Opening To Our History: A Reflection on Place – A White Spiritual Director Listening in an Historically Black Neighborhood
January 23, 2019|
by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde
When Sr. Liz Kerwin gave me my first tour of the Loyola Spirituality Center, I remember being deeply moved learning that the building was once a convent. I loved this history. I loved imagining the former cloister cells of the religious — entertaining, in my mind’s eye, the women or men who devoted their lives to listening to God and lived in this neighborhood.
I would try to see their faces. Envision their daily rhythms in this split level sort of facility just a stones throw from the Lexington/ Central/ University corridor. I tried to imagine their stories and what brought them to the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul in the first place.
“And this is the sewing cubby,” Liz pointed out to me, “where the Sisters would store their creative projects; and the shelves where they kept reading material and games on display for recreation and downtime.”
Contemplating a group of ordinary humans making the commitment to reside together and pray, teach, be present to God in the world — sparked something within me. I imagined my Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis in residence on Oxford Avenue. My heart swelled considering their kindred spirits in these halls, rooms — on this side of the Mississippi River.
When I learned that this former monastery was inhabited by a group of black Catholic nuns, I was stunned. What? I didn’t know there were Black Catholic religious orders in the United States. (See my sheepish expression: eyes downcast, lips closed, as I admit this.) In one moment, I felt something like a sweep of cold air coming onto my face, stopping me in my mental tracks, and in the next, I felt a rush of warmth to my heart, as it opened wide with joy at the surprise.
Loyola was once a convent for black Catholic nuns. The Oblate Sisters of Providence.
As a white American woman of German descent married to a black man who was born in Burkina Faso, West Africa, my experiences waking up to my assumptions; privileges (ie, benefitting from institutional racism by receiving unearned economic and educational opportunities as a white woman); my own white fragility — have been fraught with discomfort, embarrassment, and shame.
I’m tired of shame and discomfort stopping my spiritual growth and blocking how I listen and hear God.
Admitting that I never imagined black women here before me, I am embarrassed. Part of my work as a spiritual being is opening up to my embarrassment, admitting I feel stupid, ashamed even, and asking God to be with me as I examine what is underneath this experience in a heart-felt desire to stretch and grow.
I’m a white woman in a historically black neighborhood doing spiritual direction.
My commitment and call to listening to the spiritual journeys of others includes listening to the spiritual life of the larger community in which I serve. As a spiritual director, I am tuned into the diverse ways that God is present in our lives. I am called to examine what blocks or prevents my seeing and what has blocked or prevented me from hearing the fullness of God.
I feel lucky and blessed to be part of the staff at Loyola. I feel fortunate to join this community of spiritual directors as we open ourselves to the questions of this place. I join my colleagues in our hope to be true to our Ignation tradition as we evolve in our mission and presence —serving the Rondo community and beyond.
Thank you for your prayers.