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Sister hosts talk radio show


Muslims at prayer are a sight Christians recognize. But how many know that achieving the actual prayer position -- bent over, head on the ground -- “creates a high”? The high occurs, a Muslim woman explained to Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, from a “combination of the spiritual, physical and mental coming together” as the position relieves stress on the disks of the back.

And if that’s not the sort of information listeners usually get on talk radio, Fiedler’s “Faith Matters” program, heard on four radio stations, isn’t the usual talk radio fare. For one thing, it’s interfaith.

For another, said Fiedler, the 4-month-old program takes aim at the fact that “many people get their news and political and religious perspectives from the air -- and the religious right has been dominating those air waves.”

If that makes Fiedler sound quixotic, the word is well chosen. Home turf for Fiedler is the Brentwood, Md.-based Quixote Center. In fact, Faith Matters advertising to date is essentially for Quixote Center products and services, though “Faith Matters” is separately incorporated from Quixote.

The Fiedlers are from upstate New York. Great-granddad Fiedler fled to the United States to escape military service under Bismarck. “I don’t think he was a pacifist,” said Fielder. “I think it had more to do with him being Bavarian.”

The maternal side is from County Mayo, Ireland. The combination could account for Fielder herself being organized and hard-driving with the gift of gab.

Hometown was Buffalo, N.Y. Fielder went to Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., and in 1962, as a college junior, entered the Sisters of Mercy of Erie. She taught, earned a doctorate in government at Georgetown University and in 1976 joined the fledgling Quixote Center.

When the center thrust itself into controversial issues, including defending gay and lesbian rights, the Erie Mercys -- “of that time,” emphasizes Fiedler -- “had some problems with it.” Fielder flirted with leaving religious life, but agreed with her friend and Quixote co-founder, Dolly Pomerleau, that she was “a nun to her bone marrow.” So the practical Fielder sent letters to 10 progressive religious communities -- all contributors to Quixote Center activities -- as she shopped around for another order.

The Sisters of Loretto was one of two orders that replied. They invited Fiedler to join an assembly they were having, and “watch us struggle over issues.” She did, and in 1982 and ’83, after working for the Equal Rights Amendment, she spent a six-month sabbatical traveling in her rattletrap car to visit Lorettos at work from St. Louis to Denver, El Paso, Texas, to Kentucky. By 1984 Fielder had SL after her name.

Over the years, Fiedler has been dead center of much of the Quixote Center’s work. Because some Quixote stances have been controversial or newsworthy, staffers such as Fiedler are not far removed from the public gaze. It was the words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on women’s ordination -- a deeply held Quixote belief -- that drew Fielder into the radio limelight.

Four years ago -- “I didn’t know much about the business end of radio” -- she cut a pilot at a little Baltimore radio station. The pilot went to public radio stations that told Fiedler she had the skills but that her material wasn’t politically mainstream or politically neutral enough.

Then “Ratzinger issued one of his many statements against the ordination of women, trying to say the ban was infallible or something. I sat down at my computer and within an hour I had a commentary drafted and sent it to National Public Radio, thinking it a long shot. They wanted it for that night’s evening news. And off I was.” She has been an occasional NPR commentator ever since.

Her own talk radio ideas were shoved into the background, however, by her work on the Women’s Ordination Conference board, which was tackling the conference’s financial crisis. By 1999 she was free to think radio again. How Fiedler got access to the microphone reveals the mechanics of talk radio -- in which the host is usually buying airtime in order to be heard at all.

Fred Ruof, a onetime advisory board member of Quixote’s “Catholics Speak Out,” had done radio spots when he worked for National Emergency Medicine. He put Fielder in touch with radio syndicator Paul Woodhull, and that led to a contract with Media Syndications Service.

She wanted an interfaith program, “one more distinction between what I’m trying to do and what the Pat Robertsons and Mother Angelicas do -- the one-faith tradition, the absolute truth -- depending on whatever faith program you happen to be listening to. And I wanted it a call-in show, a vehicle for people to speak out on religious issues.”

