My Morning with 200 Nuns

I don’t typically make it a habit to hang out with over 225 nuns on a Saturday morning, but this past weekend, I found myself at the Motherhouse, the Brighton home of the Sisters of St. Joseph. This congregation of Catholic nuns is part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group recently targeted by the Vatican for their “radical feminism” and whose ministries were found to “not promote church teaching.” That morning, the Globe broke the news that Cardinal Bernard F. Law, known best perhaps for his role in covering up the sex abuse being perpetrated in Boston’s churches, was now pulling the strings in Rome and had called for the investigation into the nuns. Several women had brought a printout of the article and shared it as they sipped their coffee and nibbled Munchkins. Rome would rather that they “talk about birth control,” one said to me as she passed me the clipping, “instead of doing things like this.”

The nuns had gathered that morning not to respond to the Vatican’s dictate — LCWR will be making a formal response at the end of the month after their national leadership convenes — but for their fifth annual meeting of their Anti Human-Trafficking Coalition, a group of more than a dozen congregations from the Greater Boston area that dedicated to stopping the exploitation, slavery, and sexual abuse of young women and children around the world. The theme of the morning’s session was consumerism, and the nuns sat rapt as Rev. David Couturier explained that the supply chain that provides us with our clothing, food, and other consumer goods is indelibly linked with the use and abuse of laborers who in many ways have become modern-day slaves. He told them about an app, Free2Work, that allows you to scan the bar codes of products to learn more about the labor practices used to make them. Several nuns reached into their purses and pulled out their phones. There was a Q&A session. “Where did you get your robes?” one nun asked the friar. He laughed. They weren’t joking.

For the next several hours, the nuns learned about how to identify and help aid human trafficking victims. And they shared their efforts and successes. Sister Kathy McCluskey told the room about how she had asked the Millennium hotel in St. Louis about their human trafficking policy when she was deciding to book a conference there. They didn’t have a policy, but they do now. The hotel now trains their employees to recognize suspicious patterns that may indicate trafficking, like when the housekeeping staff noticed that a number of ice cream sundaes were being sent to a single room as an effort to calm the young girl being kept inside.

Karen McLaughlin, an anti-trafficking advocate with Demand Abolition, took the mic just before the session ended. She reminded the nuns that they were the reason why Massachusetts finally has anti-trafficking legislation on the books. “The people in this room drafted, lobbied, cajoled and made sure we had certain provisions,” McLaughlin said. “You believe in the power of convening. You’re not just the real voice of the church, you are also the embodiment of it every day. They should be so happy to have you.”

There was clapping. A few nuns nodded stoically as they sat in the audience. There was still more work to be done.