Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Creating Radical Grace

An hourlong teleconference with

Rebecca Parrish, Simone Campbell, Chris Schenk

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Rebecca Parrish, Simone Campbell, and Chris Schenk for October 2015’s WATERtalk. Rebecca Parrish directed the film Radical Grace, which examines the lives of three feminist nuns as they challenge the patriarchal structures of the Roman Catholic Church and work towards social justice. Sr. Simone Campbell has been Executive Director of NETWORK since 2004 and is one of the originators of the highly successful Nuns on the Bus project. Sr. Chris Schenk founded FutureChurch and led the organization from 1990-2013. Both Simone and Chris were featured in Radical Grace. WATER thanks Rebecca, Simone, and Chris for a rich hour of conversation about the film and social justice. A Q&A session followed.


My personal journey began when I became interested in how social justice work could be approached as a spiritual practice. I was involved in activism in college, but observed some negative emotions in that context. I was then exposed to Thich Nhat Han’s work and socially-engaged Buddhism; and soon after, a friend introduced me to Sr. Jean Hughes.

Prior to this project, I only had TV stereotypes of nuns, all of which Sr. Jean exploded. Jean and other sisters had developed special and useful approaches to social justice work that connected with their faith and spirituality. Without a strong faith background and with a limited understanding of what it means to be a person of faith, I had much to learn from these nuns. I previously understood faith as institutionally based rather than personal, but soon discovered that you don’t have to walk away if you don’t agree with the institution. I was enthralled to discover the depth of the sisters’ spirituality and their idea of responsibility to remain there and do good work.



I am glad the word to describe us was “subject” and not “object.” There was a lot of mutual engagement in this project of discovery. Rebecca became involved with me during the very first Nuns on the Bus tour. At that point, NETWORK had been censured by the Vatican because they claimed we focused too much on the poor and those living in the margins of society. I took this censure as a badge of honor, but asked “How do we use this moment for mission?” Asking secular colleagues for help, they said that we had to go on the road and push back against the Ryan budget. Most have forgotten it started because of the censure, because it became a life-giving force for so many. The film captures this energy of life and generates hope for me and for others.


I agree it was a mutual process of discovery in the film. I describe it as a serendipitous series of events, though a friend asked why I didn’t call it the Holy Spirit! (I’m hesitant to claim such a phenomena.) When it began, it was a film about justice and the church, but as things evolved with the censure, apostolic visitation of women religious, and reaction to Affordable Care Act, things unfolded in a surprising way. A couple times it seemed like the film was done and then something else would happen. Rebecca and the crew were incredibly agile in documenting an important unfolding of how to work for justice in Catholicism in the 21st century. Personally, I was determined that women’s work would not be overlooked or fail to be documented in the 21st century as it had been in the past. There were no sources for women in the early church, and male historians often see things in their own way.

I was running a non-profit at the time and very busy, but the importance of documentation kept me going. I was struck by Rebecca’s voice as a “none” and her connection between social justice and spirituality. I would also like to shout out to Patricia Russell, Women- Church Convergence, and WATER – important members of the Nuns Justice Coalition – who helped put together nation-wide rising up of laity that created a space for tide to turn. The film documents this moment extremely well. It doesn’t get much better than raising the voices of laity and having it documented on film.



There is a social impact campaign that is accompanying this film. The two main components are supporting people to hear and follow callings to act for justice, and women’s equality and religion. On those two themes, we are going to have resources for educators, activists, etc. We have a screening kit, discussion guide, and other resources for groups doing this kind of work. The National Organization of Women just came on as a partner. We are excited to develop these relationships.

How to see the film & participate in engagement:

There are lots of resources available at



MARY HUNT: Could you say a little bit about Jean Hughes? [Sr. Jean Hughes, the third subject of Radical Grace, passed away before the completion of the film.] The film really looks at her life as well as at Simone and Chris’. Her service work is a very powerful part of the story.

Chris: I’ve seen the film about 15 times now. Jean is the heart of the film, from the depth of her service work and the spirituality that accompanies it. She’s funny, and the audience warms up to her so quickly. She gave voice to some of the things I felt – how can we keep on in this institutional church, for example. Jean gives voice to thoughts that most faithful Catholics have had. She gives an important balance to the activist work Simone and I do.

Simone: One of my favorite things is when one the formerly incarcerated guys said about Jean: “If you were having a bad day, Sr. Jean would just lift you up. But if Sr. Jean was having a bad day, she’d coming in cussing up a storm.” She often replied that God probably had more things to worry about than the words coming out of her mouth. Her humor, freshness, candor, and love just radiated. She lived concern for the people.

Rebecca: Jean was so present and so open, and she was able to give voice to and freely share her thoughts on a variety of things. The story follows her encounter with her own mortality through her passing. It was a powerful experience to have been a part of. I feel so honored to have been able to share her story.

