Nuns and Nones: Connection across Generations

women sit together at a park

Nuns and millennials: How much could they have in common? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

It was a meeting of kindred spirits. Never mind the four decades separating them in age, difference in faith, or even taste in clothing. When Sister Ann VonderMeulen, OSF, walked into the coffee shop on March 11, 2020, Megan Trischler and Anjali Dutt greeted her with warm words and even warmer hugs.

Trischler, a 33-year-old with a trendy pixie cut and a bright smile, moved her tote bag so that Sister Ann could sit next to her. Dutt, also 33, with thick-rimmed glasses and dark hair that reached past her shoulders, was already situated opposite. Sister Ann, 71, a Sister of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana, wearing a palette of warm oranges and browns, settled down beside the millennials as comfortably as if she were at home.

These three, with the addition of one more Franciscan sister, are the core of an unlikely group that meets monthly in the College Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati. They are just one branch of a national movement called “Nuns & Nones,” where millennials and religious sisters come together in community.

“I think what has maybe surprised me is that I feel like we have friends on the journey,” says Trischler, diving into deeper reflection with a speed that shows her comfort around her companions.

“It’s just a space to be together, and to hold those questions of ‘How do we live with the pain and the joy of the world?’ I don’t know. But let’s do it together.”

Seekers Across the Country

Officially, the national movement is referred to as “Nuns & Nones,” though some local groups have opted to call themselves “Sisters & Seekers. ” But the concept remains the same: bringing together progressive young adults and women religious.

On a surface level, the two groups—nuns and nones—may seem too different to have even a brief conversation. The “nuns, ” technically a term for cloistered women religious but that colloquially refers to active congregations as well, have a faith conviction so strong that they have dedicated their lives to God. They also tend to be from the baby boomer or silent generations. According to the National Religious Retirement Office, over three-quarters of the religious sisters in the United States are over the age of 70.

The “nones” are those who would check the “none” box on a survey about religious affiliation, which would be about three in 10 millennials, according to statistics from the Pew Research Center. They also tend to be a progressive group, deeply integrated with the digital world. But not all the members of Nuns & Nones are technically “nones”: Many are associated with a religion, but very few are Catholic and even fewer would have ever expected to find friends in women religious.

“We’ve had Buddhists, lapsed and practicing Catholics, Muslims, women seeking ordination, Christians of all sorts, United Universalists, Jews, atheists, pagans, seekers, mystics,” says Adam Horowitz, one of the national organizers, in his blog. “We’ve had first-generation immigrants, white folks, people of color, queer folks, trans folks.”

Despite the differences, local groups of Nuns & Nones now meet regularly in 12 different locations across the country. Groups are already running or gearing up in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia, among others. Some meet monthly for a few hours of discussion. Others get together for overnight retreat-like experiences. In one case, several millennials decided to live in a convent for six months.

“Seekers go to make meaning in the social justice movements that they’re part of, communities that they’re helping to build, increasingly less in religious spaces,” says Brittany Koteles, using the group’s alternative term for “nones.” Koteles is the national codirector of Nuns & Nones and helps coordinate a local meeting in Washington, DC.

“But in the places where we go to make a difference, it’s there that we’re also trying to make meaning,” she says.

Soul Mates

The magnetic forces that seem to invisibly draw these two polar opposites together are social justice and the drive to make a difference. Shared values bridge age and philosophy and have become the glue holding the nuns and nones together.

Sisters have founded and staffed hospitals across the United States; millennials tweet and brainstorm about sustainable health care. The young hold walkouts and lobby to raise awareness about climate change; sisters have been concerned about “Sister Mother Earth” since the days of Sts. Francis and Clare. Women religious have lived and worked in slums and the inner city; nones are deeply concerned about racial inequality and the systems that create poverty.

As one sister expressed at the very first Nuns & Nones meeting: “We have so much more in common here than could ever divide us.”

