Alison McCrary starts her mornings with prayer and meditation. Sometimes she writes in her journal. Other times she draws geometric mandalas. It’s a way of silencing her mind. She thinks about what grace she wants to ask for that day. Should it be patience? Gratitude? Understanding?
The Times-Picayune John McCusker / The Times-PicayuneAlison McCrary works with Safe Streets/Strong Communities as legal observer at the city's Sunday brass band parades. She watches out for abuse of participants at the hands of police Sunday January 22, 2012 Alison McCrary: Seeking grace in troubled times gallery (12 photos)
“Humility is a big one,” she says. “I ask, ‘How can I increase God and decrease me?’”
McCrary graduated from Loyola Law School in May and is in formation to become a nun in the Congregation of St. Joseph. She lives with a group of sisters in a house near Bayou St. John, and every night at 6.p. m. they sit down to eat together and share after-dinner prayers. Often, Sister Helen Prejean and other nuns who live in New Orleans join them.
“All of us have different ministries,” McCrary says. “I feel very blessed that we have each other.”
On Jan. 21, Sister Lory Schaff, a co-founder of Hope House in the former St. Thomas housing development and a tireless advocate for the poor, died at home, surrounded by the other sisters as they prayed the rosary.
“I was looking through some old photographs and I found pictures of her with A. L. Davis, Martin Luther King and Avery Alexander,” McCrary says. “She had an amazing life, and she was a huge role model for me.”
McCrary tries to strike a balance between prayer and ministry. The young lawyer, who will be 30 in February, has a Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship and spends her days as an advocate and organizer, working with Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a grassroots group that operates out of an office on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
“People are always asking me, ‘Why don’t you get burned out?’ But I feel like the more you give, the more you get back,’” she says.
For her legal services, she has received payment in satsumas, a photo of a Mardi Gras Indian Spy Boy she helped get out of jail, a sack of oysters.
“I tried for days to get them open with a butter knife,” she says.
Often, her ministry takes her to the streets of the city. Most Sundays, you’ll find her at a second-line parade, wearing a bright lime-green hat and parading with the social aid and pleasure clubs, serving as a legal observer and documenting any police misconduct she sees.
Sometimes, you’ll find her at a neighborhood bar, talking to Mardi Gras Indians, a second-line group or a brass band about noise ordinances, the new curfew, unfair parade fees.
“People want to know, ‘Why is a nun going to bars?’” she says, laughing.
McCrary aims to protect the cultural rights of centuries-old African-American groups and their traditions.
“I think those forms of cultural expression are important to the healing of our city,” she says. “The paraders should be respected and protected, not harassed and arrested.”
She sees her role as a lawyer fighting for social justice meshing perfectly with becoming a nun.
“People have such a misconception of what nuns are,” she says. “We’re supposed to run into the world, not out of it. Our eyes are wide open, and our sleeves are rolled up.”
McCrary grew up poor in rural Georgia with her parents and two sisters, and she gradually began to understand what social justice means.
“My mother is Cherokee,” she says. “She wasn’t welcome at the white school or the black school when she was a girl. She just recently learned to read and write.”
Where McCrary lived as a little girl, Confederate flags flew on many buildings, and the Ku Klux Klan marched in the square on weekends.
“You grow up with something, you think it’s normal,” she says. “But that isn’t normal.”
Her family was Southern Baptist, and even as a young girl, she was full of questions.
“I was always seeking, always asking, ‘Where is God?’” she says.
Nobody in her family had ever gone to college, but after the McCrarys moved to Conyers, Ga., she had teachers who saw something in her, who encouraged her and gave her books to read. After high school she went to a nearby community college and then commuted to Atlanta to attend Georgia State University. By the time she graduated with a degree in English in December 2004, she knew she wanted to be involved with justice and human rights.
“There are so many struggles of the poor and oppressed,” she says. “If I’m not engaged in some kind of social change, then something is wrong.”
During an internship with the PeaceWomen Project at the United Nations in 2005, she met impressive women doing the kind of work she wanted to do.
“I found out they were lawyers,” she says. “I was inspired by what they were doing, and that planted the seed for going to law school.”
After living in New York, McCrary didn’t want to go back to the country, and she decided to move to New Orleans. She filled out job applications with The Innocence Project and other justice groups and arrived in the city in August 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina struck. She never considered leaving after the storm.
“There was so much need here. There was too much to do,” she says. “And I was sure New Orleans was going to come back.”
Instead of going to job interviews, she ended up working at a food pantry at St. Augustine Church with some Tulane students.
“There were no grocery stores open. We were feeding 200 families a week,” she says.
While she was at St. Augustine, the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, who was pastor of the historic church in Treme, invited her to come to Mass. She explained that she wasn’t Catholic and didn’t understand “all that kneeling and standing up,” but he assured her that didn’t matter. She was welcome there.
That Sunday, in the old Catholic church built by free people of color in 1842, she found an answer to the question she’d been asking since childhood.
“I could really feel the spirit in that church, back to the time of the slaves, back to the time of Homer Plessy and A. P. Tureaud,” she says. “The spirit lives in that space, and I felt closer to God than I had ever felt in my life.”
She spent a year studying scripture and Catholic doctrine and then joined the Catholic church.
“It took some work with my family when I became a Catholic,” she says, smiling.
In 2006, McCrary became a paralegal with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, where she worked with indigent defendants and began visiting people on Death Row.
“They kept telling me, ‘You should go to law school. We need people like you to be lawyers,’” she says.
She entered the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law in August 2007. During her work as a paralegal and volunteer activities as a law student, she met several Sisters of St. Joseph and saw the important work they were doing, and she felt called to become a nun.
“I met Sister Helen Prejean and Sister Lory Schaff and all these incredible women who were living the gospel values, and I thought, ‘I want that,’” she says.
She started meeting with a spiritual advisor, and after finishing law school and passing the bar in May, 2010, she took the first step to becoming a Sister of St. Joseph on Aug. 15, 2010.
“I knew I had to find the beauty in the middle of all the struggle,” she says. “My decision is something I feel at peace with.”
In a world that values money, power and sex, she is ready to live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“I believe our vows have a lot of meaning,” she says. “I feel like I’m called to that commitment.”
When her fellowship is over in April, McCrary will begin the second step in becoming a nun. She will go from her busy ministry in criminal justice reform and cultural rights advocacy to a two-year novitiate.
“You can’t work or volunteer,” she says. “It’s a time of contemplation, a time to explore your relationship with God.”
She will live in Chicago with the other Sister of St. Joseph novices in a house owned by the congregation.
“I think it will be really rewarding,” she says.
She looks forward to finishing her novitiate and making her first vows in April 2014. She doesn’t know what her ministry will be yet. That will be determined by where God leads her and what the community needs. She just knows it will be in New Orleans.
“I don’t see myself going anyplace else,” she says. “I love New Orleans. It’s a place of struggle, but it’s also a place of love and beauty and hope.”
Sheila Stroup's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. Contact her at email@example.com or 985.898.4831.