She was able to launch using “a sizeable donation” from her Loretto community. On Sunday, Nov. 21, 1999, “Faith Matters” was heard for the first time from 10 to 11 a.m. of WTEL, Philadelphia and WALE, Providence, R.I. and from 8 to 9 a.m. on KWAB, Boulder, Colo., and KFNX, Phoenix. The topic was evolution vs. creationism. Her guests (by telephone) were the Rev. Henry Morris III of the Church at Rocky Peak in Chatsworth, Calif., and theologian/evolutionist Robert John Russell of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif.

Fielder found herself fascinated by “the sincerity” of people of opposing views. “I mean, this isn’t new to me,” she said, “but I think I’m more aware of it.”

No one called in. Fielder learned yet another talk show lesson. It helps to “salt” the audience, have a few friends who listen and call in, until the general listeners get the idea and lose their inhibitions.

These days, four months into the weekly program, Fiedler said she is hearing questions from voices she doesn’t recognize, perhaps four or five a show. “There are some surprising points of view,” she said. During her show on youth violence, one caller said it’s no longer blacks who are put down in society today; it’s whites. “It isn’t that I haven’t heard that view before,” said Fiedler, “but suddenly I was on the air and had to deal with it.” She did the sensible thing and “threw it to the guests.”

Best guess on regular listenership: “a few thousand.”

“Faith Matters” needs more than a few thousand dollars each month just to reach those numbers. Talk show radio mainly buys its airtime from local stations and remains in business by attracting advertising. Fiedler says she has to raise about $30,000 a month for the current operation. Indeed, her major preoccupation is fundraising. She’s averaging $10,000 to 15,000 from small donations through direct mail to Quixote Center donors, and appeals to religious communities and other organizations -- such as Mary’s Pence -- for support. “A couple of donors have come through with five figures,” she said, “but I have to get some advertising.”

Meanwhile, the guests -- Native Americans who work with youth, Episcopal women priests, social activists, Muslims -- multiply. And Fiedler is becoming more at home with the technology and the medium. She recently did an on-the-road broadcast from Boulder.

The Boulder station is owned by Working Assets, a progressive telephone company. They hope to acquire more radio stations, and Fiedler hopes to expand along with them.

She’s got 30 programs mapped out for the year ahead, from the spirituality of Generation X to the Southern Baptists calling on wives to be submissive, from African-American theologians talking about racism in the churches to religion’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

She’s also looking for the right time slot. She wanted Saturdays, until rabbis told her she’d never get any Jews. “Sunday morning is the religious ghetto of the radio world,” she said. “But I get people on drive time, going to church or back, or wherever.”

She doesn’t want to remain in the ghetto. “Ultimately I’d like to do Monday through Friday. But that awaits further development of the show, hopefully the advertising to sustain it.”

In the meantime, every show is a learning experience. Where else would people hear a Muslim woman defending the wearing of the veil from a feminist perspective?

A center that jousts with tough issues
The Quixote Center was founded Jan. 1, 1976, by Dolly Pomerleau and Fr. Bill Callahan to tackle peace and justice issues few others would touch. The center was early into pressing for Catholic women’s ordination, and has been involved in opposing the death penalty, opposing the contra war in Nicaragua, and supporting the concerns of Catholic lesbians and gays.
Current Quixote joustings include Catholics Speak Out, which Pomerleau describes as encouraging progressive Catholics to speak out “as adult members of the church,” while supporting the directions of the Second Vatican Council; Priests for Equality, “working to translate the scriptures into inclusive laanguage”; Haiti Reborn, focusing on development and democracy issues; Quest for Peace, a grassroots development and economic justice project in Nicaragua; and Equal Justice USA, workign to abolish the death penalty, currently seeking a moratorium on executions.
Quixote is “97 percent funded by grassroots support,” according to Pomerleau. The center’s Web site is www.quixote.org

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000