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A lifetime putting her faith to work 

More than 250 people gather to honor the political and spiritual work of Sister Evelyn Mattern

What is it like to be the person who acts that God's will be done on earth? That was the question Jesus posed in his Sermon on the Mount, according to his disciple Matthew's account. Jesus' answer was contained in the beatitudes, the subject of Sister Evelyn Mattern's 1994 book, Blessed Are You: The Beatitudes and Our Survival, and of her lifelong teaching and work. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," they say. "Blessed are those who mourn... the meek... the peacemakers ... Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. ..."

The beatitudes--poverty, meekness, mourning, and purity of heart--are "a call to marginalize ourselves from our culture," Mattern wrote, since it celebrates other things entirely. But they're not about just stepping aside and hoping for the best, she argued: "Jesus was a man of action."

What is it like to be that person? As Mattern's friends, 250 of them, gathered a week ago in Raleigh to celebrate her life and bid her farewell as she goes to die, they all said, in one way or another, it's like her. It's cosmic ideas and practical steps. It's praying and doing. As her old colleague at the N.C. Council of Churches, the Rev. Collins Kilburn, put it, "The more holy, the more worldly."

"You don't hear too many people referred to as our own living saint," said Barbara Volk, the Council's current president.

Volk has known Mattern since the days when they were organizing for the Equal Rights Amendment, one of her grand causes. The others? Migrant farmworkers. Children's health. Peace, justice, mercy. And sustaining the planet. In everything she's done, said Kilburn, she's put her faith to work, not just on the side of the poor and the needy, but in true solidarity with them, "with loving attention to the small things, and small people. She sees grand causes through the faces of real people."

Helen Chavis Othow, who taught with Sister Evelyn at St. Augustine's College, told the story of how the two "were engineers in a virtual college on wheels," driving students again and again to Wilmington to join in the protests during the infamous Wilmington 10 prosecutions.

Lynice Williams, head of N.C. Fair Share, recalled how she, Sister Evelyn and Lewis Pitts unfurled a banner--illegally--from the gallery of the N.C. House chamber. "Health Care for Children, Not More Welfare for the Rich," it said.

The banner was Sister Evelyn's idea, naturally. It got Pitts tossed out of the building, though the women were allowed to remain--we're in the South, after all. It also got front-page headlines, with photos, and great coverage on TV, which Williams says turned the tide in favor of the legislation that now guarantees affordable health insurance for every child in our state.

Working for the Council of Churches the last seven years, and with the Roman Catholic diocese the prior 20, Sister Evelyn fought to improve the lot of farmworkers in North Carolina. One of her best ideas was that, instead of just talking about the kind of housing farm laborers deserved, advocates should build some. So she sallied forth into Johnston County with a plan, and the county commissioners--listening to frightened farm owners who understood full well that the point was for them to do something, too--turned her down cold. Still, a seed was planted, said Julia Elsee, who watched her in action. "We'll never know where all the seeds she planted will bloom."

But Elsee, very Southern herself, did know one thing. The way Sister Evelyn went about it, she lost a battle but won the respect of Johnston's County's. "And that was some feat," Elsee added, drawling a bit. "I know some of 'em."

As much as people talk about what Sister Evelyn did, the way she did it is what sticks in their hearts. "She radiates a contagious joy and a definite, deep-settled peace," Elsee, an Episcopal Diocese delegate to the Council of Churches, said. "It's no wonder we all love her and love to be with her."

Just 62, Sister Evelyn is dying. The cancer in her body is incurable, and so she has decided to decline further treatments aimed at driving back the tumors and to return to Philadelphia, where she was born, to live her remaining days in a Catholic home. And yet the farewell luncheon for her was not an occasion for grief, because--well, because heaven awaits, but also because her works endure.

People of faith believe, said Gail Phares, the former Catholic nun who launched her own advocacy work for the people of Central American with Sister Evelyn's help, "that when you're not here with us, you're even more present." Over and over, her friends avowed the inspiration of her example; vowed to continue her work, and to try, as Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty said, try to do a little more with his life, and do it with a better spirit, because of what he learned from watching her.

Dear, a fellow Catholic, called her a great pastor of people. To a burst of applause, he added, "The Church was foolish not to offer you a priesthood."

Evelyn Mattern could not be a priest in the Catholic Church, but she was a heckuva nun. A member of Sisters for Christian Community, she didn't wear a habit, and her ministry combined teaching--she had a Ph.D in English and was an accomplished writer and poet--and organizing for social justice. She was also an ardent feminist, believing, as Melinda Wiggins, executive director of Student Action for Farmworkers, said, "that women develop as leaders by working with other women."

In 1999, Mattern published Why Not Become Fire: Encounters With Women Mystics, with artist Helen David Brancato. It's a collection of Mattern's short essays and poetry, and Brancato's drawings, about two dozen religious figures from Mary of Magdala, Jesus' friend, to 20th century journalist-activist Dorothy Day.

"The mystic," Mattern wrote, "can see God with the eyes of love. ... Despite the presence of evil in the world, the mystic believes that the universe is ultimately friendly. In her, what [philosopher] William James calls the 'yes-function' finally prevails over the 'no-function.'" The mystic experience is not reserved for women, says Mattern, but women are better at waiting and "closer to nature" than men, and so are more likely to find the spiritual solitude in which the mystical can be recognized.

Because women are more likely than men to be assigned the care of children, the elderly and the sick, and because they are more likely to be the victims of violence, Mattern said in Blessed Are You, they are also better at negotiating for peaceful solutions and less apt to resort to violence.

Consider her wisdom, and its relevance to our current situation in Iraq, in Mattern's 1994 discussion of one of the beatitudes, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God."

Said Mattern: "We speak a language of ultimatum rather than negotiation. Nonviolent initiative must be timely. With delay, conflicts fester and showdown seems the only recourse. Our children grow undisciplined over months or years of inattention to their manners or tantrums or deceptions, and suddenly we draw the line. Then our means are drastic. We have to beat them or order them out of our houses and lives. As a nation, we enable dictators like Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein ... and then decide, when their behavior no longer suits us, that they must be bombed, kidnapped or otherwise disposed of."

Mattern traveled to Iraq in 1990 to witness against the impending Gulf War. The following year, the Independent cited her, and her ally, the Rev. Jim Lewis, as Citizen Award winners. Our former editor, Bob Moser, wrote that they felt the pain of war acutely, but also: "The experience reminded them that peace must often be built slowly, one individual at a time. So they will persevere on their unconventional paths, crossing the line of injustice to 'hold a little piece of truth up to the light,' as (Mattern) says, 'hoping maybe a few people will see it.'"

As she leaves Raleigh, 250 people wanted Evelyn Mattern to know they've seen it, and they'll hold a little piece up, too. EndBlock

  • More than 250 people gather to honor the political and spiritual work of Sister Evelyn Mattern


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