The air was thick with ash from raging wildfires last November when five millennials with no fixed religious affiliation moved into a Roman Catholic convent campus in northern California to spend six months under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy.

The pilot residency was the most ambitious evolution yet for the two-and-a-half-year-old national movement that brings together religiously unaffiliated young adults -- often called “nones,” for the box they check on surveys asking about their religion -- and Catholic sisters, colloquially known as nuns.

Since its inception, Nuns & Nones has garnered intense interest and widespread media coverage. The friendships between the millennials, most in their late 20s and early 30s, and the nuns, many in their 70s and 80s, have aroused the curiosity of many religion-watchers to see just what may emerge from the unlikely pairing.

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Up until November, Nuns & Nones met for monthly or twice-monthly conversations in convents and living rooms in cities such as Grand Rapids, Boston, Minneapolis and New York, and for monthly video conference calls and occasional conferences.

Aside from a website, the group is pretty informal, with no structure, offices or nonprofit status -- just a set of budding relationships.

But the five millennials who arrived at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California, about 15 miles south of San Francisco, were intent on having an immersive experience. They wanted to study the nuns’ democratic leadership structures. They wanted to explore the balance these women have struck between social action and contemplation.

Perhaps most of all, they wanted to explore what it’s like to live in spiritually grounded community, and how they might adapt parts of the model to their own lives.

In addition to the residency, the nuns and nones meet in person and online; the idea for the residency came up at this gathering at the Fetzer Institute retreat center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

The nuns, who are aging and declining in numbers, wanted to reflect on their accomplishments and transmit the wisdom they have accumulated to a younger generation. The two generations do not often interact but do share a passion for social justice.

The air outside may have been smoky and dark, but from the moment Sister Joan Marie O’Donnell stepped outside to greet the guests with a bottle of wine, the atmosphere brightened.

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The five millennials had already formed strong personal bonds with some of the Mercy Sisters through quarterly meetings in the Bay Area. They were eager to build on those.

They settled into the convent’s retreat center, where they were each provided their own bedroom, simply furnished with a single bed, a small desk, an armchair and a sink. They shared bathrooms and were offered the use of a gathering room with a kitchenette.

After getting to know the 39-acre convent campus, called “The Oaks,” with its gardens, walking trails and labyrinth, the group established some routines.

They held Millennial Monday discussion groups, Friday night Shabbat dinners (courtesy of the two millennials who were brought up Jewish), and a dialogue series on the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Scripture study on the Hebrew prophets and occasional outings to shadow the sisters in their numerous off-site ministries were also part of the residency.

Jewish millennials, including Adam Horowitz, fourth from left, organized a Shabbat dinner with their hosts at the Mercy Center. Photo courtesy of Nuns & Nones

“The core of our inquiry is, What does it take to live in spiritually grounded, socially active community?” said Adam Horowitz, the 32-year-old Santa Fe-based cultural organizer and activist who co-founded the Nuns & Nones collaborative and was part of the pilot residency. “What kind of structures might be in place in our own lives to orient ourselves toward lifelong, sustained social action?”

The sisters, for their part, said they felt honored to share the way of life they have cultivated over the past 50 years with young, thoughtful people who expressed many similar longings.

“For me personally, it has drawn me into such a bigger world,” said Sister Gloria Marie Jones, a Dominican nun who lives in Oakland and served as a mentor to the group.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to such a diverse faith group. Their desire for spirituality is very alive. I have been really blessed finding a resonance of values, hopes and dreams, and openness to the Spirit.”

Sister Gloria Marie Jones listens to breakfast conversation at the Michigan retreat center. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

A window of opportunity

The six-month residency came about because of a particular urgency.

There were 44,000 Catholic sisters in the U.S. last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, a sharp decline from the 161,000 sisters 50 years ago.

Although some women still join Catholic religious orders, they are not nearly enough to replace those who are dying. A 2014 study found that there are more sisters in the United States over age 90 than under age 60.

Millennials are quite aware of the window of opportunity.

“They want to do this now, because there’s a limited amount of time,” said Kaya Oakes, who writes about Catholicism and is the author of “The Nones Are Alright,” a look at the lives of young millennials.

“They see these women as successful activists who they can learn from,” Oakes said.

Indeed, Catholic sisters continue to build on a long legacy of founding hospitals and schools, safe houses, and affordable housing communities, to name a few. Even in retirement, they remain committed to ministering to the sick, the prisoner and the stranger.

For participants of both generations, hearing others share their experiences is one of the benefits of the Nuns & Nones experiment. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

O’Donnell, for example, is 77 and officially retired. But she volunteers daily at a dementia care facility and serves on the board of a local Catholic high school and two immigration coalitions. She also works part time at a local mortuary, attending to grieving families, and volunteers at a San Francisco center that offers spiritual and psychological support to addicts and substance abusers.

