American nuns are going viral on TikTok – The Irish Times

Before entering the St John Baptist community in 2012, Claudette Monica Powell performed in an acoustic rock duo and an improv comedy troupe in Los Angeles. Now she goes by Sister Monica Clare, sings in a church choir in Mendham Township, New Jersey, and posts factual videos about convent life on TikTok.

“Most people have no idea there are Episcopal nuns,” she said. On @nunsenseforthepeopleshe answers questions about religious rituals (“What’s up with the ashes?”), posts animal videos, and teaches her wide audience about Episcopalian values ​​such as gender equality and inclusion. Offline, she participated in Black Lives Matter protests and showed her support for women’s rights.

“I keep saying to the other sisters, ‘Go to TikTok!’ said Sr. Monica Clare, who at 56 is the youngest in her community. “’If we are hidden, we will die.’ ”

Her approach isn’t entirely new: nuns have appeared on screens almost since the dawn of television.

A decade ago, Sr. Monica Clare said, convents and monasteries were wary of social media, but they have come to see it as a potentially powerful tool to spread their message.

But so far, visibility has done little to attract new members. In 2019, 87% of Christian women and men committed to religious life were 60 or older, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Apostolate Research. TikTok, which last year announced it had an active global user base of 1 billion, could be a new frontier for outreach.

On the platform, nuns capture special festive meals (boiled prunes, fish stewed in milk), pranks (jumping out of a box to surprise a sister, shouting “Hail Mary!”) and dancing (with Jesus, with walkers). They ride lawn mowers and play basketball. They partake in viral trends (lip-syncing, skincare routines, daily montages) and reinterpret popular songs to get them talking about Christianity.

In one video, a row of sisters in single file declare their preferences – morning or evening prayer? Advent or Lent? Saint Peter or Saint Paul? – to the beat of It’s Tricky by Run DMC. The video has been viewed over 3.4 million times.

“We are not all grim old ladies reading the Bible,” Sr. Monica Clare said. “We are not just godly, stuck-up people. There is joy and laughter, the full range of human experience. The women in my community are very smart, very fiery. They know what they want. »

Its approximately 161,000 followers include former Mennonites, retired police officers, knitters, cat owners, recovering alcoholics, vegetarians, atheists and married women. She manages the TikTok account herself; for Facebook, she gets help from a group called Geeks for God.

About a decade ago, Sr. Monica Clare said, convents and monasteries were wary of social media, but they have come to see it as a potentially powerful tool to spread their message. She noted that in the mid-2000s, Roman Catholic nuns began to find large audiences on YouTube and Myspace.

Even Pope Francis has acknowledged that despite all the ways social media has been used to spread hatred and encourage vanity, it can also be used to evangelize.

“There are a lot of people who are curious about worlds they normally don’t have access to, like mine…I let people be a fly on the wall in my normal everyday life”

“They realized it was a great way to demystify what we do,” said Sr. Monica Clare. Like a marketing manager checking whether her campaign is consistent with the overall brand identity, she sometimes consults with the other members of an Anglican communications committee. She stressed that these were sounding boards, not authorities on what she could post.

Her order is much smaller and less hierarchical than the sprawling Daughters of St. Paul, a Roman Catholic order that operates in 51 countries and has its own publishing house. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, the convent creates clever multimedia marketing campaigns and last year published a self-help book, Millennial Nuns, with Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

“Our mission in the church is to bring Jesus to the world using the most modern and effective forms of media,” said Sr. Chelsea Bethany Davis (@srbethanyfsp), 30, who is part of the community and has more than 189,000 followers. “Because we’re media nuns, I have a phone. I text my mom, Snapchat my sisters.”

In a video, she shares that she struggles to learn Italian. Above his head, the text “Go little rockstar” appears in cartoonish speech bubbles like a self-motivational mantra – a reference to a widely misheard lyric from a viral audio from Sales. The song is called Pope Is a Rockstar.

Sister Lisa Carol Hezmalhalch (@sisterlisah) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved in 2021 to Concho, Arizona to establish a small farm and a new Catholic community. The 41-year-old’s videos cover things like cooking (10 pounds of freshly picked tomatoes) and convent-appropriate swearing (“dagnabit! blasphemy!”).

To take a vow of poverty and enter most communities, aspiring sisters must renounce their possessions and free themselves from their debts; she is transparent about how much student debt she pays off by selling items on eBay.

“There are a lot of people out there who are curious about worlds they don’t normally have access to, like mine,” she said of her mostly non-religious followers. “I let people be a fly on the wall in my normal everyday life.”

Before doing silent retreats, she responds to prayer requests from her nearly 143,000 followers. “As exhausting as it may seem, I prayed for each of the commentators by name,” Hezmalhalch said. Every day during the holy hour, she prayed for 20 to 50 devotees at a time, and more than 1,000 during the retreat. “Sometimes I don’t know their name,” she says. “This is user16575 saying ‘pray for me.’ I have no idea who ‘me’ is, but the Lord does.

Some brands and reality TV shows are gaining influence. A company sent Sr. Monica Clare a big box of wool (“Bring the wool! We’ll approve it for you, no problem!”). Her convent also received Salonpas pain relief patches, Dr Scholl’s compresses and compression stockings. “They just send us free products,” she said. “They don’t pay for endorsements.”

Recently, Hezmalhalch was approached by a casting producer in Los Angeles to make an appearance on a lip-syncing game show. “I like to be entertaining and I like to be the center of attention, which can lend itself to pride,” she said.

“The playful side of me loves lip-syncing. And the other side of me, the side that struggles to always be on TikTok, just wants to pray and do my job. His superiors turned down the audition on his behalf; a brother said on the phone that the show sounded “fancy”.

Another company wanted to send her a custom portrait. “What am I going to do with a painting of myself?” she says. “I take a vow of poverty.”

Although TikTok has placed new demands on the time of nuns, the call of religious life takes priority. “Oh my God,” Hezmalhalch said abruptly during an interview. “My prayer bell is ringing.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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