Remembering Ada María Isasi-Díaz

By Mary E. Hunt

Ada and I met on Thanksgiving weekend 1975 when we both attended the first Catholic Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit. The conference had space for 1400 people, but 2000 showed up. Imagine so many women gathered to discuss an officially forbidden topic that the hotel ballroom capacity was reached; the overflow people were sent to an upper room to watch the proceedings by video. It is safe to say that the Roman Catholic kyriarchal Church has never been the same since.

We were never the same either, good Catholic girls newly aware of the oppression our church perpetrated on us and the world. Ada always said of herself that weekend, “I was born a feminist…[when] I began to realize that oppression was caused not only by poverty but also is the result of sexism.” She had spent her early adult years working with people who were made poor, but it was a new experience to realize that the same church that preached social justice engaged in the systematic exclusion of women from ministry, scholarship, and decision-making, and perpetrated anti-women policies on sex and reproduction. Little of that has changed yet.

Ada worked in Rochester, NY, on the staff of the organization that resulted from that Women’s Ordination Conference, laying the groundwork for the myriad of feminist ministries in which Catholic women now engage. Ordination in kyriarchy is still forbidden, but most Catholic feminists like Ada understood that new feminist models of ministry needed to emerge lest women be coopted by the hierarchical church. Her combination of scholarship, teaching, preaching, and accompaniment of communities of people on the margins was one such new model that worked. She certainly never needed, nor do I think she would have accepted, the Roman stamp of approval. To the contrary, Ada located ministry en la comunidad for which external approbation was unnecessary. Nonetheless, she understood the oppressive power of the Roman Catholic Church and remained committed to the end of her life to change it.

Those early days of Catholic women struggling to find a way where there was no way, to make the road as we went as Ada insisted, were heady and exciting. She was an effective organizer whose creativity served us well. But there were also vexed and fraught days when the same racist, classist, and heterosexist aspects that plagued the many women’s movements for change were part of Catholic women’s dynamics.

As a Cuban America, Ada was a clear minority in a mostly white Catholic women’s movement. She insisted that anti-racism and anti-classist analysis be woven into the gender-based work we were doing. She pushed the rest of us to take seriously the international dimensions of our work. Her friends in Belgium, Brasil, France, and Mexico challenged the US-centric discourse of those early Catholic feminist conversations. The work was not easy, and Ada had her share of challenges. But as I can attest, changing the Roman Catholic Church is boot camp for virtually any other social change effort so she emerged well prepared for what became a life of solidarity.

It was on the basis of that feminist praxis that Ada decided to study theology at Union. There she began to make theological sense of her birth and exile from Cuba, her years as a nun in Peru, and the complexities of Catholic feminist ministry. In her words, she found: “the kernel of mujerista theology—that method of listening to the religious understandings and practices of the women and using that as the source. It came from this enormous gift that was given me when I was in Lima when I was young, and that has remained with me all my life.”

In addition to her parish-based work, Ada belonged to a small base community of women who gathered for worship and support. That group of friends gave her the strength she brought to other justice struggles. Ada rarely ventured her own opinion on an issue. Rather, she consulted with la comunidad, the several communities of which she was a part in New York as well as around the world. When she knew she was dying she instructed me to contact her dear friends at a distance—Mercy Oduyoye, Ivone Gebara, Luisa Tomita, among others—to be sure that they knew her situation. They were her community just as fully as those at hand.

Ada’s various mujerista books and articles speak for themselves. Lest anyone think that hers was an easy task, read her frank and synthetic piece entitled, “Viva la Diferenica!” which was part of a panel on “Appropriation and Reciprocity” held at this meeting in 1991, later published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, (Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall 1992). The panel was a public airing of substantive differences among women in religion, a time for Ada and other women of color to speak frankly to and about white women. She described being ignored, made invisible; she insisted that being respected means not simply being acknowledged but being engaged with so that both parties of the interaction are changed. (P. 101). She concluded that such work itself is liberative praxis. That was the praxis to which she dedicated herself in the following two decades. Students at Drew and Latino/Latina students around the world were the primary beneficiaries of her theological energies.

Ada and I crossed paths in Havana in 2000 when we were both lecturing in Cuba. We shared a seminar on gender with progressive colleagues. There was something wonderful, almost miraculous, to see her in action in her homeland where she loved to give back and to soak in. We were in Belem, Brazil together at the World Forum of Theology and Liberation in 2009. Ada enjoyed the deep respect of her colleagues in Latin America because of the constancy of her commitments to el pueblo and because she was an original, a Cuban American mujerista.

She said it best: “All my insights come from talking with grassroots Latinas. Some people do not take my work very seriously. They think it’s more like ethnography and sociology than theology, but you know what? If I, with my theological work, can validate how these women live their religion, then I will consider my work to have been worthwhile.”

The last time I heard Ada lecture was a year ago this month at the annual Call to Action meeting in Milwaukee, a gathering of several thousand progressive, grassroots Catholics. She gave the closing lecture on “Solidarity: Loving in the 21st Century.” I had never heard her better, clearer, or more herself. When we talked after the lecture, Ada regaled me with plans for her so-called retirement, which included more travel, writing, and ministry than most people do at the height of their fulltime employment.

One of those plans was the Vanderhaar Lecture that Ada was invited to give at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee this past March (2102), less than two months before she died. The university stated, “Due to the divergence from a basic Catholic teaching, we regret that we decline to host this year’s Vanderhaar Symposium speaker, Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz.” Response from the faculty was immediate: “The Faculty Assembly respectfully asserts that the administration of this university does not hold proper authority to render judgments about an individual’s divergence or adherence to basic Catholic teachings…The decision to rescind the invitation to Dr. Isasi-Diaz to speak on our campus has a chilling effect on academic freedom at this university.”

I asked Ada if she wanted WATER and Women-Church Convergence, a coalition of Catholic-rooted feminist groups, to launch a letter-writing campaign in order to draw attention to this egregious case of kyriarchal Catholic oppression. She declined saying characteristically that she would let the local community handle it as they wished. They did and the lecture went on at the First Congregational Church in Memphis. Ada’s practiced response after decades of being disrespected as a Catholic woman was pity: “It is painful not to be welcomed home, but I am grateful that someone else has opened their home to me.”

At issue, was Ada’s longtime support of women’s ordination and the fact that she preached at her nephew’s same-sex wedding. Her “offending” words at the marriage of her nephew in a Unitarian church offer an insight into her mature thinking: “This union celebrates the presence of God in our lives, a God who chooses to be present in the love this couple has for each other…This is why this is a religious ceremony: not because it is in a church but because it celebrates the essence of our God, love . . . This wedding is a celebration of justice, for that these two men can publicly celebrate their love, can get married today in this church in front of this joyful cloud of witnesses, is a moment of triumph in the long struggle for justice for LGBT people.” She proved herself right: La Lucha continues.

I am grateful for the life and work of Ada, for her friendship and her solidarity. I am grateful to be part of the kin-dom she sought to bring about. Ada Maria Isasi Diaz, Presente ahora y siempre.