The internet knows no shortage of viral nuns. This past weekend, an image of nuns holding MAGA signs behind President Donald Trump at an Ohio rally circulated the web. At the Republican National Convention in August, Sister Deirdre “Dede” Byrne of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary declared that “Donald Trump is the most pro-life president that this nation has ever had.”
These examples only reveal part of the larger picture of women religious who are engaging with the election. Behind the scenes — in prayer, organizing, poll-working, and demonstrating — Catholic sisters are participating in a milieu of ways that haven’t gone viral.
Nuns and Nones, a national coalition of millennials and Catholic sisters, is organizing a “care-a-van” in Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee counties in Wisconsin, Wayne County in Michigan, and Cuyahoga County in Ohio, all of which are predicted to be at high risk for voter intimidation. They say their prayerful presence on Election Day is intended to implore officials to count every vote and to help voters feel safe.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to put some prayerful energy into an environment that could be toxic,” Reg McKillip, a Dominican Sister who is helping to coordinate one of the caravans, told Sojourners. She’s organizing six cars to show up to polling sites in Wisconsin with signs that read, “We are a prayerful presence. Every Vote is Sacred.”
“Prayer provides positive energy in our environment,” she said. “I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure this election is fair and safe. This is one thing I can do.”
While the caravan demonstrates silently, other sisters, like Gemma Doll of the Dominican Sisters of Peace and Judith Vander Grinten of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, will be inside working as polling officials.
“It’s such an important event, so I wanted to do something very active,” Vander Grinten, from Greenfield, Wis., said. “It’s a way of making a dent on this whole issue and supporting the people who are voting and celebrating with them.”
The ‘sin of silence’
Communities of sisters are also engaging in the election virtually. On Friday Oct. 23, NETWORK Lobby, a Catholic sister-inspired organization that advocates on social justice issues, hosted a National Town Hall for Spirit-Filled Voters, the final stop on its Nuns on the Bus tour, which consisted of 63 virtual events including town halls, site visits, dialogues, and rallies.
At the Zoom event, Sister Simone Campbell, a sister of social service and the executive director of NETWORK, condemned the “sin of silence,” which she says she committed for many years.
“I didn’t want to be identified with the far Right or the far Left: They were too extreme,” Campbell said at the town hall. They didn’t express the life I knew. I kept my head down, I stayed quiet.”
“My silence, I realized, opened up the whole field for the extremes,” she continued. “And so now, I’m trying to atone for my sin of silence and speak out.”
In La Crosse, Wis., Sisters Julia Walsh and Suzanne Rubenbauer of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are speaking out in a similar way. They’re hosting a three-part election series on Wednesday evenings called Listening & Loving through the Political Storm. Last Wednesday during their session, the sisters created a “virtual breathing space to ponder how we can listen to our own inner voice and spirit in the midst of all the noise and chaos.”
Participants engaged in large- and small-group discussions focused on claiming their values and loving their neighbor, even when it’s difficult to see eye-to-eye.
Action doesn’t have to be loud
Not all of these actions are loud. In some cases, sisters’ engagement around the election is intentionally silent, but intended for impact. Various congregations are participating in prayer and fasting both on Election Day and leading up to the election.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame have created a public prayer room for peace, featuring a soundless video of a flickering candle and space to pray with over 1,400 sisters. Over 175 congregations plan to pray in this virtual space for 24 hours on Election Day, according to the School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province.
On election night, the Dominican Sisters of Hope will host a contemplative prayer space from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST for silence and occasional guided meditation.
“I’ve voted in a lot of elections, and this is the one that I am most terrified about, regardless of who wins,” said Dominican Sister of Hope Catherine Walsh, OP. “It’s important for us to ground ourselves with contemplation during this time of anxiety and fear, especially on election night. Contemplation is both a practice that we foster as a community and an invitation that we can offer the world.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) released reflection and prayer templates for sisters to use, as well as election and voting information. Additionally, they’re offering a voter guide created by sisters that focuses on three study modules on the issues of racism, migration, and climate crisis.
Compiling voting guides, praying at the polls, and sitting in silence on election night are all unassuming measures. But, for sisters who aren’t seeking media attention in the first place, they’re steps toward building a way of being in society that will honor and promote the dignity of every person. It’s bigger than a single speech or photo op — and harder to capture.
“Our vision statement calls us to ‘respond to urgent needs and live the gospel call to justice and peace,’” said Sister Mary Kay Brooks, a school sister of Notre Dame Central Pacific Council. “I was overwhelmed with the call for peace, especially as we inch our way toward Election Day on Nov. 3. As women religious, we pray for urgent needs throughout the world; let us be a visible sign of that gift which has been entrusted to us.”