BARBARA BENNET (comment): We had a community screening at Martha’s Vineyard this summer that was well received by religious and secular community. The experience was exhilarating and encouraging for people, and we continue to look for ways to promote the work and the film.

Simone: It was a fabulous conversation, thank you.

Mary Hunt: We saw the screening in Cincinnati. Though the film comes from Catholic women’s experience, it has a broader reach than Catholic anything.

JOHN NOBLE (Des Moines, IA): I do a lot of work with intersectionality and finding connections between issues. The Nuns on the Bus this year talked about connections between racial and economic justice. What about the false dichotomy between sacred and secular in justice work?

Chris: We had two screenings in Cleveland and at the end, one of the “nones” asked what I thought about when Bishop Paprocki said church’s job is to get people into heaven. For too long, people thought main goal was to get in heaven and just to tolerate what’s going on here on earth. The sacred is everywhere, no matter how awful it is. Remember the Our Father, “thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” It is all one. I’m a Sr. of St. Joseph – that’s kind of how we look at life. What you do to your neighbor is what you do to God.

Simone: Pope Francis did an amazing job at lifting up that all things are connected. We get focused on the individual things we do, but they’re all connected. The piece that the film helps lift up is the connection between justice work, reform in the church, and work on Capitol Hill. There are three virtues to the work: holy curiosity, sacred gossip, and the virtue of doing one thing. If you do your part, it all gets done. The film points out us doing our part – nothing extraordinary.

Chris: After a long career of community organizing, things always get done because of the interconnectivity. There’s a synergy that happens.

Rebecca: Doing social justice work as a spiritual practice is all about how the work is connected, when you approach it all as one. In looking at health care, economics, and access issues, Catholic clerical leaders in the US have very strong voices in policy debate. So the church reform work Chris does and the public policy reform Simone works on are also interconnected.

ANNE DEMMING: What hope should we have in the current synod?

Simone: Not much.

The synod in and of itself won’t make the change, but the process is pushing for a greater candor and engagement around the questions of our time. It will result in more conversation, not less. Pope Francis’ thing is all about getting the dialogue going.

Chris: It is slow. Archbishop Durocher put the matter of women deacons on the table, and there is pastoral substance on divorce and remarriage. Just getting stuff on the table is big. I think a lot of bishops in the woodwork want to see something happen in the pastoral realm. This has far more engagement than other councils of the past and could be an ongoing permanent body.

Mary Hunt: I have a piece on the NCR right now about the process of the synod and the absurd distribution of votes.

Chris: This is no different than any other synod. The representation is not different than it ever was, but now people are paying attention.


JANET BOHREN (OH): How are groups in the rest of world responding to the film?

Rebecca: We had a screening in South Korea and had tremendous response – there’s a group that is now being referred to as the Korean Radical Graces. We’re excited the piece is being useful for church reform. We are about to screen in Croatia, and they are excited about opening up dialogue about church reform around women’s equality. Our world premier was in Toronto; early rollout had been primarily in North America.

Janet: Are women from other religious traditions supporting you?

Rebecca: We absolutely have support. Starting with Protestants, we have partnered with Sojourners, which is primarily Protestant, and are planning grass roots screenings with women faith leaders. We’ve developed connections with those working in Orthodox Judaism for women’s equality as well as Muslim feminist organizers.

PHOEBE KNOPF: As a writer myself, I was thinking you must have had a large number of stories and people you could film. How did you ever edit it down? What was the process or criteria?

Mary Hunt: Let’s add – Rebecca, what else do you have up your sleeve?

Rebecca: We worked on this over a period of 5 years, and we wanted 3 independent but interconnected subjects. The editorial process – we filmed about 300 hours of footage that became a 75-minute film. A lot of transcription happened to help us find our way through it. A lot of spreadsheets, a lot of support pieces for infrastructure. The process was then discovering what tugged at my heart, what I felt moved by.

The film has a lot of live action – people having real experiences in the moment, which necessitates a lot of filming to catch those moments.

Eventually I’d like to do something about us, the “nones,” and our spirituality. I’m working on a project by another filmmaker about racial equity issues in education right now.

MARY HUNT: Any closing comments?

Simone: I want to lift up the amazing amount of work that went into making Radical Grace both “radical” and “grace.” Rebecca deserves a huge tribute for her creativity in weaving together 3 separate stories in a compelling way. But our creative juices are nourished when we have time to rest and reflect. We need some breathing space to nourish and stay faithful, even though we can feel people’s need keenly. We also need to be fed ourselves. Thank you, Rebecca, for the way you feed everybody, but make sure you get fed in this process too.

Chris: To the people on the line – thank you very much for coming, listening, learning about the film. Connect with other people working on these issues already. Oftentimes it only takes 2 or 3 people to begin some great work.

WATER thanks Rebecca Parrish, Chris Schenk, and Simone Campbell and wishes them every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be November 11th from 1 to 2 p.m. ET with Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas about her new book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.” All are welcome.