She could be any woman marching in that parade, clad with gold-painted sneakers and a baby blue dress (“representing the interconnectedness to water and our common humanity,” she would later explain). She could pass for a college student or young activist as she carries a 70-pound refugee boat above her head. Her five-foot-four frame could easily be swallowed up in the river of unbridled revelry that winds through New Orleans’ streets for six miles. But instead she walks with the captivating nature of a woman who wields a quiet authority. I will find upon meeting her that she speaks with a fortitude that never buckles under the weight of her words.
Tonight Sister Alison McCrary marches with Bloco Sereia, a New Orleans-based Brazilian-style carnival group that models traditional and contemporary fusions of Afro-Brazilian rhythms and dances inspired by rivers and oceans. The group has been invited to join over 1,000 women in the Krewe of Muses—an all-female parade known for philanthropy, satire, and that coveted toss: a sequined shoe, a symbol of sacred sisterhood.
It is the fifth week of the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans and the festivities are in full swing. Jazz music, intertwined with a consistent, raucous roar, permeates the air at all hours of the day and night. Costumed strangers dance together in the street, communing over a liquid blue concoction they call a Hurricane. Beads and plastic cups canvas the ground and fill the sewers as clean-up crews work overtime to prepare for the next day’s parades.
I will find upon meeting her that she speaks with a fortitude that never buckles under the weight of her words.
I am introduced to McCrary in the midst of these revelries. We meet up at her office the day after Muses. We’ve postponed a few hours per her request, seeing as she didn’t get home from the parade until 3 a.m. and needed that morning to recover.
It gave me time to sort my thoughts as I attempted to separate what I had seen the night before from my preconceived notions of Mardi Gras, admittedly ones of debauchery and chaos. These assumptions sloughed away slowly at first then all at once as I learned what McCrary sees in this season: the beauty of humanity, manifest here. “It’s in the culture, the music, the food, the coming together of people, the sharing of life, the breaking of bread,” she says.
This wouldn’t be the first time that McCrary turned a presumption on its head. In fact that might even be her modus operandi: flip every script before burning them up entirely. Don’t be fooled by her unassuming temperament or petite stature; don’t mistake her charm for naiveté. Her résumé alone is stunning: Executive Director of the National Police Accountability Project, President of the Louisiana Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, spiritual advisor on Louisiana’s death row, social justice attorney, and Catholic nun.
This wouldn’t be the first time that McCrary turned a presumption on its head.
Her journey into nunhood is as unconventional as it is surprising. In early 2005 McCrary moved to New Orleans to pursue human rights and racial justice work in the American South, but she had not yet found a faith home for her spiritual longings. After Hurricane Katrina decimated the city that following summer, McCrary and a number of other volunteers opened a food pantry out of a church hall, feeding 200 families a week for the following year. That all came to a sudden standstill when they received the news that their church, St. Augustine—one of the most integrated churches in the nation and a birthplace of gospel music—was set to close.
“People already lost their physical homes, and now they were going to lose their spiritual home,” McCrary says. “It was the glue that was holding the community together in this time of tragedy and disaster.”
McCrary and her fellow volunteers agreed to organize and mobilize; they changed the door locks, bolted up the doors and windows, and occupied the rectory.
“We had a pulley system going up to the third floor windows to deliver food in a bucket. We had a 24-hour vigil of the sanctuary with jazz musicians coming through all hours of the day and night, and people in constant prayer to keep the church open,” she recalls.
It was during this time, during the standoffs and vigils and occupation, that McCrary felt the invitation to convert to Catholicism. The faith offered her a framework to sort out the social justice values for which she had struggled to find a home.
“At various protests I was meeting amazing Catholic nuns who were doing civil disobedience…I was really inspired by how they put their bodies on the line and the works of justice that they did.”
That admiration confirmed what McCrary had been sensing for a while: that nunhood would be the answer to her longings. “[I asked,] how do I sustain myself in this and what is the life form that can hold this deep calling for justice? For me I felt God calling me to vow religious life as a Catholic sister as a means to hold that work and support it,” she says. “The vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience give me a freedom and a radical availability to love everyone, to be able to take risks, and to be held accountable to have a prophetic voice in the world.”
“The vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience give me a freedom and a radical availability to love everyone.”
