How it all begins: Bay Area, CA

As part of the launch of our Organizer Toolkit, we’ve invited local organizers to share their stories to help illuminate why and how Nuns & Nones thrives where they live. Download the (free!) organizer toolkit here.

You’ve found the spiritual renegades in your community. How do you actually plan a first encounter between these people? Yi Zhang, Adam Horowitz, and Sr. Joan Marie O’Donnell, RSM shared a few of the highlights, how-tos, and secret ingredients that allowed the Bay Area Nuns & Nones group to continue thriving, 2 ½ years after its launch.

1. Think back to the early days of the Bay Area gathering. What did the initial invite look like? How did you welcome people into the space? 

Yi Zhang: “At the initial mingling before the circle started, Sister Gloria kindly approached me, greeted me and took me under the fold of her humble kindness and gentle wisdom. I felt very welcomed.”

Adam Horowitz: “As organizers of the gathering, we also offered 1:1 convos with any would-be attendees who were interested in learning a little bit more before showing up. That helped create some common understanding and encourage people to make the leap of saying yes.”

Excerpt from the invite: Twenty-four people. Together in one room. To listen. Slowly. Carefully. To learn about one another’s hearts, and callings, and inspirations. To create a sanctuary, a refuge, a place of safety, where truth can be safely presumed; where difficult conversations can bring great benefit; and where a small circle of disparate beings, of different ages and lineages, different callings and charisms, can begin to imagine, feel, sense, intuit, discern if there is something here. Something wanting to be born.

2. What did you do to debunk preconceptions? 

AH: “We shared some readings in advance with both groups, to learn more about one another. But the debunking really happens once you’re in the room together, once jokes start to fly, once tears start to roll, once truths are told, and commonalities uncovered. Just going around the circle with an opening question: “what wondering or unanswered question is really alive/stirring in your life right now?” Hearing people answer that question created a shared plane.”

3. The Bay Area has a spiritually diverse group of both sisters and millennials. How did you create a space that was embracing of this diversity of identity?

YZ: “It was helpful to start beyond preconceptions and labels by having the space to be human first—we started with a spacious sharing of the burning questions each one brought that could honor whatever tradition and walk of life we were in and also surface deeply what inquiries and yearnings were in the room. This led into a sharing of stories from each group, the sisters first and then the millennials, which allowed for both group identity/understanding as well as individual expression and breadth.”

4. What memories stick out from the origin of your gatherings?

YZ: “Being welcomed, being in circle and dialogue, being invited. Up until N&N I hadn’t ever really experienced a gathering where we can just spaciously get to know each other with a plan but not an agenda. The amazement I felt upon learning about how the sisters identify and are encouraged to pursue their unique ministry in contrast to the way millennials are pressured to balance income, meaning, prestige, etc.” 

Sister Joan Marie O’Donnell: “I always hearken back to the spontaneous gathering we had one evening at Mercy Center when Sarah, Alan, Adam called and said they had just come home from someplace and we invited them to come on over for dinner and a sharing session. It was a delightful experience at which we ended up writing haikus to conclude the evening. The haikus spoke volumes around the relationship that was forming and growing.

5. What is your advice to groups just starting out?

JMO: “My advice is to ‘communicate, communicate, communicate’ and offer opportunities for folks to get to know one another.  I think this happens the best in small group informal gatherings. Don’t expect that everyone is going to be onboard and has interest in participating; that is unrealistic. Reach out to a diverse group of “Nuns” to consider participation.”

YZ: “Take the time to be spacious and build relationship: stories, poetry, silence, overnights when possible….  Also, smile and release the temptation to rush and define the thing too fast. Be in each other’s presence and the divine presence first and foremost. Less is more.”


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