The following is the first in a series of interviews PST will be conducting over the coming months. Our aim is to highlight the work of people of faith doing justice oriented work in communities across the South. As this type of work is often isolating, we want to build awareness of those people whose work doesn’t necessarily draw the spotlight of mainstream outlets. If you’d like to nominate someone who fits this description, let us know here. We look forward to working with them as our resources allow.
This is an interview with Sister Bernadette Barrett, a Sister in the Order of the Holy Spirit based in the Louisiana Delta town of Lake Providence. “Sister Bernie,” as she’s known by everyone in the community, directs a local Catholic Charities program, among many other projects. For those who may not know her by name, they know her by her strong Irish accent and fiery spirit. She also serves on the board of directors for numerous non-profits, including NOVA and the Providence Fuller Center. Sister has worked in the field of community organizing for multiple decades, and she continues to utilize those principles in one of the most impoverished regions in the country.
[Progressive Southern Theologians ] How would you describe the type of work you do in Lake Providence, Louisiana?
[Sister Bernie] I’ve described myself as a pusher. But there’s a better word for it than that. I’m an agitator. I’ve lived in a big place like San Antonio where the community has been organized, and I’ve seen how organized people can push for things to get done. When I arrived in Lake Providence, I noticed a less than urgent mentality when it came to pushing for resources that rightfully belong to people and a reluctance to hold elected officials accountable. So, I see myself as someone who agitates to make sure that the people of our parish are not being left out.
[PST] In what ways do you see the people of the area being left out of things?
[SB] Our largest metropolitan center is about an hour and a half away. The state will often say they’re doing things for Northeast Louisiana, which is known for its poverty and geographic isolation, but those resources that are funneled into Monroe don’t always make it all the way out here to our small parish. For example, there are early childhood initiatives for the region, but do those funds and programs actually get beyond Monroe or larger towns? If they do, it’s usually because people have voiced their concerns and made it a point to get them here.
Another example is the local community college. All of the small Delta towns have rural branches of the main college in Monroe, but these campuses get little access to the resources and programs available in Monroe. To say to a community which mostly lives below the poverty line that they have to drive 1.5 hours to access most of the college programs simply isn’t fair or realistic. Our campus never adds program, and, in fact, it’s only downsized over the years.
The same applies to elected officials. They represent our region, but you don’t see them here until election time. Because the community is predominantly poor and predominantly black, most officials only see themselves accountable to the wealthy, landowning farmers.
[PST] How long have you been in the region, and what brought you here originally?
[SB] I’ve been in the Delta since September 2002. Before coming here, I was doing ministry at our mother house in San Antonio from ‘95 to ‘02. I was responsible for spiritual formation, and I also ran a retreat center that was located in one wing of the house. I’d also been involved in community organizing with Industrial Areas Foundation. The project in Lake Providence is sponsored by LCWR - the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – a leadership organization of women in administration of their communities. Lake Providence is part of Region 5, and the project has been here since 1996.
Our mission has been organized around the following principles: to be a compassionate presence for the people in the community; to encourage people to use their talents and abilities; and to be an example of harmony in a place where there is much racial strife and division. Our programs, though, are wide and varied and have been oriented toward our particular skills. In 2002, there was nobody here in this position in the Delta. In fact, the sister who was here before us told LCWR to forget it, to scrap the whole thing. She thought people weren’t receptive or open to her being here. LCWR didn’t heed what she said, and four people were interested in coming. Two sisters were African American from the Holy Family Sisters, another white woman was a Daughter of Charity, and I’m a Holy Spirit sister. Today, I’m the only one still here.
All of that to say, we all came in September 2002 and all four of us did different things. We were all teachers by profession, so three of us definitely tried to do something in the public school system – volunteer tutoring and different things like that.
[PST] Why the public school system?
[SB] The majority of the children in the public school system come from at-risk backgrounds. Many are from single parent families living below the poverty line. Classrooms are overcrowded and resources are severely limited.
In our engagement, we’ve always tried to raise expectations. Its easy in impoverished communities for standards to be lowered given the immense challenges facing kids and their families. But I believe we do kids a disservice actually when we don’t hold them up to the same expectations and standards that we’d expect in any other community. It sells them short in the long run.
We tend to focus on younger children in elementary schools because the challenges only grow larger and more difficult as they reach high school, even middle school, really. A child’s literacy levels are highly formed during this younger years, so it’s important to work with them at these critical ages.
