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November 15, 2016, Chicago – When Sister Jamie Phelps, OP, PhD, presented a workshop last month to Pax Christi Illinois on “Biblical and Catholic Social Teachings’ Response to Racial Violence,” she was continuing a long-time, deep involvement with the national Catholic peace organization, Pax Christi USA (PCUSA).
For the past two years, under a grant procured by PCUSA, Sister Jamie has been traveling to local Pax Christi groups in the East, Midwest, and South – including Barry University in Miami – helping them to recruit Black and Latino Catholics to their membership. She received this charge from Sister Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN, also a Black Catholic, Executive Director of PCUSA, whom Sister Jamie has mentored.
The original grant has run its course, but PCUSA has applied for another grant to continue this work.
In the workshop, “We Grow Together: Catholic Communities of Color and PCUSA,” Sister Jamie outlines the contributions of Black and Latino Catholics and offers theological reflection. Participants have the opportunity to discuss what they have heard, identify a social justice issue pertinent to their area, and identify local Black and Latino Catholics who could become members of their Pax Christi group and help in efforts to address the issue.
In her visits around the country, Sister Jamie has noted that formerly all-white suburban parishes have pockets of Black, Latino, and Asian parishioners.
“I’m not seeing totally white churches as I used to see,” she noted. “What this speaks to is the reality that we … gravitate toward our homogenous groups. We have to figure out how to bring folks of various cultural and ethnic groups together.”
The workshops presented to the Pax Christi chapters helped participants to “reflect on their behavior and choices, like reading the signs of the times, but doing it locally,” she explained. “If we don’t reach out across racial lines, we tend to accept the stereotypes [about ethnic groups]. But if you work with people of other races you see how similar we are.”
The social segregation of various Catholic ethnic groups is foreign to Sister Jamie, who grew up attending Catholic school with students of other ethnic groups – Irish, Italian, German, Polish. “When I was learning about the different ethnic cultures, their feast days and dances, I found that they’re as human as I am human,” Sister Jamie said. “You have to choose to relate. I choose to live in a multicultural neighborhood because how can I relate to my brother who is different in a homogenous neighborhood, where everybody thinks like I do, looks like I look?”
While ethnocentrism – taking pride in one’s own ethnic group – is healthy, it can be problematic if it means closing oneself off from other groups and other ways of looking at the world.
To Christians, Sister Jamie said, being brothers and sisters to people throughout the world is not a metaphor but a reality.
“If we all have God as Father and Mother, then we are all brothers and sisters – but we are estranged. We’ve let all of these different lenses that we use alienate us from our brothers and sisters,” she explained. “While diversity is a gift from God, we use our differences as walls or barriers rather than enrichment.”
For this reason, Sister Jamie relishes the parish Bible Study programs she has been leading. She facilitates two local groups using the Little Rock Scripture Study program – allowing participants to come together and discuss their own understanding of Scripture.
“When we come together, we can come to a new truth, a fuller truth,” Sister Jamie said. “We can never discover everything about God, but if you tell me about your experience of God and I tell you about mine we get a fuller understanding of who God is and a fuller understanding of who Jesus is.”
Sister Jamie has great respect for the work of Pax Christi International, PCUSA, and the local chapters of the organization. “It’s a delightful organization, trying to do justice ministry, particularly looking at issues that come up. They’re very timely in their responses to unjust events.” She said the mission of Pax Christi aligns well with the Mission, Vision, and recent Enactments of the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
An Adrian Dominican Sister since 1959, Sister Jamie is a freelance theologian and lecturer, facilitating Bible study at St. Ambrose and St. Thomas the Apostle Parishes in Chicago. She served for eight years as the Director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies and the Katharine Drexel Professor of Systematic Theology at Xavier University in New Orleans. Before that, she had taught theology in the Chicago-based Catholic Theological Union (CTU) from 1986 to 1998 and Loyola University, 1998 to 2003. Sister Jamie has also served as a visiting professor of theology at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, from January to May, 2003, and twice at the University of Notre Dame: in 2005-2006 and 2012-2013.
Sister Jamie has also been engaged in other ministries: theology instructor in a catechetical training program for African American Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago; a psychiatric social worker and community organizer at Chicago Child Care Society; a theology teacher at Aquinas High School in Chicago; and a pastoral associate at three Catholic parishes in Chicago: St. Columbanus, Holy Cross, and St. Laurence.