BY THE TIME SISTER THEA BOWMAN spoke to an assembly of the U.S. Catholic bishops in June 1989 she was already confined to a wheelchair, the cancer first detected in her breast several years earlier had spread. Her physical immobility, however, could not contain the strength of her voice and her message. Like most of her audiences, they were captivated.
One biographer described her remarks as a conversation between a sister and her brothers. She recalled the history and the in this land and this is our land,” she said. “Our people, black people, helped to build this nation in cotton and grain and beans and vegetables and brick and mortar. They cleared the land and cooked the food that they grew. They cleaned houses and built churches — some of them Catholic churches. They built railroads and bridges and national monuments. Black people defended this country as soldiers and sailors. Black people taught and molded and raised the children and I’m not just talkin’ about the black children. …
“Surviving our history physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, spiritually, faithfully and joyfully — our people developed a culture that was African and
American. … Despite all of this, despite the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, and the socio-educational gains of the 70s — blacks in the 80s are still struggling, still ‘scratching and clawing’ as the old-folks say, still trying to find home in the homeland and home in the Church. Still struggling to gain access to equal opportunity.”
Sister Thea was just getting warmed up. She was preaching to a room of preachers with a fervor few, if any of them, could ever hope to muster.
“Today we’re called to walk together in a new way toward that Land of Promise and to celebrate who we are whose we aren’t,” she said in anticipating her conclusion. “If we, as Church, walk together, don’t let nobody separate you — that’s one thing black folk can teach you, don’t let folks divide you up — The Church teaches us that the Church is a family of families and the family got to stay together and we know that if we do stay together … if we walk and talk and work and play and stand together in Jesus’ name, we’ll be who we say we are — truly Catholic and we shall overcome. Overcome the poverty, overcome the loneliness, overcome the alienation and build a Holy City, a new Jerusalem, a city set apart where they’ll know that we are here because we love one another.”
Then she did something remarkable. She told those bishops to stand up — actually she asked, but it was really a command. They stood up, crossed their right hands over their left, joining the hand of the bishops on either side. Sister Thea reminded them that this was a posture used in protests so that when the bullets, tear gas, dogs, horses or tanks came “brothers and sisters would not be separated from one another.” The clergy, the bishops, she said, would be “right up front to lead the people in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who suffer … all over the world.”
And, with their arms crossed and hands held, the bishops swayed and sang with this bold, sick, determined, courageous woman:
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome someday. …
We shall live in love.
We shall live in love today.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall live in love.
“That’s all we got to do — love the Lord and love our neighbors —today!” TL