Friday, May 23, 2014

Scripture scholar sister's trailblazing journey of teaching, compassion

I wrote this profile for the May 22, 2014 issue of National Catholic Reporter's Global Sisters Report

Carol Perry loved to read as a child growing up in Kingston, NY. One book she didn’t crack, though, was the Bible. Her family didn’t even own one.

She continued to love to read as a Sister of St. Ursula, just not the Bible, even though she taught religion as well as English at John A. Coleman High School in Kingston, which is about 100 miles north of New York City.

That’s an unlikely background for a woman who would one day break new ground as a Resident Bible Scholar in one of the most prominent Protestant churches in America.

“The Protestants had the Bible and the Catholics had the sacraments,” she says. “I was raw material.”

Sitting in her small 10th floor office overlooking Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, Sr. Carol reflected on the journey that brought her to Marble Collegiate Church where her Sunday morning Bible class is standing-room only.

“In the 1950s there was not a university in the world where a Catholic woman could study the Bible,” she said, explaining that the Mothers General bugged the seminary professors, but Rome kept saying no.

Her chance came in 1957 when she joined 60-some other women from 32 countries to study sacred scripture at Regina Mundi in Rome.

“It was a total revelation to me,” she says, still with a trace of awe in her voice. She discovered the book was “dealing with flesh and blood human beings. These are not just words, there are people here. “

With her interest sparked, she went on to receive a Masters of Sacred Science from St. Mary’s at Notre Dame, Indiana, and then shared her love of scripture with her order’s novices and in occasional talks.

As providence would have it, a member of Marble’s congregation heard her at one those talks and mentioned it to one of the church’s ministers at the time, Florence Pert, a determined Alabama native who began to pursue Sr. Carol to teach a Sunday morning, pre-service adult Bible class. Sr. Carol said no -- several times. The class would start at 9 a.m., which meant she would have to spend Saturday night with sisters in the city because Kingston is a two-hour bus ride away. She also thought, “This is a Protestant church and I’m a Catholic nun.”

But Pert was unrelenting. When the convent’s communal phone rang one day, the sister closest to it answered, then approached Sr. Carol. “It’s the woman from the south from that Protestant church again,” she said.

Sr. Carol’s superior overheard and, knowing what the call was about, asked if she’d like to do it. Sr. Carol replied that, yes, actually, she would, so a “little interview” was arranged with the senior minister, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. It was through Peale, who preached there for more than half a century, that the church drew its worldwide recognition. The Catholic nun and the famous Protestant preacher and best-selling author of The Power of Positive Thinking talked and agreed to pray for one another. They finally decided to give it a try for six weeks. That was 34 years ago.

“They were wonderfully open,” Sr. Carol says. “My approach to the Bible is that this is the word of God in the values of real people with real lives and hopes and fears, not the word of God as recorded by people. They are different views with the same end. They were a really hungry audience, which is what any teacher loves.”

In those days the congregation contained few Catholics and Sr. Carol was the first nun most members had ever met. Marble Collegiate is the oldest place of worship of the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Church in New York City, organized in 1628 under the Dutch West India Company. When Sr. Carol began, it was Peale’s congregation, one that had been shaped in the 1930s in the depth of the Depression. He offered “practical Christianity” with a message of hope to a largely business community.

That has changed drastically now, with about 25 percent of the 2,300-member congregation being former Roman Catholics, although it is still described by members as the power-of-positive-thinking church.

Sr. Carol’s role also has changed. In 1997, then-senior minister Arthur Caliandro dreamt of having a full-time Biblical scholar, not just for his congregation, but for people in their places of business around the city. Sr. Carol gave up high school teaching and joined Marble full time, offering several classes at Marble throughout the week, as well as at noontime in rented spots around Manhattan. Her 10 a.m. Sunday class at Marble is viewed live by people around the world through the church’s web site. A gifted storyteller, she makes the ancient people of the Bible seem like relatives remembered from childhood, people we shared Thanksgiving dinner with many years ago. That’s how she sees them.

“They’re our ancestors,” she says.

She thinks these Bible classes are one reason so many Catholics are drawn to Marble, either enough to join or just to partake of the studies and return to their own churches on Sunday.

“People are hungry for it,” she says. “It’s the greatest book ever written, a roadmap of life and adventure. Every soap opera ever written is in Genesis. These are real people.”

She does not, however, read the Bible literally.

“We read nothing literally except the stock market report. That comes from fear. The Bible wasn’t written in English. We’ve translated it through the years.”