Perhaps it is this radical availability that has allowed her to take on so many advocacy roles, and it is this prophetic voice that champions those on the margins of society. McCrary offers a powerful framework for becoming a healthier, Gospel-centered advocate, confronting oppressive systems, and living into the questions that don’t always have answers.
Nations: Where do you see beauty in New Orleans?
McCrary: Oh, New Orleans is a magical city. It is a city of so much pain and suffering and oppression, and yet so much joy and beauty and hope. Every day is a liturgy; every act is a ritual. New Orleans is a city of aliveness; the rawness of humanity, its depths, its pain, its beauty, it’s all here in the most visible way.
There’s so much oppression that’s deeply ingrained here, and we have so much work to do for justice here. Community has been essential to get through it and we know that, so there’s a real sense of community here and deep, deep beauty in that. Living in the city requires you to look at your privilege; if you’re white, it requires you to look at your whiteness every day. There’s not a day that goes by where you don’t think about race and your role in it. It requires you to have your heart open, to have your heart broken, to have your heart loved, and to love other people in a way and place that I’ve seen in nowhere else.
You work to dismantle broken systems that further marginalize the disadvantaged. How do we shift our awareness to recognize our place in these oppressive systems, whether intentional or not?
I think good theology can change the world. The theology we have shifts our world view. We make decisions based on our world view. If we think this life is all about getting through it so we can get up to heaven, then it doesn’t matter what we do down here. How do we shift so that it’s not all about getting up there one day through our piety and prayer, but how do we live so that God’s reign can be done on earth as it is in heaven? Heaven for me is really the presence of God; hell is the absence of God. So how do we make God’s presence visible on earth?
“I think good theology can change the world.”
How do we channel our “righteous indignation” and become healthier, Gospel-centered advocates in the process?
“Prophetic authenticity”—being our authentic selves, living out of the rawness of our hearts, being able to show our vulnerabilities, speaking a truth even when it’s unpopular, even if it means we might lose friends. It means taking risks for what we believe in. I think we can easily get caught up in the nonprofit industrial complex. I’m a part of that, and I think we have to keep ourselves in check and always [ask,] how do we do the work that the Spirit’s most inviting us to do and what risk are willing to take for it? When I look at social justice lawyers in other countries, for the type of work I do…if I was doing this work in the Philippines or in Haiti or other countries, if I had a family, my house would be raided at 2 a.m., my spouse and children would be taken away from me by the powers that be, I would face execution—there’s a real risk in doing justice work. In the United States, what risk are we really willing to take and how do we support each other in doing that? How do we learn from our elders in the movements about engaging in creative, nonviolent, civil disobedience?
Is it important for those “on the inside” to listen to the stories of those on the margins? What do those stories have to teach us?
As Christians, the Gospels require that of us. Jesus went to the margins. [He went to] the Samaritan woman at the well; as a man he wasn’t supposed to talk to a woman, especially in private, and he wasn’t supposed to talk to a Samaritan. Jesus was a boundary breaker; he crossed all those boundaries and we’re called to do the same. You can’t do the justice work the Gospels demand us to do without listening to those who are directly impacted, listening to people of a different value system, race, gender, age, or sexual orientation, whatever it is. We have to listen to those voices and allow them to lead us, and then find ways to empower their leadership.
“You can’t do the justice work the Gospels demand us to do without listening to those who are directly impacted.”
You’ve offered some galvanizing questions for us to consider. What do you do with the questions to which you don’t yet have answers?
I think a piece of our role today is not to know the answers. People sit in meeting rooms all day trying to come up with answers. I think a more prophetic invitation is, what are the questions we need to be asking ourselves? Exploring the questions can lead to change: lasting change, deeper change, more meaningful change. And it’s an exercise in letting go of that ego; it requires a humility and vulnerability that we’re not comfortable with because we want to be confident and know the answers.
In the midst of the constant injustice to which you bear witness, how do you not grow weary and let your love grow cold?
It’s about hope. St. Augustine said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” It’s easy to get discouraged, and I think every Christian has the obligation to move towards that pain and suffering of the world to try to be a prophetic voice. It’s hard because it means we have to be vulnerable and our hearts have to be open to being broken by the pain that we see, and our hearts have to be open to love strangers. That’s what scripture calls us to do.
