repertory, the last years of her life: “Done Made My Vows to the Lord/ And I shall go, I will go/ To see what the end will be.” Persistence.

But what we may not give much attention to is her unparalleled gift of prophecy. Not fortune-telling of what may or may not befall us. No, the prophecy of speaking truth to power. She demonstrated that most compellingly at the 1989 gathering of the United States Catholic Bishops.

Sitting in her wheelchair, wrapped warmly in her African vestments, Thea Bowman spoke with the authority of having listened to the past and been anointed to speak for the children not yet born—and to place her very self into the consciousness of those in power who might be otherwise disposed to never see the richness and glorious gift that is Black culture.

She prayed herself up the “rough side of the mountain,” she told us that she—and we—are “climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”  Which means that she—and we—are given the task and call to be angel/messengers bringing the powerful truth of the Word of God back to those who are most hungry for that healing. Sister Thea opened herself to the spirit of wisdom, fortitude, patience, love, and reconciliation and poured out what “she heard from heaven” every day, so that we might know that we can join that band of the blessed. And sing and never grow tired.

Her witness teaches us to let our little light shine wherever we go.

Learn about Sister Thea Bowman!


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