“I do a whole potpourri of things in my post-retirement,” she said.

In the years since the Second Vatican Council ushered in many church reforms, the U.S. sisters have carved out independent lives. They no longer wear the habit. They work in academia, law and other professions, and they govern themselves along a horizontal organizational structure -- electing their leaders for fixed terms and through a long consultative process of discernment -- rather than the traditional top-down leadership of the Catholic Church at large.

Those factors appeal to idealistic millennials, who value social justice, meaningful work and collaboration.

“The millennials have a desire to create a new and better world not driven by the consumerism and polarities and power,” Jones said. “They look at the sisters and say, ‘This is a group of people who have made a difference. How did they do it?’”

A participant takes notes. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

One thing the nuns have been willing to set aside is any effort to proselytize. Only one of the dozens of millennials involved in the Nuns & Nones project has returned to the Catholic Church. And so far, few if any of the nones have affiliated with a particular congregation.

That’s fine by the sisters.

“This experience is beyond church, and it’s beyond belief,” said Sister Judy Carle, who guided the residency program. “One of the first questions they asked us is, ‘What’s your spiritual practice?’ It was not, ‘What do you believe?’”

Several sisters said they wanted to remain open to whatever the relationships may bring.

“For me, it’s been a very sacred journey into mystery,” Jones said. “They have helped us see our lives with new eyes and appreciate it in new ways. All of that is part of the blessing and joy and gift of this journey with them.”

Creating new communities of meaning

Ever since the 2007 Pew Research Center religious landscape survey, Americans have been awakened to a changing religious landscape in which a growing share of people are religiously unaffiliated and perfectly happy to remain so.

Among American millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996, as defined by Pew), the share of nones is some 35% -- compared with 23% in the general population -- and researchers predict an even higher concentration among Generation Z.

But though they may not go to church, many millennials are socially conscious, eager to work for change and looking for ways to ground their social justice work in spiritual practices.

The Michigan group has breakfast together before a field trip to Nazareth College. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

That’s certainly the case for the millennials of Nuns & Nones.

The group got its start around 2015 when two of its founders -- Horowitz and the Rev. Wayne Muller, a Santa Fe psychotherapist, author, minister and community advocate in his mid-60s -- met through a mutual acquaintance.

Muller, who had worked with the Maryknoll Sisters years ago during a sojourn in Peru, was aware of the nuns’ radical commitment to social justice. On many long walks in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Muller suggested to Horowitz that he and his young activist friends might learn something from the example of the Catholic sisters.

The two organized the group’s first official gathering in November 2016 at Harvard Divinity School.

In recent years, the school has become a hub for those wanting to study community, spirituality and social activism outside traditional religious institutions, and both Muller and Horowitz had attended conferences there.

One of the gathering’s co-sponsors was How We Gather, a millennial-led startup begun at Harvard in 2015 by two divinity school students, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, who wrote a white paper on how millennials are finding and building communities of meaning and belonging apart from traditional religious settings.

That same spirit of innovation drives the millennials in the Nuns & Nones group. Horowitz, for example, has founded multiple nonprofit ventures, including a grassroots action network of artists and organizers called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture and a pop-up Jewish learning community called Taproot. He considers himself Jewish.

At around the same time as the Harvard gathering, Katie Gordon, a millennial from Grand Rapids, Michigan, formed the first regional Nuns & Nones group in that city.

Gordon, who worked at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, had come across the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids and begun talking initially with one sister and eventually with others. Then she brought fellow millennials with her.

Katie Gordon
Katie Gordon, one of the first Nuns & Nones organizers, shares logistics for the morning field trip. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

That group, now called Sisters & Seekers, has been meeting every other Sunday evening at the Dominican Center at Marywood since April 2017. The group leader will typically begin the discussion with a feature story that the group has read. Sometimes the group will discuss a recent episode of “On Being with Krista Tippett,” the public radio show that explores what it means to be human. Both the millennials and the sisters are fans.

Gordon, who is 28, has since moved to Boston, where she started another Nuns & Nones group. She graduated this year from Harvard Divinity School and remains intensely interested in nonreligious community building. She is spending the summer with the Benedictine sisters in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“When I started a few years ago, I wouldn’t have called myself spiritual,” Gordon said. “Through the language sisters use and the mysticism of that tradition, I’ve learned this contemplative orientation. It doesn’t make me more religious or affiliated with any tradition, but it’s deepened my spiritual practice in a really significant way.”

