To her old Cherry Hill neighbors, she is just another "sister." From her outward appearance, it is difficult to determine that she really is "Sister" Margaret Brogden. "More people are surprised when they find out that I am a black [Catholic] sister, especially without the veil and the habit," Sister Margaret says, jokingly. "They think that I am just calling myself a 'sister.' "
Indeed, Sister Margaret is a rare occurrence. Statistically speaking, an African-American woman whose calling is to be a nun borders on the miraculous. Sister Margaret is one of only two African-Americans in her order, the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, which has 87 members. And she's only one of roughly 300 African-American nuns in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops's Web site, www.usccb.org
But Sister Margaret believes her color does not define her life or what her life's work is about. Sister Margaret is about helping the children of the Transfiguration Catholic Community, a combination of three former church parishes in West Baltimore.
As Transfiguration's youth and religious-education minister, Sister Margaret organizes positive activities for the young people who take part in the community's programs. The activities, which are open to Catholic and non-Catholic youths, include out-of-town retreats, teen-hangout nights and discussions about religion.
At age 40, Sister Margaret isn't much older than some of the young aunts or uncles of the youths she works with, which helps her to reach those who otherwise might be intimidated by the Catholic Church -- especially the at-risk youth.
Sister Margaret talks about her up-to-date approach to working with youth, the state of the Catholic Church and being one of 3 million African-American Catholics.
What do the 3 million African-American Catholics have to look forward to now that Benedict XVI is pope?
I think that he will continue in the tradition of Pope John Paul II. He is committed to things like World Youth Day in Germany, and he might want to do World Youth Days around the world because it was a big initiative for Pope John Paul II. But, he has always been known as a conservative. I think that Pope Benedict's official statement was that he will be looking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Is the Catholic Church changing its approach to attract more teens by having youthful ministers such as you?
No, I don't think so. I do want to open doors to as many teens as possible. But the [Transfiguration] program is not about numbers. I am not trying to fill a quota. It's about trying to have a quality program.
Do you think that there are some initiatives or commitments that need to be developed by the church in order to reach the African-American community?
A lot of urban churches are closing due to lack of money, priests, etc. Churches in the hearts of cities provide a beacon of light in the community, and if we go away then that light goes out. You gotta preach that urban gospel so that they can understand it. You have to meet people where they are.
Pope Benedict XVI's appointment was looked at by many theologians as a way to make sure that more Europeans stay with the Catholic Church. What does this mean for American Catholics?
There's never been an American pope. And I'm not sure if there ever will be. I don't think that the pope necessarily affects the day-to-day lives of American Catholics. The pope isn't like the president or Congress -- he is more of a spiritual head of the Catholic Church.
Will there ever be an African-American pope?
We live in a world that sees color and judges it, only allowing it so much room. And that's the reality of the world we live in. Asking me if there's going to be an African-American pope is like asking me if there is going to be an African-American president.