[PST] Since resources for schools are often tied to property taxes, and given that this is an impoverished community, how does that affect the schools?
[SB] It affects the condition of the buildings. The amount of programs, trainings, field trips, etc., that can be offered. The pre-K children can’t play on the playground equipment because it’s not up to code and hasn’t been able to be fixed in several years. We haven’t had a librarian in years at the elementary school. We have the books, have the space, but no one to run the system. The public library brings over their book mobile just so children can check out books.
The difficulty also lies in the relationship between parents and school officials. When parents aren’t empowered to engage their schools and hold them accountable, or when there’s not a culture of best practices for that kind of delicate work, then school leaders can be left unaccountable. Few parents show up to school board meetings, for instance, and people often don’t know how to advocate for what’s within their rights both for themselves as parents or for their children. It’s simply easier for leadership at all levels to not do all that they could be doing. And of course, these same officials are usually in situations where there are so few resources which, of course, is beyond their control. Likewise, when they want more community and parent involvement, it’s difficult to get due to the difficult circumstances facing many parents. The whole thing just becomes a cycle.
[PST] Switching gears a bit… In the South, there’s lots of conservative Christianity that doesn’t see the reason why Christians should engage the public square/politics or how that relates to the gospel. Why, for you, does it make sense for Christians to engage the public sphere in ways you’ve described?
[SB] First of all, your soul is not separate from your body. Christianity teaches that the whole person is saved. Jesus saves the whole person. I don’t save anybody, though I sometimes think I do. [laughter]
The whole person is important, and if the whole person is hungry, then Christ calls us to meet that need. Isn’t that Matthew 25 [The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats]. "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” I’ve very seldom heard that preached in this area, but it inspires me. It kind of scares me, to be honest. It’s accountability for us, right? What am I going to say when St. Peter asks me all of those questions? Where were you when I was hungry, or in prison, or without clothing, or sick?
[PST] You’ve been in a rural, highly impoverished place in the Deep South for almost 17 years. The population has only continued to decline. What sustains you or keeps you going?
[SB] Walking. [laughter] I belong to a community of sisters, and although I don’t see them a lot, I know they’re behind me and supporting me. And there are other sisters doing similar work. One is in Laredo, Texas, and one is in San Benito, Texas, and they’re both working with immigrants. In that sense, I’m not here alone.
I do get discouraged, and there are days when I do feel like cursing. The nature of things here just goes up and down, getting better and then getting worse. You make a step forward, and then, something happens, and you go back two steps.
I do certainly pray… and music, music pushes me along. I like to listen to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and that can get me through. A few weeks ago, here in Lake Providence, there was a funeral for a lady who was murdered. At the funeral, a local pastor sang, “If It Had Not Been for the Lord on My Side.” It might sound like a small thing, but the spirituals of the Black Church really touch me. You can feel their power.
[PST] Having worked in multiple impoverished communities over many decades, where do you see hope?
[SB] Right now I see hope in Interfaith (a small, local community organizing group). We have more people now, but we’ll see how long it lasts. I’m a “show me with your actions” kind of person. In other words, though, I see hope when local community members gather together and begin to feel empowered to advocate for themselves and tackle community problems.
But otherwise, big picture, I’m not sure that there is a lot of improvement. Lots of people come in with projects in mind to assist or help or better the community, but they usually fall through or don’t materialize.
[PST] Do you think it’s okay for people who are engaged in similar types of work to say sometimes that there’s not a lot of hope in a particular place - to be honest about that - yet to still insist that the work is worth doing?
[SB] I definitely think so. Rural places, you know, are not exciting enough for people to want to come. Young professionals don’t want to move to rural America. Ministries often prefer to be in larger cities. There are more resources, donors, and funding streams in urban areas. Outside of a highly mechanized agricultural industry that needs very few laborers anymore, hardly any other industries have come into this part of the Delta. The population has shrunk tremendously. So, yes, realistically, there’s not a lot of tangible hope. It’s better to be honest and to honor what people have been experiencing for all these years.
[PST] I wonder if questions about hope are tied to our Western and American preoccupation with success. Underneath the question is the idea that surely there must be some success for us to hang onto; some results-oriented program that we can point to as yielding progress…
[SB] Right. In impoverished rural areas, but elsewhere, too, the success of programs always comes and goes. You see that after working in a place for seventeen years. Some people get cynical over the constant ups and downs of programs and funding. But you see that, despite these programs, there are always some people who are trying to improve themselves and their communities. Even if the larger structures are hard to improve and aren’t changing, we can still find hope in the people.
