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Lifelong lessons learned from a nun in 1968

Little did I know that inviting a visiting nun to stay at my home back in 1968 would have a profound impact on the rest of my life and the life of my two children.

Her name was Sister Columba of the Order of St. Helena, an Episcopal religious order with a convent in Augusta, Ga. Sister Columba had traveled from Augusta to lead the weeklong vacation Bible school at our church, St. James Episcopal Church in Marietta, Ga. She would be staying a few days at our house.

The newspapers were filled that summer of 1968 with news of civil rights oppression and even murder of those trying to register black voters. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. What would I do, I wondered, with a passive nun who lives in a convent instead of this turbulent world?

The times caused me grave concerns about my children. We had relatives who used racial pejoratives. A favorite aunt loved to tell jokes that demeaned black people, only that is not the word she used.

When Sister Columba arrived at my house that summer day in 1968, she wore an off-white linen habit and a large wooden cross around her neck. My daughter, Jennifer, 6 at the time, seemed not to notice. Andrew, 3, was playing with a G.I. Joe toy.

We lived in a nice middle-class neighborhood. The only black people my children saw were the maids or the yard men who worked at nearby homes. Yet in other neighborhoods, many black people lived in squalid conditions. Their schools were rundown and shabby.

It was in this context that I sat down the first evening of Sister Columba's visit. I asked her about her call to the religious life. Then I asked her what I really wanted to know: "What do you do all day in a convent?"

Her answer opened my eyes. This innocent-looking nun had been helping with voter registration in Augusta. She and several others in the religious community had moved into a notorious slum in Augusta in an effort to persuade the city to enforce its codes for the landlords in those substandard neighborhoods. In other words, Sister Columba was very much a part of this turbulent, changing world.

So I asked her the real question that was haunting me: "How can I bring my children up to see the good in all people? How can I teach them that good people will not always be like them?"

Her answer changed my life. "It's simple really, but it is also very hard," she said. "First you lead by example. Show your children that you are not prejudiced by a person who is different to you.

"Here's the hard part. Do not ever tell ethnic jokes or jokes that demean another person in any way. And do not let other people say those things in your presence or the presence of your children," Sister Columba said firmly.

"So what do I say when relatives or friends tell those jokes or use offensive words?" I asked.

Sister Columba replied, "Tell them you don't want to hear that kind of thing and you don't want your children to hear it."

From that day forth, I have annoyed many, many relatives and friends by interrupting a joke about to be told that demeans blacks, blondes, redheads, homosexuals, Poles, Jews or the handicapped.

My children are grown now. Jennifer — a former media professional who is now a stay-at-home mom and is active in her church — is a gracious young woman whose children learn much from her good example. All three have red hair, so they especially appreciate the ban on jokes about redheads.

Andrew is an AIDS activist in Atlanta and a compassionate, generous human being.

Thank you, Sister Columba!