Leader Spotlight: Sister Susan Bowles

Sr. Susan grew up in Southern Tier of New York State with her family, attended school in Lockport and has spent most of her time in the city of Buffalo. She is the director of religious education at Our Lady of Hope Parish in Buffalo, New York, a diverse and exciting parish that is both multi-cultural and multi-generational. Sr. Susan celebrated her 50 year Jubilee in 2009 as a Sister of St. Mary of Namur and began her work with Gamaliel after she attended National Leadership Training in the late 1990’s.

How did your work with Gamaliel begin? 

Around 1996, a pastor, a layman and I went to Gamaliel National Leadership Training. At training, we met every night to process what happened through the day. I was involved in our neighborhood at that time and this training became a way to address drugs, and especially housing and homeless youth. What I remember most about this training is saying to Mary Gonzalez, long time Gamaliel organizer, recently retired, “I wish I had done this 20 years earlier”. Yet timing was right and one thing led to another and we were able to create a great core team. We were doing actions in our neighborhood and the mayor and other influential leaders were showing up. This was the beginning. After a couple years of working in two parishes, I decided that I wanted to be an organizer full time. After about two and a half years of this, I was invited to come back to a parish and worked to create an intergenerational education program. Amidst this personal move for myself, there was a diocesan decision made to merge three Catholic Westside churches. Unfortunately, there was not a process that was clear and there was no place at the table for the religious women who lived and worked in the area. This was the biggest awakening and worst example of everyone not having a voice. Yet, with all of these changes within the Church, VOICE was growing stronger and now working in collaboration with NOAH. With all these ups and downs, my connection with Gamaliel has been about building relationships, crossing over boundaries and supporting one another. For me, Gamaliel has been about speaking up and doing something. After the merger of these three churches, there was a project evaluation going on, and it was clear that I did not have a place. The people in my parish spoke up and convinced the leadership that I needed a place in their church. 

How is Gamaliel’s Fire of Faith Campaign linked to Catholic social teaching? 

When Ana Garcia-Ashley, Gamaliel’s Executive Director, came to Buffalo last spring, as the Fire of Faith Campaign was just starting, she was speaking about how the root of Catholic Social Teaching is precisely what organizing is all about and Fire of Faith is meant to connect faith and the life around us. In many ways that has always been in me; welcoming the stranger, taking care of one another and feeling responsible to do so. The connection between faith and working to make the world a more just and viable place seems to me at the heart of what all of us ought to be doing. I think that polarization exists in so many places because as people of faith, we need to work harder at the art of listening and working together for effective change. I think that the Catholic Church does not always address the root of the problem, rather circles around it. The Fire of Faith Campaign is asking congregations and people to do something. With Congress and the President really talking about immigration now, I reflect on my parish and how we have an incredible amount of African and Burmese refugees; without these people, we would not have a church. 

How do participants benefit from Gamaliel National Leadership Training? 

I think that training is a transformative experience if you can let it be. Training allows you to look at yourself and learn how to act and work on behalf of your community. One of the biggest things is that people can come back and practice and exercise the whole building of relationships in the dynamic of wherever they may work. This is the principal that operates in everything that I do. 

What do you see as a major goal or outcome of the Fire of Faith Campaign? 

The big picture answer would be continuing to build local organizations. The determination to keep building these organizations is part of the inspiration of Fire of Faith and it is a way for all of us to be transformed.

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