The Other I

October 7, 2007

Summer in the City 1967

Filed under: Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:40 pm

Summer in the City 1967An ex-Maryknoller has just sent me the most marvellous photo* from 1967.   We had finally been assigned to something besides work at the Motherhouse, and thought we knew how the world went round.  During the summer, we lived in apartments in mostly Black areas of the Bronx in New York and Paterson, New Jersey, going out into the streets and homes of the people who lived there. 

We bustled around the community thinking we were making a contribution.  I remember playing the guitar surrounded by children on the street, and knocking on doors where we were made welcome with amazing warmth.  In the fashion of untrained social workers, we visited the school, and tried to help some of the problem children.  In return, one family threw a surprise birthday party for me, while others invited us in to share a family game putting a jigsaw puzzle together. We attended the local Protestant church services where I was invited to play the piano.  I declined.  When I saw the talent of the man who did play, I knew I had been saved an excruciating embarrassment.

In truth, we gained more than we ever gave from the wisdom and strength and tolerance of the people we thought we were helping.  Looking at the photograph now, I shudder at what I see – seven young, vibrant, attractive, smiling, innocent women who wanted to make the world a better place, and thought we had all the answers about how to accomplish this momentous feat.  We are piled in or around a sports car with a man my friend remembers as being “obsessed with nuns and drugs.”  I don’t recall the drugs, but his fascination with nuns should have sparked warning lights.  It didn’t.  We thought people were drawn to us because we were moral beacons.

How we avoided being raped I do not know.  Well, perhaps I do.  There was a respect for our innocence.  I remember saying quite simply to a young Black man that he could not “have his way” with me because I was a nun, and he accepted it.  One evening, two of us went unaccompanied to the apartment of two young Black men who had invited us over to “talk.”  And that’s what we did. 

Still, I can see now why some of the older nuns were horrified by our forays into the world.  The gap between the generations was almost total.  What the older nuns knew we would not listen to, and what we understood about the world they had left behind years before,  they could not hear.  And we all thought we knew best.

*Click on the picture to enlarge it.

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