There are just so many obstacles, though. And that’s particularly frustrating. There are lots of obstacles against people and this is exactly where I want to go to agitate. I had a client who was renting a house and it ate up most of her disability check. There’s a leak in the roof, and the landlord refuses to fix it. This is where I want to go and get the landlord to do something about it, but I also don’t want him to retaliate and put the client out because I’m trying to hold him accountable. And that kind of thing happens and it scares people away from standing up for their rights, understandably so.
[PST] We’ve talked before about how low income people growing up in the South often hesitate to agitate or organize for the things that are rightfully ours, like with your story of renters’ rights or for more exposure about the way public funds are being used or having a greater say in municipal governing bodies. It’s something we shy away from for various reasons. Do you run into that mentality a lot?
[SB] Certainly. But not just with average citizens. There are also leaders who discourage people from having more of a voice or asking questions that all citizens are perfectly within their rights to ask. I remember that under a particular mayor, I pressed to see the city budget, but he wouldn’t meet with me. He was intimated by me. When he eventually brought out the budget, it was one page with no details and few explanations. There were very few line items.
Some leaders don’t have enough confidence in what they’re being asked, so they become defensive and don’t want to be appear to be ignorant. Accountability can feel like an attack or an exposure of their flaws. When you ask questions, you can feel the tension there, because they feel that they’re supposed to know everything. Plus, as many of these positions are paid, and as this is an impoverished community, there’s a heightened advantage to getting and keeping certain public positions.
[PST] What insights would you share with someone who’s going to work in an under-resourced or impoversiehd community?
[SB] Get to know the people. Just simply get to know them.
When you come in as a new person, you’d be surprised at how many people would love to tell you their stories. Around here, people love to tell what the town used to be like and how things have changed. But don’t forget that I work mostly in the black community. Not everyone in the white community is as forthcoming, though that’s not true for every individual.
Also, build genuine relationships. Try to avoid coming in and right away attempting to make changes. Change comes slowly and it largely depends on relationship building. Early on, I got into lots of trouble here from things I said. You have to first earn people’s trust.
[PST] What’s it like for nuns to get in trouble?
[SB] [laughter] Oh, I’ve been told off more than a few times. But when it happens, hopefully you’ll be open to taking people’s advice and then learn when to slow down. For an outsider, it’s not your community. No matter how good your ideas may be, you’ve got to build respectful relationships. Listen first and remember that the work is slow and takes a long time.
[PST] What have you learned about yourself doing this type of work?
[SB] That I have a big mouth. And that it’s hard for me to keep quiet.
[PST] I know you’ve spoken to powerful people before and people who have influence. I’ve watched you first hand speak powerfully in front of committees in the Louisiana State Legislature. When you’re in those situations, what do you try to communicate to them about this region? What do you want them to know?
[SB] Like everyone else, people here deserve attention. They deserve a chance for their situation to be better. The children especially deserve this. I want officials and people with influence to put their money where their mouth is. I tell them to invest in the people… not necessarily in buildings and that sort of thing, but in programs that directly help people have legitimate opportunities to get out of poverty.
[PST] That ties into the last question. In our types of work, we often get asked by religious congregations, “What can we do?” I know you were in Boston recently speaking with a very large parish near Boston College. What do you say in situations like these? I often have trouble answering that question because…
[SB] Because forming relationships is the key… not just “helping” as outsiders
[PST] Exactly, but nevertheless we encounter those questions, and people are often well meaning, so what do you say in response?
[SB] I tell them to direct their money and resources to things that support children and education. First, I’ll give the simple example of diapers. Diapers can be a huge expense for people living below the poverty line. WIC and SNAP, for instance, only cover food. That money can’t be spent on diapers. It’s a big deal for mothers to have worry about those costs, and it can have a major impact on the quality of life for the baby and others in the household living on a very low level of income.
Second, investing in educational efforts is critical. While jobs, housing, transportation, all of these things are important, prioritize education. Education is the way out of poverty. After all of my years of service in impoverished communities, I don’t know of any other way to break the cycle of poverty without an education. So, whatever local efforts are being made by non-profits, school districts, or other organizations, partner with them and invest in their efforts, even if you can’t directly volunteer or be involved.
If you’d like to follow-up with Sister Bernie, you can direct questions or comments here.