I’m always amazed at how small decisions can change your life. When Al and I were planning our trip to Ireland in 2014, we decided to try to learn a little about Irish dancing and music before we went. So, we showed up at the Harp & Fiddle one Tuesday night, thinking to get one Irish dancing lesson…and we liked it so much that we’ve been showing up nearly every Tuesday ever since. We have lots of fun with the dancing (which, I might add, one does NOT learn in one lesson!), but the real gift has been the wonderful friends that we’ve made – including one of the most admirable women I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Al and I often say we want to be Theresa when we grow up. Everyone should be Theresa when they grow up, or at least their own version of Theresa. Theresa has been a Christian educator, the day-program director of a women’s shelter, a sponsor of refugees, and a founder and leader of ecumenical and social justice organizations. At 78, she is still a fierce Christian soldier and social justice warrior.
Theresa came by her activism organically. Her husband, Harry, owned a barber shop in Oakland for many years. As barber shops often are, it was a social hub for the community. People came not just for haircuts, but to play cards, check in on their friends and just generally hang out. When the 2011 micro-burst destroyed the barber shop, Harry finally retired. He and Theresa could easily have sold the lot, but they chose instead to invite local residents to turn it into a community garden, which still thrives.
Her career in Christian education started when she was asked to substitute-teach an 8th-grade Catechism class. It was initially not a good experience for Theresa nor for the students, in her telling, but one thing led to another and she ended up being a Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 24 years.
Her community and church ties put her in contact with people of different races, religions and social classes, deepened her understanding of what we share as human beings, and ignited in her an unwavering passion for service. This year alone, she is being honored as both a Jefferson Award recipient and a LaRoche College Distinguished Alumna award. A partial list of her volunteer activities includes:
Current Board of Directors of Just Harvest, serve as Chair of Personnel Committee
Founding member of North Hills Anti- Racism Coalition Steering Committee
20 years Facilitator of Annual Interfaith Gathering
Founding Member of Call to Action Committee – 10 year service as a trainer on the National Anti-Racism, Ant-Oppression Program
Pgh North People for Peace- Member
PGH Aids Task Force – volunteer “Power of One Award”
North Hills Ebony Women – Member
Oasis Inter-Generational Tutor- Pittsburgh Public Schools -5 year “Star Award”
St. Benedict the Moor Parish member and volunteer for all Ministries-25+ years
Pittsburgh Celli Club Member & Volunteer
NORTH (Social Justice Collaboration)-Representative member of the NH Anti-Racism Coalition
AJAPO – Resettlement Program for African and Caribbean immigrants – Outreach volunteer
Thomas Merton Center –Member
Not a bad resume for a little old Irish-American lady who could walk under a 5-foot bar without even mussing her hair. And her granddaughter continues her activist tradition by running an annual “Pet Walk” event to raise money for animal rights, and serving on the Monroeville Foundation Board.
My point is not that you have to do as much as Theresa does (not many of us could!), nor that you have to be active in the same causes that galvanize her. My point is that heroes (or “sheroes” as she prefers) like Theresa should inspire the rest of us to stretch ourselves in the direction of others, to go just a little beyond what we think are the limits of what we can give, to follow the light of our own compassion where it leads us. Theresa didn’t start as a shero. She started a wife whose husband owned a barber shop, and a mother of 3 who offered to help out with a Catechism class. “I saw the need and tried to respond,” is how she modestly describes her experience. Wherever you’re starting from, let Theresa inspire you to let your light shine in someone else’s darkness.