In the Cincinnati group, the overlaps in activism and passions are apparent. Trischler has spent the beginning of her career working in community development and helping nonprofits design processes, projects, and resources to build up their neighborhoods. Dutt volunteered for AmeriCorps and currently works as a community psychologist trying to create more civic engagement opportunities for refugees and immigrants in Cincinnati.

Sister Ann was a missionary for 12 years in Papua New Guinea, where the Oldenburg nuns taught and established a sister community. She now teaches special education, including helping refugees learn English. Sister Donna Graham, also a Sister of St. Francis of Oldenburg and the fourth member of the Cincinnati Nuns & Nones, has a long list of professions: teaching, campus ministry, community mental health, representing Franciscan friars as the director of their justice and peace office, and caring for members of a senior living community.

Dominican Sister Connie Koch and Leah Feder are seen at the Dominican Sisters of Hope’s retreat center in Ossining, N.Y. For four years, the “Nuns and Nones” movement has been cultivating an intergenerational community that addresses the existential questions now plaguing the rest of the world amid a global pandemic. (CNS photo/courtesy Dominican Sisters of Hope)

Sister Donna says millennials have “values around what’s right and what isn’t and what needs to get changed in our society, and they see sisters as having a history of being active in various social injustice concerns.”

For the sisters, finding their own passion for social justice reflected in the eyes of the young is a blessing beyond words. Congregations are retiring from ministry en masse, leaving the hospitals, schools, and charities they have nurtured for centuries. Now they are finally meeting those who have picked up the torch.

“These folks are committed to a lot of the same things we are in terms of social justice and looking out for those who have much less than we do, ” says Sister Ann. “Especially as our communities age, it gives me a lot of hope.”

Sister Donna agrees: “It certainly gives me a ton of hope about the future as I watch how these women are going about their lives and basically trying to make the world better in their own particular way.”

Finding a Safe Space

As any sister could attest, however, a lifelong commitment to social justice is no easy journey. Millennials, now young adults, are just beginning to experience the exhaustion and burnout that come from “making a difference” and pushing back against systems much bigger than they are.

“I think we often underestimate just how hard it is to live a life that’s really aligned with our values in a world in which it’s so easy to passively participate in a mainstream culture that hurts people,” explains Koteles.

These young adults also have the added stressors of a digital existence. The echo chambers of social media lead people to seek only those with similar values and engage in a perpetual shouting match with those who disagree. The anonymity of hiding behind a profile picture makes it easy to discredit and demonize the other—or to be demonized yourself.

“I overthink what I’m going to say, to make sure that this is politically acceptable, based on what a person in my position should be saying,” Dutt says.

“We’re so concerned about being right that we forget to be just right with one another,” says Trischler.

Both have found in Nuns & Nones an unusual safe space, a place where they can express their thoughts and ask honest questions without fear of backlash. Trischler explains: “What I sense in this group is you don’t have to believe what I believe. And I also trust that you’re still going to see me as a human.”

“I’ve been impressed by the depth of sharing and the trust and the holding in confidence,” adds Sister Ann. “I think people feel so comfortable there that they know whatever they share is not going to be used against them or in any way detract from who they are. They’re going to be accepted as they are.”

The Cincinnati group says that when two members disagree, “there is room for it.” Their meetings last about two hours, with nothing but a simple phrase or question to kick off the discussion. The rest of the time is spent unpacking that thought: a method with obvious similarities to contemplation practiced by sisters, but often unheard-of by the younger generation limited to the 280 characters allowed by Twitter.

“In my experiences where stuff starts to go awry, it’s because there’s not space for us even to personally ask, How did that make me feel? What am I feeling right now? Is that anger bubbling up in me? Is that sadness bubbling up in me? Do I feel a peace? Why do I feel peace?” explains Trischler.

Koteles, the national codirector, recognizes the void experienced when there is no space for contemplation and reflection. She says, “The people holding some of the hardest work . . . are hungry to talk about the spiritual side of that, the human implications of that kind of work, the big questions that arise.

