Just Rhonda

Brief Bio: I’m a spiritual director, writer, poet, preacher, communitarian, activist, occasional scholar (with imposter syndrome since I don’t have a terminal degree), itinerant seeker currently in transition since I have just left religious life after four years of formation with the Sinsinawa Dominican congregation (that’s the “just” in “just Rhonda” – not “Sister Rhonda” anymore). 

Institutional connections: Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (graduated there in 2012 with MA).  Spiritual Directors International (part of the 2014 New Contemplatives Initiative for trained spiritual directors under 40). Catholic Women Speak Network.  FutureChurch and Catholic Women Preach (advisory board member).  Call To Action – I attended my first conference in 2013 and have presented and been involved in various ways.   I’ve been connected to various Catholic Worker communities (sometimes living, sometimes extended community) for the last twenty years. As former Jesuit volunteer mentored by a Jesuit priest (Fr Paul Brant SJ) who studied at Boston College, I just generally run around with a lot of Jesuits (insert joke here about getting invited to cocktail hours) and Ignatian-minded folks.  Of course, I also generally run around with a lot of Dominicans. Interestingly, I do not currently have a “home parish” since I was worshipping at Dominican University where I served as University Minister, or worshipping at the Sinsinawa Dominican Motherhouse – my most regular “faith community” I share with (via Zoom) is a synagogue in a north suburb of Chicago where a good friend/fellow New Contemplative cohort-member serves.

A bit more context: I grew up in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin in a family that attended Mass on Sunday but wasn’t particularly pious, and I went to public school.  Fairly dysfunctional and chaotic home because my one sibling (older brother) had severe behavioral and health challenges, later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia (cue my own patterns of overfunctioning and overachieving).  I became interested in faith in my early teens (after a few mystical experiences as a young child), reading Thomas Merton (which I could barely understand), the Bible, and anything I could get my hands on, and talking about faith with friends – both Catholic and Christians of other traditions. 

In undergrad, I got connected with the Newman Center and was really exposed to the social justice tradition within Catholicism – learned about Ploughshares actions, went to my first Catholic Worker house, was exposed to liberation theology – and served as a student peer minister.  Post-college I served as a Jesuit Volunteer in rural Nicaragua for two years.

After returning to the US, I moved to Central Virginia which became my home for ten years, where I served in two different ministries – first at a Catholic parish in Charlottesville where I was Social Justice Minister/Hispanic Minister, then at a L’Arche-style community with adults with intellectual disabilities called Innisfree Village, just west of Charlottesville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  During this time, I spent five consecutive summers in Boston working on MA from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and loved every minute of my studies – the content, the learning, the community, the shared prayer, the summer adventures in Boston. Much of my work at the parish was focused on congregation-based community organizing (ironically, I was the convener of the “clergy caucus” of leadership of different faith congregations working together to create local change…though, of course, as a Catholic woman, I wasn’t “clergy”!), coordinating the JustFaith program, managing outreach to people experiencing homeless through offering hospitality in the parish activity center, and growing in solidarity with twin parish in central Haiti.  This was also a time I began to become aware of systemic racism (just down the road from Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy) and of the injustices of the immigration system as many Spanish-speaking parishioners were undocumented or had TPS (temporary protected status). 

In 2014, I discerned it was time to move on after 5 ½ years at Innisfree, with the sense that I needed to deepen into writing as ministry. Also, the niggling feeling that I might be called to religious life (which I’d had off and on since I was a kid, even though I didn’t grow up knowing any Catholic sisters) got too loud to ignore, and I left Charlottesville (my home of ten years) and lived for a year with a congregation of women religious in Western Pennsylvania that I’d gotten connected with through a friend, and worked at their retreat center.  After a year there, I returned to my native Midwest when it became clear my grandmother was in the final chapter of her life and my parents asked me to serve as something of “family chaplain,” and looked at religious congregations based in the Midwest.  I was drawn to the Dominican charism of preaching (I’m a spoken word poet, and I had a Presbyterian pastor friend gently point out to me that what I was trying to do in spoken word poetry is, actually, preaching.  But of course since I had no mental category for a woman who preached, I couldn’t recognize that within myself, since I had never seen it represented), and began discernment with the Sinsinawa Dominican congregation based in Southwest Wisconsin in 2016.

