Updated: Nov 19, 2019
Long before women rocked the vote, a little nun in New Orleans was lighting a fire.
Despite being less than five feet, Frances Xavier Cabrini’s persistence made her a force at the turn of the 20th century. She believed “the greatest heritage to a girl is a good education,” and she convinced an unwilling community to invest in the future of girls by building a school along Bayou St. John, a symbol that differences can meet for good.
As a Cabrini High alumna, it didn’t slip by me that the school’s spring choral concert this year fell on International Women’s Day. As I listened to Cabrini’s latest generation present compositions about journeys toward hope, I realized that by just being present, the young women singing were part of a movement.
Being a change maker isn’t limited to marches and rallies, roundtables and conferences. Embodying a cause is just as influential. Because whether you’re a female breadwinner or simply teaching your children that their thoughts matter, you’re part of a movement. You might not share events on social media that pin you to a cause, but you shake the hands of those who look nothing like you and you are kind. You’re part of a movement. You stand beside someone of a different background and sing of hope. That’s a movement. But often, the world calls us to either rise up or stay down. And while the idea is invigorating, it’s also polarizing to be “either for us or against us.”
Labels are shrewdly divisive. When labelling, we pigeonhole a behavior to one particular brand. But try describing yourself in one word that encapsulates all of you. Not so easy. If we can’t even describe ourselves in a word, how can we anyone else? To mark anything as either one way or another is to make it exclusive and outside of others. How are we to relate when barriers divide us? Imagine if we were to step away from labels, those dirty little words we dish out, and step into the truth. Maybe if we are silent, we’ll hear that we are all comprised of many interesting, inspiring, and contradictory elements.
Labels are useless when they stop adequately describing. I may not be the mother who walks her child into school with blown dry hair, ready to take on tennis—that mom who always “has it together.” But that doesn’t mean that Tennis Mom isn’t secretly crying in the bathroom at bedtime because she’s exhausted at the same time that I am peacefully reading my children a story. We can both relate to feeling inadequate. So that label I gave her at carpool was pretty pointless.
At the concert I sat beside an alumna whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated. During small talk, she mentioned something that immediately set off an alarm in my head. Warning! We sit on opposite sides of the political aisle. Be guarded, or so I assumed. Throughout the course of the concert, music worked its magic, and by the time the choir finished leading the chapel in a harmonized composition of the alma mater, our eyes had watered over. We were in harmony over the pull of the moment. The same invisible movement that inspired us as students was still moving forward that night, something that we both believed in and that crossed aisles and broke barriers and washed away labels.
In one of her hospitals in Chicago, Mother Cabrini admitted a wounded suspected criminal. When a reporter tried to enter, he was met by a little old nun mopping the floors. He lied and said that Mother Cabrini herself had given him permission to question the suspect, but the old nun wasn’t buying it and shooed him away. So he attempted to sneak in through the fire escape, where again he was met by the old woman, who raised her mop in the air and chased him away. When he returned to his desk, he found a picture of Cabrini and to his surprise it was the old mop-swinging nun. She had taken direct action to protect the patient. Whether or not he was worthy of such care was completely ambiguous. She was willing to walk away from stereotypes for the sake of humanity.
I know enough to know that we are all part of something greater than ourselves. Whether we move quietly or boldly in the journey, within each person I meet is a spirit to do right. It’s my obligation to see the humanity in those with whom I disagree. I may not agree with their choices, but somewhere beneath the labels and divisions is something—a fear, a misconception, a pressure—something that I can grasp. It’s witnessing that clarity when change happens.
Like when a little nun convinced a community to educate girls.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.