Editor’s Note: Volume 4 is finished, and we couldn’t be more excited to share it with you. Today we’re giving you a sneak peek into one of our favorite features of the magazine: an interview with activist nun Sister Alison McCrary. In addition to being a prophetic voice for systematic change, Sister Alison is also a social justice attorney, a Catholic nun, president of the Louisiana Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a spiritual advisor on Louisiana’s death row, and Executive Director of National Police Accountability Project in New Orleans.
We spoke to her about finding God in all things, empowering the marginalized, and above all, living into the questions that have no clear answers. We couldn’t fit our entire conversation with Sister Alison in Volume 4, so we decided to share what you won’t find in print here. Enjoy!
What are some of the contemplative practices that you engage in and that you think are imperative for social justice work?
There are so many. One, community is essential; there’s no solo act in justice work and the Spirit is really present where two or more are gathered. There’s something about the Spirit [being] present when people gather together, and so having both a private practice of contemplation along with some communal practice with other people is important.
Every year I make an annual 10 day silent retreat and just having that intentional time with God to listen to God’s voice—it’s kind of like a vacation with God. It’s like, “God, let’s check in on our relationship, how are we doing?” Every morning I do 30 minutes of centering prayer or a silent Christian contemplation and then in the evening I do the Ignation examen.
Gardening is a big spiritual practice for me, growing our own food in our very small backyard in the urban garden in New Orleans. We have 75 different species of plants and vegetables that are growing and so we try to grow most of our own food and really connect to the earth.
There’s so much good [reading] out there right now, for good theology, good spirituality that can feed our souls hunger for depth and meaning and making sense of our experiences. And then just finding God in all things really. It’s finding God in the space in between our relationships and wherever we notice God, that’s prayer.
You’re involved in issues that are pretty divisive: the death penalty and police accountability, to name a few. How do we transcend the polarity of some of these issues and truly live the Gospel in these spaces?
One, we have to see the systems, and two, we have to see the humanity of each other. We have to use a systems analysis to see that oppression is intentionally caused by institutions, by the various systems. The education system, the housing system, banking systems, the criminal justice system, all of these systems are at play. When we can depersonalize it to say, “It’s the system,” and we look at that system objectively then we can come up with solutions of how to radically transform the system.
I was the founding director of the New Orleans Community Police Mediation Program and that brings a police officer to sit down at a table face-to-face with the person that filed a complaint of officer misconduct against the officer, and it’s facilitated by two community mediators. It’s the only space where the officer and civilian can sit down face-to-face, talk about the incident that happened, feel heard and understood, talk about how they felt in their interaction with each other, talk about what’s important to them, what their values are, what it is that they care about. So, maybe the civilian cares about respect and professionalism and wants to be treated as a human, and the officer cares about safety in the community and doing his job right and he is just following his training. And together they make a plan for what their interactions are going to look like.
How can we as Christians recognize systematic oppression and our involvement in it, whether intentional or not?
We need good theology. The theology we have shifts our world view. If we think this life is all about getting through it so we can get up there, up there to heaven, up to the clouds where there is some old white man with a long white beard sitting in a chair waiting for us, then it doesn’t matter what we do down here.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? How do we be the face of God, the face of love? How do we be the voice of God, the voice of love? How do we be the eyes of God, the eyes of love? The ears of God, the ears of love?
So, I think about shifting our consciousness through having good theology. The invitation is to live out of connectedness and oneness, and when we don’t live out of that we see people as the “other.” Whether it’s people of the other political party that we don’t like or people of different religious traditions that we don’t like.
You can only love people into being more compassionate, you can only love them into being able to see their connectedness and oneness with other people and that whatever is done to you is done to me, your oppression is my oppression, I’m not free until you are free, if you’re still sitting in a prison cell, I’m in that prison cell with you, my heart is not free till you’re out.
How do you begin to have a conversation with someone on the other side of an issue, say pro-death penalty?
I think you have to acknowledge the pain that they cause to people, the same pain that any of us are capable of doing. If you catch me on a bad day and I’m ticked off at someone or something, I could easily harm someone too. So I think when acknowledging that any harm done to anyone is wrong, intentional or unintentional, and that pain was caused, and to acknowledge that we’re all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done, that we’ve all done things that have caused harm to someone.
I wish I could convey the deep humanity I have seen in that prison—it is breathtaking. When Chris was facing his execution date, in an unorganized way somehow the Spirit moved these inmates. At their own will—they didn’t have a conversation of “Let’s do this”—Chris kept getting letters from them asking for forgiveness for things that they thought they had done wrong to him. They don’t get a lot of interactions with each other, so they can walk letters to each other’s cells during their one hour break every day at their cell—they’re in a cell 23 hours a day solitary confinement. These were beautiful love letters asking for forgiveness from inmates on death row to another inmate on death row, and this exchange of, “I forgive you, I love you, I care about you too my brother,” even though they had this beef with each other for 10 years. The love that they model, the forgiveness that they model can be a model for all of us on the outside world, in the “free world” as they call it.
What advice do you have for reformers?
I think as activists we can easily be so hard on ourselves and focus on the losses when we lose as a movement, and we really have to find those rare moments to celebrate. Joy is a Gospel value and we have to find joy in what we’re doing, we have to dance, we have to sing, we have to enjoy each other’s company, have moments of lightness, of laughter to sustain us in it or we can’t really do this work.
Portraits by Michael Tucker.