After about four years of initial membership (one year of candidacy, two years of novitiate, and about nine months into my first year of final vows), I discerned a clear “no” to moving forward with the Sinsinawa Dominican congregation, and requested and received dispensation (release) from my temporary vowed commitment that I made in July 2019.  This is like cancelling an engagement, not like a divorce, and it is still a really big transition – personally, vocationally, professionally, and practically.  I am incredibly grateful for the gifts of religious life formation – the relationships, the opportunities, and especially canonical novitiate, which allowed me the opportunity to deep-dive into Dominican charism and my relationship with God and parts of myself that I would have preferred to have ignored.  And even though my Ignatian training said “listen to St Ignatius, when in desolation, stay the course – you can’t leave religious life in the middle of a pandemic, that’s desolation!” since the Friday before Palm Sunday this year when I underwent this inner shift, I’ve had a deep sense of peace and relief.  I am grateful for this after a lot of struggle and wrestling, even in the midst of so much uncertainty and tumult, and still feel “at home” in the Dominican family, though I am clear vowed life as a Sister is not where I will be most alive and free for mission.  

My goal/intention for this time is simply to think and breathe with all of you, to trust what emerges, and to be patient and curious in the messiness of that emergence.

The risk I want to take is to be real and honest.  I’m a 3 on the enneagram, and yes, I am painfully aware of the shadow of the 3 in my impulses and perspective.  Since leaving religious life (and that community and identity) is so fresh, I can feel myself internally bracing and becoming less trusting and vulnerable, which I know is not the work of the Spirit towards abundant life. Tied into this risk is allowing real conversations about antiracism (if those emerge here) which is messy and hard and vulnerable and imperfect…and I think incredibly necessary.

I call into our shared cloud of witnesses here two great Dominican Saints: St Dominic and St Catherine of Siena.  I wrote an essay for US Catholic magazine in February (when I was still a sister) and it came out in the June magazine (when I was no longer a sister), and yet the words here still feel true.  St Catherine lived in a time of plague and (interestingly) was a lay woman and not a Sister and is imaged as carrying the church as a boat on her shoulder…I think a fitting companion for me and perhaps for others of you, as well. I also call in the students of color (including undocumented students) who I have accompanied as University Minister at Dominican University over the last two years – my eyes got teary as I heard Cecilia Gonzalez Andrieu speak about her undocumented students and their resilience and passion.  Especially as the neighborhoods in Chicago where so many DU students live have been touched by the rebellion, and as I watch Latinx (including undocumented students) support the movement for Black Lives…I don’t know how to put it into words, but there is a strength and beauty and love there I want to name and celebrate and share here in this new community of ours.

6 thoughts on “Just Rhonda

  1. Dear Rhonda, I am inspired by your bravery and courage as you have moved around to places and ministries, being faithful to what God has been calling you to be and do. Thank you for your sharing. I found myself recalling when I left religious life and how so very difficult and painful it was for me. May you find support and a community here. Blessings.

    1. Thank you – yes, when I read your introduction, I was consoled to find there was another member of the cohort formerly in religious life. I appreciate your affirmation and look forward to journeying together in these coming weeks.

  2. Rhonda, Thanks for sharing all of the wonderful things you have done in your life. I am inspired by your openness in this particular program to what emerges, as well as the loving heart you clearly have. I hope that this space can be an encouraging one for as we confront racism in our Church and world. Thanks.

  3. I love our intention: “simply to think and breathe with all of you, to trust what emerges, and to be patient and curious in the messiness of that emergence.” I tend to be a “results oriented” person, someone used to having to document “success criteria” for projects. Maybe I won’t have some massive “ah ha” moment, or feel the flames of the Holy Spirit burning down on my head, but I will keep your wise words in my heart and just breathe…maybe be more open to the breath of the Holy Spirit instead of waiting for those flames!

  4. Thank you for sharing! I loved how you brought up St. Catherine of Siena, her example has been such an inspiration on me over the past year. I am excited to have this space of discernment with you.

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