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Religious Life

Finding life in abundance

Special Report Writer

No question is so difficult or personal that Dominican Sr. Uchenna Okereke won’t answer it. Daily in religion classes, in the hallways and in chapel she encounters many of the more than 500 teenage girls who attend St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City, N.J. The school is run by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, which Okereke joined at age 23 in 1990, shortly after arriving in America from her native Nigeria.

Some of the girls have never before seen “a black nun.” They want to know if she cooks, does she own a car, does she have a curfew, must she get permission to leave her convent? Do you have to be a virgin to be a nun, did you ever date, what’s the “silliest” thing she’s ever done as a sister?

“No, you don’t have to be a virgin to become a nun. You can renew your virginity as a religious,” she tells the girls. Yes, she dated while in high school. “Dating wasn’t my call.” And the silliest thing she’s done during the past decade has something to do with meatloaf, she admits.

The best message to impart to young people about religious life is that “it’s a wonderful life. It’s not sad and lonely because you have no men living with you. It’s not about wearing habits or being perfect,” Okereke said. She finds it imperative to admit a mistake in front of her class and to say, “I’m wrong. You’re right,” if that’s the case.

While Okereke told NCR that she enjoys watching a Whoopi Goldberg video, she is quick to add that nuns are not “some kind of idiots or robots who can’t think for themselves.” The media “portrays us very unrealistically,” she said, adding that only the TV series “Nothing Sacred” and the film “Dead Man Walking” captured the “uniqueness” and the daily stuff of religious life.

She does not fault the media for the paucity of vocations to vowed religious life, but it has fostered stereotypes in both potential candidates and their families, she said. Although most parents she meets admire religious and respect what they do, their attitude is often “but not my daughter.”

Okereke’s own father opposed her becoming a sister as he felt she had the savvy to become a successful career woman in America. It was only after he and her mother immigrated to the States that he began “to understand the life I’d chosen.”

Shortly after arriving in New Jersey in 1989, Okereke knew she wanted to become a sister. While studying biology at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, she began her search. “I wanted a community with the same values that I had -- a community with honesty, compassion, committed to justice, respecting nature and loving life.”

Okereke, who has seven siblings but grew up with 15 people in her African household, learned from her parents that “as you give life, you receive life in abundance.” She chose the Caldwell Dominicans after visiting and contacting three other orders in New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania. A feeling of peace soon replaced her feelings of indecision.

With the Dominicans she found a strong prayer life. “Prayer is the carbohydrates and protein of religious life while community is the dessert. You have to have a good sense of humor for this life,” Okereke said. “I believe God has a sense of humor.”

She also found the order challenging. The community acts like a mirror “so that when I’m out of focus I can say, ‘Help me to look at it in another way. Stretch me a bit.’ ”

Okereke is the youngest of seven in her “intentional Dominican community.” The women, who range in age from 33 to 76, live in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish rectory in Jersey City, where two of the Dominicans serve as pastoral and liturgical ministers. The former pastor, Fr. James O’Brien, was killed in a car accident three years ago -- a half-hour after lunching with the sisters. “His spirit still fills the house,” Okereke said.

She finds it important for sisters, wherever they live and work, to stay a part of a local parish. “When I observe the sorrowful face of a divorced mother, hear a 9-year-old asking for food for her drug-addicted mother, I am renewed to give thanks to God for my community.”

Okereke said she loves to come home after work. “We are all going at different angles. At breakfast we talk. Someone volunteers to cook dinner and asks us what we’d like to eat. Cooking and housework are not just about food and cleaning. They’re symbolic acts of sharing,” she said.

Before dinner the women pray spontaneously in the living room, lighting a candle, playing music and “sharing in a more intimate way” their day with God and one another.

Okereke is also grateful that the Dominicans absorbed her educational expenses and offered her a scholarship to Caldwell College where she studied religion and chemistry.

It’s important for religious orders to shoulder the financial burden of new candidates, she said, noting that among those who enter today are many professionally trained women who still owe college loans but who are bringing their talents and degrees to the service of religious life.

She also believes that sisters, priests and brothers should not ask their vocations directors to be “workaholics” in order to improve their numbers. “Each of us needs to invite others into religious life. We need to show them that our life is a full life, a juicy life, not a dry and boring life.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001