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Parishioners Meet to Bridge the Gap Between Black and White, City and Suburb

November 13, 2018, Detroit, Michigan – In a nation too often fraught with division and violence, parishioners from two Detroit parishes and one suburban parish got together on Sunday, November 4, to share “sacred conversations” and begin the process of unity between African-American and Caucasian Catholics, city and suburban parishes. 

In a “Reverse Mass Mob,” more than 50 parishioners of Detroit parishes St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven and Christ the King took a bus to St. Mary of the Hills Parish in the suburb of Rochester Hills, Michigan, to attend Mass and begin “sacred conversations” about their personal experience of race and racism.

Jennifer Wilson opens the session by describing her own difficult experience of racism.

Jennifer Wilson, Director of Evangelization for St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven, summed up the purpose of the event during the bus ride to St. Mary’s Church. “Hopefully, you’ll change or at least touch a life today,” she told the parishioners on the bus. “That’s the goal. It’s all about unifying the city and suburbs.”

Jennifer served on a committee of parishioners who planned the event, spearheaded by Sister Cheryl Liske, OP, a community organizer with Gamaliel of Michigan. The committee was made up of members of the two parishes, including Rose Nabongo, Carolyn Nash, Ruth Remus, Ron Eady, and Ben Washburn. Also involved were members of Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), a community organizing nonprofit.

The Adrian Dominican Congregation supported the effort by paying for the bus, in light of the Congregation’s 2016 Chapter Enactment on Racism and Diversity, and through the leadership of Sister Cheryl. Other Adrian Dominican Sisters supported the event through their participation.

The spirit of unity in the face of racism permeated the morning and early afternoon. During Masses at both St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven and St. Mary, Father Victor Clore preached on sacred conversations. The pastor of both St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven and Christ the King, he framed the dialogue between Jesus and a scribe in the day’s Gospel as a sacred dialogue in which people share their truths and learn from one another.

Father Stanley Ulman, pastor of St. Mary, had prepared the suburban parishioners for the event in a letter in the parish bulletin. “I hope that our common worship will make us more aware of our urban brothers and sisters in the faith and help all of us to bridge the gap that exists within our Catholic faith community,” he wrote.

Participants from the Detroit parishes and St. Mary of the Hills Parish in Rochester Hills pick up lunch and prepare for their sacred conversation.

After Mass at St. Mary, city and suburban parishioners shared lunch and began the process of sacred conversation. Sister Cheryl explained the structures that have led to systemic racism. “The dominant narrative of fear, greed, and individualism” serves to divide people of different races and experiences, she said. “Our faith gives us the narrative of hope, abundance of goods, and community.”

Jennifer led the parishioners in their sacred conversations by sharing her own painful personal experience of racism. Participants were invited to do the same with the others at their tables – mixed groups of city and suburban parishioners. 

“We have been engaged in sacred conversations in Detroit for three quarters of the year,” Jennifer said later. The Detroit parishes were challenged to take these discussions to the suburbs. “Everyone kept saying we need to cross 8 Mile [into the suburbs] if we are really going to get anywhere with this,” she explained. “On November 4, that is exactly what we did. … Discussions on race are uncomfortable, but if we do not have them the results are more than uncomfortable.”

The sacred conversations are only the start of an intentional effort by the parishioners to continue the process of honesty and unity. The brief session ended with a commitment by members of St. Mary Parish to travel to St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven Church to plan together for a similar effort next year.

Participants took the time days after the event to reflect on what the Reverse Mass Mob had meant to them.

“What surprised me the most was the discovery of folks who are part of St. Mary of the Hills’ parish who have themselves experienced racism because of their cultural background – Hispanic, Asian etc.,” said Sister Anneliese Sinnott, OP, of St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish.

Ruth Remus, a parishioner of St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven and Christ the King Parishes in Detroit, found the Reverse Mass Mob to be “spiritually uplifting and an exciting time to be together in church.” The event “definitely began a conversation between city and suburban Catholic churches on racism,” she said.

Another urban parishioner, Darlene Brooks said she has been part of the sacred conversations since the beginning. “Our encounter with St. Mary of the Hills was indeed inspiring and gave me a reason to hope for the future,” she said, adding that the Reverse Mass Mob reminded her of the words to the song Love Train. “The words call on people all over the world to get on board,” she said.

Sister Grace Keane, OSF, Christian Service Coordinator for St. Mary of the Hills Parish, helped to organize the event. She was especially surprised by the size of the crowd and by the number of parishioners who were willing to serve on the committee. “The table conversation was varied, impactful, and left one determined to dig deep into enduring racial issues,” she said.

Denis Naeger, also of St. Mary of the Hills, noted that the attendance – at more than 60, twice the number expected – was a blessing. He added he is “looking forward to the reverse mob Mass experience in Detroit” next year.

DeJuan Bland, an organizer for MOSES said the event was a “refreshing first step for this group concentrated on being the hands and feet of Christ in a very necessary way.”

