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I Became A Nun for Mother Teresa and Didn’t Like Who It Turned Me Into.
Kelli Dunham is a community resource coordinator who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She spends her days “supporting kids in anything that isn’t academic” but she’s also a qualified nurse, a comic and a writer. Her LGBT storytelling show, Queer Memoir, was nominated for the Obama White House initiative Champions of Change, and she has an album of stories titled Not the Gym Teacher dropping in February. She’s in a semi long-distance relationship with her girlfriend Marcy.
She also used to be a nun.
According to the Vatican, in 2015 there were just 670,320 sisters globally. Many people today have had only limited exposure to nuns – if any at all. And no, Sister Act does not count.
It’s an increasingly niche group. But for Kelli, who was sent to a conservative, fundamentalist Christian school and later went to bible college in Oklahoma, becoming a nun shaped the early part of her adult life.
Here, she shares how she went from nun to genderqueer comic and how, despite what it might seem, she hasn’t changed all that much.
Her story – well, this part of it – starts with the breakdown of her engagement to “a very nice guy” she met in college…
“[After the break-up] I realised bible college obviously wasn’t the place for me, and I was scouting around for my next thing to do when a friend of a friend put me in touch with someone who was working at a school for kids with disabilities in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was like, ‘There’s this place in Port-au-Prince that needs volunteers just to help do recreation with the kids in the afternoons’.
It was when Haiti was in kind of… It was almost the civil war. They ended up closing the school and sending the kids back to the provinces because it was not safe for them in the capital. So I was like, ‘Okay, I live here now but I don’t have anything to do’.
I met an American dentist who invited me to the Missionaries of Charity’s (Mother Teresa’s sisterhood of nuns and the congregation Kelli eventually joined) Home for the Dying. I was enough of an adolescent to convert his question to a challenge and say yes, for the sake of pride.
It was there that one of the sisters said, ‘Oh, Jesus must have sent you because he knew we needed extra help’. I wasn’t even Catholic, I was evangelical Christian.
[That day] I took care of somebody who asked, ‘You’re coming tomorrow, right?’ and I thought, Well, I’ll just keep going back until this person passes away. It was expected she’d die right away, but it took six months.
In that time, I’d come to love the Missionaries of Charity. It wasn’t just white folks coming in from the outside. People were working together. One day I just said, ‘Can I join, please?’ The Missionaries of Charity will either take you or they won’t. Their very stringent training process is part of the discernment process.
Life as a nun
Everyone who joins from North America and the Caribbean has to go to ‘aspirancy’ (training) in New York, in the Bronx. So I had to present myself in the Bronx to begin my training. I was in a group of about 10 (of that group, I think one nun is still there). There were also 20 professed sisters in the house.
Each day we got up at 4.40am. We prayed for four hours a day, and we engaged in whatever the work of the house was. This could be working in a soup kitchen, visiting families, cleaning the women’s shelter [which we looked after]. We also studied the customs and rules of the Missionaries of Charity. On Thursdays we slept until 5.10am and spent more time in study and prayer.
Whatever your mistress told you to do, you were just supposed to say, ‘Yes, sister. Thank you, sister’. They had a very legalistic idea of obedience. The idea is that your mistress is the voice of God.
It seemed incompatible with being loving to me.
Our mistress told us that if we really loved Jesus, we would only go to the bathroom once a day. That we’d offer that up – which was ridiculous. We didn’t use toilet paper, we used pages torn from the phone book. Our mistress explained that we took a vow of poverty and we had to live like it.
Even if I managed to say, ‘Yes sister. Thank you, sister’, the nuns would still say they felt that I would walk away ‘like my shoulders were angry’. I didn’t always have the reaction they wanted to their rules and pronouncements.
They said I had ‘insufficient docility’ and ‘too much self-esteem’, which I just think is hilarious. Like, American women, too much self-esteem? Yeah, that’s the problem! We weren’t supposed to talk about any of it; we weren’t supposed to talk about our feelings at all. The requirement was just to be so emotionally struck down.
It took me a year and a half to get through pre-aspirancy, which was meant to be a month. I kept failing. They definitely knew I was trying; they just didn’t know what to do with me.
The moment I realised I could no longer be a nun was on one of the days we were cleaning the women’s shelter. I felt something going on with my body – probably my body saying, ‘Go! Leave! Please, go!’ – and I figured I was getting my period.
[In the sisterhood] we did not use disposable menstrual products. We used, essentially, wadded up diapers. And we’d hand-wash them in cold water. They absorbed what they needed to, but they were extremely labour-intensive.
While we were cleaning the women’s shelter that day, I saw a tampon sitting on top of one of the dressers. Sick of the diapers, I just picked it up and thought, I think I’m going to borrow this. As I was walking away, I realised: I’m not borrowing this. I’m not going to give it back, that would be even weirder. And then I realised: I just stole a tampon from a homeless woman.
At this point, I had been a nun for a year and a half, after having volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity for almost five years. I thought to myself, I don’t know who I want to be, but I know who I don’t want to be, and that’s a person who steals a tampon from a homeless woman. The fact that I was living in a world where I didn’t fit was turning me into someone I didn’t want to be.
I said to my mistress, ‘Do you think this is working out?’ and she came back in five minutes and said, ‘Yeah, you should leave’.
Life after the sisterhood
So I got on the bus to Philadelphia [to stay with my sister]. I began volunteering at a free clinic run by the Catholic Worker [a Catholic movement that runs houses of hospitality for people in need] and eventually, found a paying job at a shelter.
I did have some religious struggle around [coming out] but at the Catholic Worker, one of the folks said, ‘The people I know that are closeted or struggling with their identity, they’re not able to love people the way that God wants them to love. So if you’re always pushing down a part of yourself, then you can’t be the person you’re supposed to be in the world.’
I had my first girlfriend four months later.
The more distance I have from [the Missionaries], the less shame I have. It’s like God is my ex, not the ex with the bitter break-up but the ex with whom you had a great relationship but there was just something bigger pulling you apart.
What I was looking for then, which was an authentic way to serve humanity, a way to be in community, I’m still looking for now.
Even though I do have a lot of compassion for 23-year-old Kelli, who made all these bad, bad, bad decisions, that was something I needed to go through to get to where I am now. Sometimes I feel bad about the wasted time but [I’m still] who I was then.
Literally the only thing that’s changed is the window-dressing.”