Nancy Morrison learned to listen during a long career as a therapist. Now devoted to passion projects in retirement, she strives to encourage dialogue among diverse races.
“After retiring, I wanted to do the things I wanted to do, and I was serious about social justice,” she said. “Diversity is really important to me.”
Through work with United Congregations of Metro-East (UCM), which covers Madison and St. Clair counties, Morrison is now one of the O’Fallon leaders on the steering committee for their new four-part program, Sacred Conversations on Race + Action.
The kickoff session was Jan. 29, which invited all participating congregations to the United Presbyterian Church in Granite City to hear three speakers. The church will also hold the closing session, “Action Kickoff,” on Sunday, March 12 from 3 to 5 p.m.
The middle two programs will be at each participating congregations’ place. Here, they are in O’Fallon:
▪ Session 2 “Naming Our Experience” is Sunday, Feb. 12, from 3 to 5 p.m. Faith Lutheran Church and O’Fallon United Methodist Church are the sponsors. Through video, examining systemic racism practices, such as redlining, will take place. They will also reflect on our own personal experiences to glean deeper insights.
▪ Session 3 “Challenging Our Experience” is Sunday, Feb. 26, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Faith Lutheran Church. With Scripture and a TED Talk to view, they will engage in discussion that will help us see through another’s experience.
After the last program, they hope to divide into small clusters and work with local groups about how to dismantle racism.
Morrison said the committee met for 13 months to work on the program.
“On the one hand, race relations have come a long way, but on the other hand, race relations have a long way to go,” she said. “The next two (sessions) really focus on an awakening — what’s really going on in courts, schools, government, all sorts of institutions. One woman said it’s like smog on the air. There is an unconscious bias. It’s more subtle. I need to wake myself up to my own implicit bias. Many people have good intentions. We hope to wake people up to their own reality.”
Morrison, 73, has been involved in fostering communication as a volunteer or academic for most of her life.
“I grew up in an outreach family and taught at St. Louis University for 20 years,” she said.
But after the Ferguson, Mo., protests escalated in summer 2014, she felt the need promote some understanding.
The pastor at the O’Fallon Apostolic Assembly Church, Bishop Gregory Wells, had invited the community to open conversations. After a few meetings, discussion about continuing the conversation began in earnest.
“We had such wonderful conversations,” she said.
She became involved in “Continuing the Conversation,” through her church, a means to discuss how to become part of the solution to further understanding. Increased levels of fear, continuing racial polarization, growing violence and hatred were issues addressed.
Sharing concerns, perspectives, early childhood stories, networking, sharing meals and laughs are part of the ongoing action.
“We’re a mixed-race group of Christian adults who are learning about each others’ cultures, discussion different aspects of racism, and starting to develop actions to foster anti-racism. We meet monthly,” she said.
Morrison retired from St. Louis University as the head of the counseling and family therapist department in 2009. She maintains a small, private practice in Shiloh that she has had for 25 years, but has significantly scaled back hours.
She took a course, “JUSTFAITH,” which covered poverty, racism, environment, and immigration and other topics in 30 weeks, and then became certified to teach it and did so for five years.
“I became very focused on racial justice. It’s kind of my passion right now,” she said. “I gained new insights and deeper understanding about the insidious nature of racism. I learned about white privilege. I have spent my recent years learning about racism and doing what I can to combat it.”
Growing up in St. Louis, her family thought education was very important, and she focused on that for herself and her family, too.
“My mother was a very bright, enlightened woman, who battled mental illness off and on,” Morrison said.
Her mother, Lenna Thomas Mueller, graduated from college and earned a master’s degree, but wanted to be an architect. Her father finally agreed, and she was the only woman in her class.
But when Morrison was just 10 years old, her mother had a nervous breakdown. As the oldest of three children, with siblings 7 and 4, Morrison helped with the household. While her mother recuperated, an African-American woman named Carolyn was hired to help.
“We all just loved her and adopted her family,” she said. “She was very poor and lived in a slum with mud streets.”
Morrison went on to college, earned a degree in education, and worked as a teacher before she started her family. She earned a master’s degree in counseling and eventually a Ph.D. in family and marriage therapy. Her husband Larry, a retired historian, also has a Ph.D.
They have lived in O’Fallon since 1983. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last July with a family trip to Door County, Wis., one of their favorite vacation spots.
They have two grown children: Scott, who is a family physician in O’Fallon, and Wendy, who is a marine biologist in Silver Springs, Md., who are both married and have two children each.
Morrison remains passionate about many things: her family, her faith, her interests and building bridges among people.
“My goal of becoming totally anti-racist will probably not be fully accomplished in my lifetime; however, I plan to continue to foster racial justice activities and strive for a world filled with love, equity and respect for all,” she said.
Another pet project is Microfinancing Partners in Africa, which offers a hand up from poverty to possibility. She is involved in the St. Louis group.
“I would love to do a mission trip to Africa,” she said.
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: The “Golden Rule” still works for me! If we all treated others as we wish to be treated, our world would be a very different place!
Q: Whom do you most admire?
A: My mother. She helped me throughout her life to see social injustice, care for all marginalized people, and frequently modeled outreach actions.
Q: If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: Eleanor Roosevelt. She set very high standards in so many areas, and was the first first lady to demonstrate a strong social conscience.
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: Currently, I am reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. I have many books on various aspects of racial justice on my shelf and have not had time to read them yet. Also, I enjoy good fiction, especially books by Jodi Picoult.
Q: What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: I love to travel, commune with nature and read. Several years ago, I started watercolor painting and that is the most relaxing activity I have now. Although I love to be with my grandchildren, that is not always relaxing!
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: Sometimes fairly neat; sometimes messy. However, I can’t “think” when there is too much clutter, so that’s when I clean it up, or make piles and get them out of my sight!
Q: What did you want to do career-wise when you were growing up?
A: When I was growing up, there were not many choices for women: secretary, teacher or nurse! Thankfully, we have so many more options now! I started as a public school teacher, then a school counselor, then a family therapist, then a college professor and administrator!
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: I don’t know, so I decided to ask my husband. He said it is my compassion.
Q: What irritates you most?
A: People who “KNOW” they have cornered “TRUTH!” To me, they seem to have closed their minds, and are unwilling or unable to learn and grow.
Q: What type of music do you listen to?
A: Primarily classical or easy listening.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: As a retired woman, I love to follow my passions wherever they take me. I am heavily involved in volunteerism, greatly enjoy diversity, and intend to keep learning and growing for the rest of my life. Now that I can make my own decisions, my own schedules — I can do what I want to do!
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: I would create a self-sustaining program that empowers all marginalized groups of people to be treated equitably (NOT equally).
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
A: Perhaps Meryl Streep, not based on age or appearance, but on her comments on the recent Golden Globes awards show.
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: My husband, family, paper and writing implements, and a newly developed device that would “call for help” when I had enjoyed the nature, the quiet and the peacefulness of my deserted island.
About United Congregations of Metro-East
Mission statement: “UCM is a powerful organization committed to combating the root causes of systemic injustice in our region by uniting people of faith in transforming our communities.”