But if there’s one thing that has eluded millennial innovators, it’s how to create a viable model of community living.

That’s what led Horowitz and Muller to begin investigating the potential for a residency that might allow the nones a deeper immersion and learning experience.

At a meeting of sisters and millennials in April 2018 at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Horowitz and Muller approached Carle about the possibility of a residency at the Mercy Center in Burlingame.

“I wasn’t sure I could commit to it,” Carle said. “When I came home, I talked to the leader of our retreat center. Then I talked to our [regional] leadership. It took about three or four months to get the essentials down.”

In time, and as she got to know some of the Bay Area millennials better, she became more convinced that the residency could benefit both groups.

Sister Judy Carle of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Photo courtesy of Rhino Media & the Fetzer Institute

Sarah Jane Bradley, a Berkeley-based millennial who had co-founded an alternative graduate school community called Open Master’s, was eager to sign on.

“A lot of the concerns and questions of my generation are around how we share resources and how do we be in right relationships with people in ways that aren’t objectifying or a power over others but loving and consensual,” Bradley said. “How do we remove the ego in our decision making and make it more about inner listening and dialogue?”

These questions led Bradley, who had grown up Catholic but moved away from church practice, to organize a series of discussions with the Mercy Sisters around their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. For many, the series opened up a world of possibility for how millennials might anchor their commitments to their most deeply held values.

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Some, including Bradley, began to think about how to craft vows of their own -- a vow to live simply, for example, or a vow to share resources with others.

“A lot of young people don’t have anything like that in their lives,” Muller said. “They now realize they can do new and hopeful things. It broke open their imagination.”

Stones rubbing against each other

By mid-May, the time had come for the millennials to pack up.

Before leaving, they drafted an online survey to help themselves and the nuns reflect on the experience. The nuns have submitted their own report to their regional leaders in Omaha, Nebraska. The two plan to draft a public report at a later date.

The experience was a learning curve, and the road not always easy to travel together.

Where are the friction points in your work? How might they become agents of smoothing and polishing?

Among the highlights for both groups were the Shabbat dinners, the April 19 Freedom Seder, as they called the Passover eve ritual meal the millennials hosted, the many formal discussions on vows, and the many more informal exchanges in the hallways and in smaller groups.

The two groups did not interact daily. The sisters’ quarters were in the convent side of the campus, and the millennials were housed in the retreat center.

The millennials kept their remote nonprofit jobs, and they found it challenging to balance their outside commitments while also learning alongside the sisters.

“This has not been the period of rest, prayer, contemplation and study that one might imagine,” Horowitz said. “It’s been full-time work in a very intense communal environment.”

In some ways, the millennials had thought ahead. Before they arrived, they had set up a joint bank account to pay for food and make monthly contributions to the Mercy Center.

But they did not fully consider what kinds of commitments to make to one another. Should they meet daily, and when? What if some didn’t choose to join in? How should they handle disagreements?

“Burlingame has opened their eyes to ‘This is not easy,’” Jones said. “And it doesn’t happen because you’re living together.”

Living together is like holding a bag of stones, Jones said. They rub up against each other and over time become smoother, shinier and more polished, but there’s a lot of friction along the way.

Still, the taste for intentional community was tantalizing for most of the millennials, and Horowitz said he sees the residency as “setting up the tent poles” for future residency programs.

How could you structure your life or that of your community around values?

One common interest that repeatedly emerged was climate change and ways to heal the earth -- a concern shared by many of the nuns. There was talk of establishing a community in the East Bay, focused on ecology and education. Some talked about residency with nuns along the U.S. border with Mexico.

For now, there’s no agreement on the next steps. The five millennials will continue to be a part of the leadership team of Nuns & Nones and participate in monthly conference calls.

The residency had begun on a dark November day when California was burning. On move-out day in mid-May, the atmosphere was clear and bright, no longer choked with ash and smoke, but filled with the promise of new possibility and the mystery of a new spiritual opening.

Folks from across the Bay Area came to the Mercy Center for a daylong Nuns & Nones gathering. Photo courtesy of Nuns & Nones


Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Nuns and nones are an unlikely pairing. Are there unlikely partners with whom you could find common ground?
  • The millennials and the sisters share a commitment to social justice, meaningful work and collaboration. Are there people -- perhaps across generations -- who share your aims? Could you learn from their experience, and they from yours?
  • Mercy Sisters educated the millennials about their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. How could you discern and articulate the spiritual disciplines that ground your community?
  • Where are the friction points in your work? How might they become agents of smoothing and polishing?
  • The communal living residency gave the millennials a chance to live out their values. How could you structure your life or that of your community around values?