Feature photo: Jennifer Wilson, right, one of the organizers of the Reverse Mass Mob, boards the bus from her church, St. Suzanne-Our Lady Gate of Heaven in Detroit, with Sister Cheryl Liske, OP. 

SIENA Study Shows Connection Between Physical and Mental Fitness

November 13, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – People who stay physically active as they age also fare well mentally – and Catholic religious Sisters are prime examples.

That was one of the key results of the Sisters In Exercise and Neuro Activity (SIENA) Study, conducted in June 2018 by Adrian Dominican Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, Professor of Health Education and Jeanne Barcelona, Assistant Professor of Health and Physical Education, both of Wayne State University. The study involved 30 Adrian Dominican Sisters.

Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, right, conducts a strength test on Sister Carol Coston, OP.

Sister Mariane, who began her research career researching aging and physical fitness, teamed with Jeanne, who has a background in cognitive research, to conduct the study.

Sister Mariane and Jeanne will formally present their findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Studies in May 2019, and then will publish their findings. Sister Mariane hopes to get funding to conduct a similar study with 300 to 400 people, not only religious Sisters. “That would give us a broader range to study from,” she said. 

In the three-part study, the Sisters in Adrian spent 30 minutes in strength and physical testing, about 40 minutes in cognitive testing, and about an hour in the portion that studied brain wave activities during prayer. 

“I’m always interested in keeping people healthy as they age, and as Dominicans we live an average of seven to 10 years longer than the rest of the female population,” Sister Mariane explained. “That’s not necessarily good if we’re spending those 10 years with a reduced quality of life.” But the SIENA Study showed that the Sisters who were physically healthy were mentally alert as well. 

“The Sisters have much better physical functioning than the general population, probably the result of living in an environment that requires long-distance walking every day,” Sister Mariane explained, citing the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse campus as an example. An earlier study that Sister Mariane had conducted of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM Sisters) in Monroe, Michigan, showed similar results, she said. 

“Two things stood out,” Sister Mariane explained. “People who scored the highest in fitness also scored the highest in mental functioning.” In addition, she said, a surprise finding for her was that, when the Sisters prayed the Our Father, the alpha wave of their brains spiked. “I did not think that there would be a difference between saying the Our Father and sitting in silence,” she said. “Prayer is beneficial for many reasons."

The SIENA Study also showed that prayer immediately took away the tension in the temples of the Sisters, showing that rote prayer has a calming effect, Sister Mariane said. Prayer would be especially beneficial for people from the United States, she said. “Only here in this country is there always tension on the temples.” 

Another key finding, Sister Mariane said, is that “the same things that keep your body healthy keep your mind sharp: plant-based diet, aerobic exercise, socialization.” 

Sister Peg O’Flynn, OP, right, explains the “Get up and Go” test to Sister Ann Romayne Fallon, OP.

In revealing the findings of the SIENA Study to the Sisters who participated, Sister Mariane made three major recommendations for keeping the body and mind healthy:

  • Keep moving. Moving is crucial for good functional capacity as well as cognition with aging. Many forms of dementia have roots in the cardiovascular system and are best prevented by maintaining a strong vascular system through regular physical activity. When talking about memory issues, scientists use the term “neuroplasticity.” This refers to the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. Physical activity, such as walking, has been repeatedly shown to increase neuroplasticity and the volume of the hippocampus.

  • Keep learning. Some areas can be improved simply by forcing the mind to learn new things. This improves the part of memory called “attention” and enables a person to concentrate on one thing while filtering out distractions. Practice increases competency, but that competency is limited to the tasks practiced. Learning new tasks like playing a musical instrument or learning another language has also been shown to increase connectivity in the brain.
  • Be present to the moment. Memory can be impacted by distractions. Practice becoming fully present in your daily life. Observing every moment, as you live it, can significantly help with mind-wandering and distractions when trying to remember information. A good deal of research now indicates that meditation and prayer also increase neuroplasticity.

Sister Mariane also noted that sleep is as important as exercise to keep a healthy mind and body. During deep stages of sleep, cells in the brain clear out the plaque that causes Alzheimer’s. “Most people get an hour or two of deep sleep a night,” she said. If you get less because of sleep apnea or insomnia, “you need to get [this condition] corrected because it puts you at risk of dementia.”

In addition, Sister Mariane recommended that people develop their balance as they grow older to prevent falls. She suggested exercises such as standing on one foot while microwaving food or drink and standing on one foot during one set of TV commercials and on the other foot during another set. 

Sister Mariane said no one is too young to start developing these habits to maintain physical and mental health. “The sooner you start building your reserve, the better,” she said.

Featured photo: Jeanne Barcelona, Assistant Professor of Health and Physical Education at Wayne State University, left, conducts a test on Sister Peg O’Flynn, OP, as part of the Sisters In Exercise and Neuro Activity (SIENA) Study she conducted with Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, Professor of Health Education at Wayne State University.



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