black church

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

The whispers began before Sister Thea Bowman reached Colorado for one of the final mission trips she would make before dying in 1990 at the age of 52.

The only African-American in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Bowman was a charismatic teacher, singer and evangelist and her ministry continued after cancer put her in a wheel chair.

Behind the scenes, folks at Our Queen of Peace parish near Denver were asking this question: Would this woman someday be hailed as St. Thea of Mississippi?

After her arrival, a local priest watched as Sister Thea led an interracial youth choir, rehearsing a gospel hymn, "Give Me That Old Time Religion," as well as the children's song she included in each service -- "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)."

Yes, people were talking about Sister Thea and sainthood, said Father William Breslin, pastor of this Aurora parish in 1989.

"Sometimes you have that sneaking suspicion," he said. "It's neat to be able to meet a person and experience. … It's neat to be able to put your finger on that special quality we can only call 'holiness.' "

Three decades later the U.S. Catholic bishops paused in Baltimore for a "canonical consultation," considering requests for a Vatican tribunal to begin investigating whether to declare Sister Thea a saint. On Nov. 14 the bishops said, "yes."

"The faithful in, and well beyond, the Diocese of Jackson" have made this request, Bishop Joseph Kopacz told the bishops. "Well before I arrived in Jackson" in 2014, "the requests were coming in. …The church embraced Sister Thea from her early years, but there were times when she felt like a motherless child."

During her 1989 "Sharing the Good News" mission -- which I covered for The Rocky Mountain News -- Sister Thea smiled, but shook her head, when asked about the whispers. She would talk about the word "saint," as long as she could define the term.

"People who really know me, they know all about my struggles," said an exhausted Bowman, leaning on the arm of her wheelchair after one service.

"You see, I'm black," she added, with a quiet laugh. "I guess the word 'saint' has a different meaning for me. I was raised in a community where … we were always saying things like, 'The saints would be coming in to church today' or 'The saints will really be dancing and singing this Sunday.' "

Alveda King's old dream

Fox News star Glenn Beck staged the show at the Lincoln Memorial, and then fired up his flock by claiming, "Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God." Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin almost stole the show with a political shot at President Barack Obama, telling her fans, "You too know that we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor!"

But there was only one African-American preacher present whose last name was spelled K-I-N-G. There was only one orator who could infuriate pundits simply by standing with Beck on the 47th anniversary of her martyred uncle's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Tears of rage? Tears of joy? The Rev. Alveda King knew she would cause both by linking the Rev. Martin Luther King's classic cadences with the religious and cultural issues that loomed over what Beck insisted was a nonpolitical rally. Once a Democrat in the Georgia Legislature, the evangelical minister now leads African-American outreach programs for the Catholic group Priests For Life.

First, she reminded listeners that her "Uncle Martin" had compared America's promise of equal protection to a check marked "insufficient funds." But when, she asked, will "we know that the check Uncle Martin spoke of is good?"

"We will know when prayer is once again welcome in the public squares of America and in our schools. We will know when our children are no longer in mortal peril on our streets and in our classrooms, and in the wombs of our mothers," she said.

"We will know when righteousness rolls down like waters, and justice like a mighty stream. Yes, I too have a dream ... that America will repent of the sin of racism and return to honor. I have a dream that white privilege will become human privilege and that people of every ethnic blend will receive everyone as brothers and sisters in the love of God. I have a dream that America will pray, and God will forgive us our sins and revive our land."

Critics were not kind.

Chatting with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post dismissed Alveda King as a "convenient figurehead or puppet. ... She's a fundamentalist, very conservative Christian. ... She's estranged from the rest of the King family, and from the keepers of his legacy."

And in a Washington Post essay before the rally, Martin Luther King III anticipated the coming efforts to embrace the causes now identified with the first family of civil rights. His father's dream, he stressed, "rejected hateful rhetoric and all forms of bigotry or discrimination, whether directed at race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation or political beliefs. ... Throughout his life he advocated compassion for the poor, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of all people and peace for humanity."

For Alveda King, these debates are signs of painful divisions -- many of them theological -- inside the Civil Rights Movement, black churches and the extended King family. While the late Coretta Scott King supported abortion rights and gay rights, other members of the family have fiercely questioned whether the views of her husband would have evolved in that direction.

One debate, for example, focuses on the significance of the decision by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to accept the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood in 1966. Alveda King and other opponents of abortion note that this was six years before Roe v. Wade and only three years after a Planned Parenthood pamphlet warned that, "An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun."

America's ongoing battles over abortion, insisted Alveda King, are one of many symptoms that her uncle's work remains unfinished.

"Our material gains seem to be going the way of our moral losses," she said, in her Aug. 28 sermon. "We are still suffering from the great evil divide of racism. Our children are suffering in failing school systems. Our sons and daughters are being incarcerated at astronomical rates. Sickness, disease and poverty of the spirit, soul and body are plaguing our communities. The procreative foundation of marriage is being threatened, and the wombs of our mothers have become places where the blood of our children is shed in a 'womb war' that threatens the fabric of our society. ...

"Yet, we are not without hope. Faith, hope and love are not dead in America. Hallelujah."