Standing out to take a stand: Prof melds religious life with academia

| Susan Klemond | October 22, 2015 | 0 Comments

From the time she wore an improvised nun’s habit while playing “school” as a child in Detroit, Sister Amata Miller has thought about religious life, teaching and social justice.

Throughout her 65-year career as a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and as a teacher in many capacities, she has integrated her passion for Catholic social teaching and social justice into her work.

Sister Amata Miller

Sister Amata Miller

“What I was taught to do as a young sister was, ‘Whatever you do, you’re trying to make a difference in the world, to make it more just,’” said Sister Amata, a longtime economics professor who is director of the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. The Myser Initiative integrates Catholic social teaching throughout the university’s curriculum.

In Sister Amata’s many roles, she has been both a teacher and integrator: from college professor teaching about the link between economics and theology, to shareholder activist and lobbyist, to program director fusing Catholic principles into professional disciplines. Through it all, Sister Amata has been clear in her identity as a religious sister.

St. Catherine University President Sister Andrea Lee describes Sister Amata as a gifted teacher who has had a profound influence at St. Catherine and the other institutions where she has taught. Sister Amata is “absolutely convinced about what she is doing, so passionate and thorough in listening to needs, exposing people to a larger world and context,” said Sister Andrea, also a sister of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who has known Sister Amata for almost 40 years and has lived in community with her. “I never have seen anyone top her.”

Faith inspires action

The roots of Sister Amata’s passion for social justice formed as she and her three siblings saw their parents assist refugees and work for weapon disarmament and other causes. “Peace was always very, very important, and justice and global concerns,” Sister Amata said.

When she attended an IHM school growing up, that global sense became part of her education. Even then, Sister Amata said she thought about religious life.

“From the very beginning, I knew that I wanted to be a sister,” she said.

Her convictions about a religious vocation and social justice grew as she got to know IHM sisters who taught that love of neighbor and making the world a better place were part of her faith.

As an IHM novice studying for a math degree at Marygrove College in Detroit in the early 1950s, Sister Amata’s courses about the world from a justice perspective complemented her novitiate formation in theology and philosophy.

During five years as an elementary school math teacher, she incorporated justice principles into her lessons until 1959 when her superiors asked her to study economics. The announcement was unexpected and the field unfamiliar.

“I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I was a sister and I was there to be an IHM and serve the community and the common good, so I went,” she said.

Sister Amata earned a master’s degree in economics from St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, and later a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. In her doctoral class of 250 in the mid-1960s, she was one of 10 women and the only religious sister. Her focus on developmental economics — looking at economics from the standpoint of the disadvantaged — made her stand out even more.

“I went to economics with the questions that came from Catholic social teaching. I know that now,” she said.

Lifelong teacher

She’s still not afraid to stand out. The stately woman whose white hair is held neatly in a bun no longer wears a traditional habit, but her standard outfit is a blue suit. She continued to wear a veil long after many sisters stopped wearing them.

“I believe it’s important that we’re recognizable in some way,” she said.

For decades Sister Amata has given talks to religious communities around the country on socially responsible investing and the need to plan fiscally for retirement.

Starting in 1988 in the leadership of NETWORK, a Washington, D.C.-based global justice and peace movement that educates, organizes and lobbies for economic and social transformation, Sister Amata promoted social justice principles through lobbying, lecturing, writing and testifying before Congress. While serving on corporate boards, she worked for social justice causes.

“We were teaching in another way. We were giving press conferences to try to educate the public on injustices,” she said.

As director of the Myser Initiative for the past 10 years, she has worked to infuse Catholic intellectual tradition and social teaching into St. Catherine’s curriculum and co-curricular activities by sponsoring speakers, faculty education and other programs.

When her position as director ends in December, Sister Amata, who is in her 80s, isn’t sure what’s next, but she doesn’t think it’s retirement.

“I’ve tried to be a bridge throughout my life in many ways, because when you’re doing economics, you’re always getting into the political, so I’ve had to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, [which] is the quintessence of Christian charity,” she said.

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Category: Year of Consecrated Life