Community Commitment

Perhaps the biggest lesson the sisters are teaching the millennials is too large to be easily seen—the gift of community. Sisters have always lived together, uniting their efforts to move mountains much bigger than themselves.

“I don’t actually think it’s possible to be our most courageous selves if we’re not in community. We need people that are supporting us, affirming us, holding us accountable, ” explains Koteles. “In sisters’ cases, they have communities that have each other’s backs financially, that are investing in their education and training, that are in shared spiritual practice together so that when times get hard they have a life of habit and prayer to fall back on.”

The recognition of the need for community is at the very origins of Nuns & Nones. Horowitz, who is Jewish, says that in 2016 he was brainstorming with a community minister “the kind of social, communal, and spiritual infrastructure needed for welcome, refuge, and belonging in the 21st century.”

Wayne Muller, the minister, pointed to women religious as a model. That revelation launched Horowitz on the journey that would eventually lead to him staying at a convent—the Dominican Motherhouse in Fremont, California—for six months.

“Sister Gloria Marie Jones explained to me the four organizing principles of her community: study, prayer, shared life (community), and ministry (work in the world), ” Horowitz reflected in his blog about his stay. “This elegant simplicity was a welcome offering and resonated on a deep, intuitive level. I, too, was looking for a life of learning, contemplation, community, and healing work in the world.”

Last November, several millennials from the Cincinnati Nuns & Nones decided to make their own weekend pilgrimage to the motherhouse of the Oldenburg sisters in Indiana. The community that Sister Donna and Sister Ann call home began, and is still rooted, in that tiny town of fewer than 700 people.

The young people found a sprawling convent rising in several spires above the landscape, a testament to nearly 170 years of communal living and activism. Long corridors connect the sisters’ living spaces to a still-active academy founded in 1852, a reminder that this order started schools in Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas. Glass cases proudly display artifacts from the sisters’ missionary work among Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona, and among the poor in China and Papua New Guinea. The sisters who live at the motherhouse, most of whom are retired, still gather for communal meals in a bright, wood-floored dining hall adorned with old paintings and a massive crucifix.

“We went on a tour of the convent and got to hear so many stories about changes that had happened in the convent—buildings being built, rooms being appropriated for new purposes as community needs changed or emerged, as well as memories about things that took place in a certain spot,” says Dutt.

“Even though we weren’t really talking about that exact question explicitly [how to live], hearing several sisters’ life stories and all of us collectively talking about how to navigate challenges of life brought me to think about that question a lot,” she says.

The organizers of Nuns & Nones wrestle with exactly how, as progressives in the 21st century, they can build committed communities like the one that has supported the sisters in their herculean task of making the world a better place. But building community with the nuns seems a good place to start.

A Space to Be and to Do

“I thought we were going to do something,” Dutt says. Sitting together in the coffee shop, their mugs pushed aside, the Cincinnati group is talking about its origins and the pleasant surprise of finding friends in one another.

“But the answer from the group was, ‘Well, maybe we don’t need another space to do something,’ ” she continues, “and that was so eye-opening and powerful for me, to be like, everyone is right. We don’t need to do something; we need to be here for each other.”

Together, the group was slowly coming to the conclusion that community is necessary for action. Without the buoying force of committed community, actions made alone are too small to stir the waters of change, as a pebble thrown into a pond is overwhelmed as it makes the tiniest ripple.

Trischler began to hope that she could find more spaces, like this one, where she could just be loved and strengthened. “What if we approached our spaces more as, we’re here to be human and find friends? Maybe that’s na√Øve, but isn’t that the call, to love our neighbors?” she asks.

“And that’s what strengthens us for action,” adds Sister Ann.

As they walk back to their cars, the three women talk about their next meeting. They pass restaurants and college students, most of whom are looking down into the little devices in their hands.

Trischler shares the idea to incorporate art into their next meeting. Sister Ann and Dutt agree and offer suggestions.

It seems, though, that art is already present: the art of being together.

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