By Sheila Stroup
Religion News Service
NEW ORLEANS (RNS) 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. Patience? Gratitude? Understanding?
"Humility is a big one," she says. "I ask, 'How can I increase God and decrease me?'"
McCrary graduated from 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, and every night they sit down to eat together and share after-dinner prayers.
McCrary tries to strike a balance between prayer and ministry. The young lawyer, who turns 30 in February, spends her days as an advocate and organizer working with a grassroots group, Safe Streets/Strong Communities.
"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.
Often, her ministry takes her to the streets of the city, monitoring second-line parades for any police misconduct, or sitting in a bar talking to Mardi Gras groups about noise ordinances or curfews that threaten native traditions.
"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. Her mother is Cherokee, and until recently was illiterate after being shunned from both black and white schools.
In McCrary's youth, 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?'"
Nobody in her family had ever gone to college, her teachers saw something in her, and encouraged her and gave her books to read. She made it to college, graduating in 2004 with a sense that 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."
McCrary ended up in New Orleans 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.
Instead of going to job interviews, she ended up working at a food pantry at St. Augustine Church with some Tulane University students, feeding 200 families a week.
The church's pastor 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.
That Sunday 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," 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, working with indigent defendants and visiting people on death row. "They kept telling me, 'You should go to law school. We need people like you to be lawyers.'"
She entered the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law in August 2007. Her volunteer work led her to meet several Sisters of St. Joseph and see the important work they were doing, and she felt called to become a nun.
"I met ... all these incredible women who were living the gospel values, and I thought, 'I want that,'" she says.
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."
In April, she'll begin a two-year novitiate, a time where "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 novices and hopes to make 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 writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)