But I think it’s really about holding on to hope and finding hope in those dark places where there’s a lot of pain and suffering. When I look at those who are on the margins of the margins of the margins, when they have hope, I find hope in them. If I can find someone who lives on two dollars a day, is living in public housing in a broken family with incarcerated parents struggling to feed their children, and yet they can find time to plant a flower in their garden bed—that’s hope: to create beauty in the midst of despair, pain, confusion, suffering, exhaustion. I always look for the flowers, those glimmers of hope.
“I always look for the flowers, those glimmers of hope.”
I listen to the stories of the men on death row. One guy tells me about the birds that come visit him. When he gets his meal during the day he’ll take some crumbs of bread and he’ll squeeze it through the little cracks in the tiny windowsill of his cell. And he’ll put the breadcrumbs through so the birds can come and eat them. He has names for all the birds; he names them after all the nuns who have died who once visited him. He said they come back to visit him in the form of the blackbirds. If they can find hope in those things, we all can. When those who have had the most unbelievable, unconscionable trauma and violence done to them believe that the system can change, we have to believe that it can too.
How do you maintain your long view of reform?
In whatever city I go, when I get off the bus or train or airport, I look around and [ask], What is here that wouldn’t have been here 50 years ago that’s good in this community? When I see a temple or mosque or place of worship that’s of a minority religion, that’s thriving, where people are comfortable coming and going, would that have happened 50 years ago? Who is able to own a business who couldn’t own a business 50 years ago in this neighborhood?
“In whatever city I go, when I get off the bus or train or airport, I look around and [ask], What is here that wouldn’t have been here 50 years ago that’s good in this community?”
There is intersectionality of oppression in everything…It wasn’t until I went to death row that I saw how all the systems operate to fail someone, how this person is on death row because we failed this person as a society. When we’re born it’s not part of human nature to want to kill someone; it’s not part of human nature to want to cause harm to another human being.
Multigenerational years of domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, psychological abuse, mental illness… you look at this and say we have services in place that were supposed to stop this from happening. If I went through what this person on death row went through, if my life was like that, I would have ended up causing great harm to someone too. There’s no way you can function normally when you’ve suffered in ways like that.
So it helped me to put all the pieces together of the systems that create poverty and oppression—the housing system, the food system, the justice system, the education system, the health care system, the incarceration system. I think we have to look for those intersectionalities and put stories together. Not [asking,] “Did this person murder someone?” Yes, but [ask], “Why did they do it?” Tell that story.
What advice would you give today’s reformers?
Listen to those who are on the margins; listen to people of color; listen to those who are not like you. When you listen, people will talk. Even if it’s people you have different political values from, asking questions and listening to what they have to say will allow them to open up and want to hear from you too. Listening is sacred.
“When you listen, people will talk. Listening is sacred.”
Get involved, find community. Community is essential; there’s no solo act in justice work. You must do this work with other people and find those people who support you, who love you, who hold you accountable, who keep you healthy and whole. And build more community; you can never have too many communities. Relationships are essential to this work and each of us has our inner work to do; so do your inner work, be willing to be vulnerable. Have the courage to go deeper within yourself. Work towards healing and liberation for yourself so that you can work towards healing and liberation for other people.
I run into McCrary a few days later at a crawfish boil for “Lundi Gras,” the day before Mardi Gras and two days before Ash Wednesday. She’s deep in conversation with a man whose faded blue body paint tells a story in itself. They’re sipping wine out of Solo cups as they invite me into their discussion about the social constructs of some of the season’s parades.
Before long a broad man in overalls and a conductor’s cap bellows “Let’s eat!” as he dumps the contents of a 60-quart pot across a long, newspaper-clad table: crawfish, corn, potatoes, sausage, and of course, plenty of spices. We descend on the steaming pile together. The only way to eat crawfish is to get your hands dirty: twist the head, pull off the body, inhale the juices, repeat dozens of times over.
Looking around the table, all of us stripped of our pleasantries, devouring shellfish bodies with our bare hands, I’m reminded of what Catholic convert and social activist Dorothy Day said, “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.” Perhaps over this crawfish communion we have entered into that interconnectedness. Perhaps that is what we’ve come all the way to New Orleans to find: soul food.
This feature first appeared in Nations Journal Volume 4. Order your copy here.
Photography by Michael Tucker.