The meanings of words change as culture changes, she says, explaining that the word abomination in Hebrew means “a custom that foreigners have that we don’t.”

“That’s not what it means in English. Tattoos at that time were tied into the worship of pagan deities. That’s not true in 21st century New York. You have to be careful with literal versus real.”

Another draw to Marble for Catholics that Sr. Carol sees is what attracts her as well -- the welcoming spirit, with the ministers, staff and congregation regularly referring to themselves as “the Marble family.”

“I’ve found from them the most incredible Christian welcome. It’s so special. For Catholics, we think we have the truth and that is sufficient, but it isn’t because the truth is filtered through people.”

She sees issues of women, the laity and homosexuality as ones that still need addressing in many Catholic churches and she feels hope in Pope Francis, the kind of hope that sprang up after the second Vatican Council. At Marble, support is built-in. Within its large worshiping community, which reaches worldwide thanks to its live web-streaming, Marble supports groups for women, men, committed couples, people in the arts and its GLBT members.

This latter puts it most directly in opposition to Catholic teaching. Marble is quite open in its embrace, setting up a water table under its banner outside the church on Fifth Avenue every June for the Gay Pride Parade, this past year with congregants wearing “Love. Period” T-shirts. Sr. Carol supports this fully, calling equality “the last civil right.”

“I’ve done research on the Biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality and there is not a single Biblical text that has validity today that supports an antigay stance,” she says. “Marble helped me to see the gay and lesbian community with a human face. They were people in my classes, members of the community, some of them the most ardent practicing Christians.”

She remembers being asked to preach to the newly formed group, which in the 1990s was just gay men, 52 of them on that occasion.

“It was one of the most profound religious experiences of my life,” she says. “They were professional men sharing who they were by birth, over which they had no choice, and their intense desire to live Christian lives. It was a total eye-opener to me.”

Ironically, it was Sr. Carol who encountered prejudice at this otherwise accepting church. At a weekend forum for professionals in the late 1970s, a stockbroker sat next to Sr. Carol. After the two had been talking for awhile, the woman confided that she heard Marble had hired a nun to teach scripture and wondered if the nun was present, declaring she would “never sleep under the same roof with a Catholic nun,” and that she would pack her bags and leave immediately if the nun was there. She asked Sr. Carol if she knew what the nun looked like. Sr. Carol said she did. The woman replied: “Point it out to me.”

When Sr. Carol revealed her identity, the woman was gobsmacked. “My goodness,” she said. “You’re perfectly normal.” And she stayed for the entire weekend.

“She came from a background of religious prejudice,” Sr. Carol says. “Nuns were ‘its.’ That’s where interfaith relations were in the 70s. I feel I’ve been on an ecumenical mission for us to get to know each other.”

Many more people will get to know Sr. Carol now that her first book, Waiting for Our Souls to Catch Up, has been published by Asahina and Wallace in May. It’s about the challenge of having a spiritual journey in a technological world. Every chapter starts with a tough question she’s been asked over the years.

“I feel like Grandma Moses starting something new.”

This being open to new experiences has been a part of her life since childhood when among her closest friends were a Jew, a Lutheran and a member of the Greek Orthodox church. Her father, who had just begun operating his own business as a funeral director, died unexpectedly at 30 of what was probably a ruptured appendix when Sr. Carol was a baby. She and her older brother were raised by their mother who sold the business and went to work in a factory making women’s and children’s clothes. The two children shared the chores of washing the dishes and cleaning the ashes out of the furnace.

“In a sense I was a liberated woman without knowing it,” she said, adding that is probably what attracted her to the Sisters of St. Ursula, which she describes as a 400-year-old community that never had a cloister or wore habits and which was dedicated to the education of women.

“They had a spirit of openness and revolution. They were always out there. What could be better than to join them?”

She lives now in an apartment with one other sister and is an active member of St. Colman’s in East Kingston, serving as a lector on Saturday evenings. Tuesday and Wednesday nights she spends in the city with other sisters. She sees no separation between her Catholic life and her Marble life.

“They blend together,” she says. “They’re God’s world and there’s wealth in both. I consider myself one of the richest women in the world.”

Asked what is the most important thing she has learned from the Bible, she readily says, “God loves us, as amazing as that is. God cares about us and God forgives us. From the earliest books of the Bible that forgiveness is prominent. One of the biggest lessons is we’re not to fear God.”

And that’s the message she’s heard preached at Marble for more than three decades.

“It’s not a negative pulpit. We Christians can be hard on ourselves, parsing sin. That’s not what life is about. It’s received love.”

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