The death of Congressman John Lewis last summer sparked a lot of conversation about “good troublemakers”. A very visible figure of the Civil Rights movement, Lewis was known for leading marches and giving speeches that would push our society toward progress in racial equality. Even as his death drew near, Lewis’ words during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump were among the most resonant: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something,” he said on the House floor. “Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’…We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
This week’s Callings episode features Sister Grace Miller, an 85-year-old nun who had been very active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and even attended the Washington, DC march culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King’s presentation of his “I Have A Dream” speech, with John Lewis in attendance. Sister Grace grew up in rural upstate New York, daughter of immigrants from Italy who changed their last name in order to avoid prejudice against Italians, which was prevalent at the time. Changing their last name wasn’t a cure-all, though, and Sister Grace faced adversity throughout her childhood because of her heritage. Though this fighter spirit served her well during her youth to keep her safe, as she grew up she found her agitation and determination to fight for justice to be more challenging in the workplace. After joining the Sisters of Mercy order of nuns, she struggled to keep a job as a schoolteacher in the Catholic school system where she would butt heads with administration. Though she had found joy in the continued fight for civil rights, by her late 40s, Sister Grace had been fired twice and found herself at a loss for what to do next. “I lived out of a suitcase,” she said. “No one would hire me - a nun! - so I traveled around constantly attending workshops and conferences. I guess you could say I was homeless at that time.”
It was during one of these workshops that Sister Grace was inspired to start a venture of her own. Back in Rochester, she had found herself regularly picking up homeless men off the street and bringing them to shelters, begging the shelters to stretch their capacities to take in a few more people in need. She discovered what she felt was a grave injustice in the shelters, with the homeless being required to attend religious services, and those who were mentally ill or addicted to drugs and alcohol declined access to food and shelter. In 1985, Sister Grace founded the low-barrier shelter House of Mercy and has been leading its operations ever since. While she is known as “Rochester’s Mother Theresa” for taking in any and everyone who needs help, she’s also known as a “good troublemaker” thorn-in-the-side of anyone who stands in the way of her mission to help “her people” move toward a better life.
You can read the fascinating story of Sister Grace’s life in the book Amazing Grace by Hank Shaw. You can learn more about supporting the efforts of the House of Mercy at houseofmercyrochester.com. (P.S. yes, Sister Grace kept her mask on for the duration of our Zoom call!)