Spreading Light: Reflection on Servant of God Thea Bowman’s “60 Minutes” Interview with Mike Wallace
What made you want to watch the interview?
I had never heard of Sister Thea before, and it was a blessing that I found her the way I did. As Archivist and Records Manager for the Diocese of San Jose, one of my tasks is to review the 1,600 boxes at the Diocesan Archives and Records Center. One day, I opened a box that was full of VHS tapes. One aired on May 3rd, 1987, titled "Sister Thea Bowman, 60 Minutes." Being new to my job, I thought she might somehow be related to the diocese, so I watched the video (Yes, I have a VHS player at the archives!). She captivated me from the beginning of the interview to the end because Sister Thea's deep, joyful, wholehearted faith permeates the entire interview. She was more than on fire for God, and it was apparent that God was working through her in the truest sense. Sister Thea had no pretense! What you see is what you get; her light shines and still shines strongly and brightly. It was more than evident that she was a force of nature, to be sure.
What aspect of Sr. Thea Bowman's ministry did you find challenging? How about personally inspiring?
I did not find Sister Thea's ministry challenging. On the contrary, I found it joyful! What I did find challenging was the reality she faced as a black religious woman who was forced to minister creatively. She speaks quite plainly about this in the interview. She answered the call to teach and encourage children of color to love God and themselves and was faithful to that mission throughout her brief life. The fact that we, as a society, do not know her name as readily as we know the names of prominent clergy is disappointing. Perhaps if she is eventually named a saint, word will spread about this inspiring woman who touched so many lives with her love and joy.
What was the most memorable moment of the interview?
The whole interview is phenomenal, but I think the first few minutes encapsulate Sister Thea's heart and her ministry. The interview opens with a video of her teaching a reading lesson to elementary school students at the Holy Child Jesus parochial school in Mississippi, where she also attended school as a child. After the lesson, she sat down with Mike Wallace and told him, "I want to give the best that I can. Our children want to love, and they want to be loved. The children carry a message just by being the way that they are, and it is a message that Mississippi needs to hear: 'Go with me to a land of love, come and go with me where we can walk together and talk together and work together and play together.'” Jesus could have said these very words!
In your opinion, why should everyone, people of faith and Catholics especially, pay attention to Sister Thea Bowman?
One of my favorite Sister Thea quotes is: "I think the difference between me and some people is that I'm content to do my little bit. Sometimes, people think they must do big things to effect change. But if each one would light a candle, we'd have a tremendous light." The interview showed that Sister Thea lived these words in her ministry. But she also personified being a light throughout her personal challenges. She died young, in her early 50s, from breast cancer. In that brief time, she worked to call attention to and transform racism, classism, and sexism in the modern Catholic Church and throughout the world. She did so in a way that made people not only listen but also change for the better. A classic example is her powerful address to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Black Catholic Spirituality in 1989, a wonderful starting place to learn more about Sr. Thea.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Every once in a while, if we are very lucky, our lives are touched by an ‘angel’ on Earth. We know them because they emanate pure love in their actions and deeds. They were not perfect, but they loved you like you were. I have had the transformative privilege of knowing two such ‘angels’ — my Aunt Ruth and my "second mom," Shanta — both of whom had that light and would do anything for anyone, anytime. Like Sister Thea, they always knew what to say to encourage you. They always had time for you and were endlessly positive and loving. And like Sister Thea, they both died incredibly young from cancer.
In trying to make sense of why God would take these amazing women from us so early, the only thing I have come up with is that they were needed elsewhere to continue spreading their joy. I must believe that because the alternative is too heartbreaking to contemplate. I truly hope that God just needed them in another place to continue their work, just in a different way, spreading light like Sister Thea.
Watch Sister Thea’s 1987 “60 Minutes” Interview here.
Visit the Sister Thea Bowman National Guild to learn more about Sister Thea here.
Sister Thea’s powerful 1989 address to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Black Catholic Spirituality can be viewed here.
Erin Louthen is the Archivist & Records Manager for the Diocese of San Jose's Archives & Records Center. She loves all things archives, believes there is always room for more books in the house, and can often be found at the Saratoga Friends of the Library bookstore on the weekends. She lives in Saratoga with her husband, Daniel, and their sweet, spoiled Maine Coon cat, Ziggy.