Remembrance of the Life of Michelle Tooley CoL
Jan. 31, 1953 – May 26, 2015
Michelle Tooley was born in Lufkin, Texas, the oldest of four children. In her application for Loretto co-membership, Michelle wrote about her growing up as “a daughter of the South. My early years were spent in several small Texas towns and later three Louisiana towns where we went following my father’s jobs, first as a high school coach, then as an engineer for a gas transmission company. My mother taught school and was the center of our home. We rarely lived in a town for more than three years. Our geographical stability came from my grandparents and from summer and holiday trips to their homes and those of an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins.”
As an undergraduate student at Northwest Baptist University in Natchitoches(nak-a-tish), La., Michelle discovered social justice issues—racism, classism and sexism and became committed to direct action for social justice. For two years after college she taught in a government high school and ministered in a small Baptist community in the Cayman Islands, where the people “loved and affirmed my gifts of ministry.”
Michelle entered Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Texas, where she received the Master’s of Divinity degree in 1982. During these seminary years she continued to find her voice as a woman and an activist, working with a Catholic sister in advocacy with refugees. She and 30 other teachers organized six alternative schools for the children of undocumented Latin American refugees, because Texas public schools would not admit them. When the INS raided the schools and took family names from the records, Michelle committed herself to work with a variety of local solidarity groups and with Witness for Peace.
Michelle served as a campus minister for six years after seminary. She discovered the challenges of teaching at the college level and was increasingly drawn to social justice concerns and to mission trips to Mexico, Haiti and inner cities of the United States. In Haiti, where she considered accepting a permanent position, the director of the program said to her, “We will always need people to help with the program here in Haiti, but there is a deeper need for some to study the problem of poverty and the church’s response.” As Michelle reflected on his statement and her passions, she decided to begin doctorate work in Christian social ethics.
Michelle wrote in her autobiography for Loretto, “I searched for a supervisor of my studies who both taught and practiced concrete ethics. I decided to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville (Ky.) to study with Glen Stassen, who had worked in the Nuclear Freeze Movement. My years in Louisville were blossoming years. I found a small inner-city church, Jefferson Street Baptist Community at Liberty, which was still working at what church should do and be. This church ordained me, and I worked there as Minister to the Homeless. At the seminary, I co-led a study group on Central America with a Presbyterian minister active in Louisville’s peace community and a diocesan priest, Jim Flynn. Through them I got involved in Louisville’s Central America solidarity group and in Witness for Peace.” In 1992 as part of her doctoral studies, Michelle was a visiting scholar at the Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, where she began work on the idea that became her dissertation and later a published book: Voices of the Voiceless: Women, Justice and Human Rights in Guatemala.
Michelle completed her doctorate in Christian social ethics in 1994. During her years at the Louisville Southern Baptist Seminary the administration underwent a shift toward patriarchal fundamentalism. Michelle found herself travelling back and forth to Guatemala to document the terrors of women active in human rights “while at the same time, my denomination was silencing women and others for whom I cared deeply. …In the midst of this oppressive environment, I was the beneficiary of the Sisters of Loretto, and particularly Elaine Prevallet, who opened Knob’s Haven to women graduate students for a retreat. On three occasions, we experienced the hospitality and sanctuary of Loretto. In addition, I lived at Cedars of Peace one summer and returned to Loretto to write my dissertation in a safe and welcoming space. I can’t overemphasize how important the Loretto Community was at this juncture of my life and career. The Motherhouse/Loretto Community was a holy place and it was a place of sanity in a violent and crazy world.”
Michelle began talking with Loretto women about co-membership, but felt she was too busy to continue with the process. In 1999, however, after a retreat with other interested individuals, she reconsidered. Michelle was accepted as a Loretto Co-member on April 12, 2002. A year later she left her position as associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., to become the Eli Lilly Professor of Religion and associate professor of peace and social justice at Berea College in eastern Kentucky.
In her application for co-membership, Michelle wrote, “All along I have wanted to identify closely with Loretto, partly because of the role this Community has had, consciously or unconsciously, in my spiritual life, but also because I want to say a strong and firm YES to the values and priorities of the Sisters of Loretto and all that you have been and are and will be. The strong focus on empowerment, nonviolence and justice are evident in so much of what Loretto stands for. …I want to live into and out of those values in my vocation as teacher and justice-seeker.”
Michelle Tooley died May 26, 2015, after a protracted illness. Kent Gilbert, her pastor at Union Church in Berea, wrote, “Throughout these last years of illness and treatment for her melanoma, Michelle remained incredibly faithful to her teaching, her students, her church family and to her commitment to just, loving communities around the world. Her passing at the age of 62 is a terrible loss. The gift of her passion and hope, however, remain a shining light to me, and I hope to you as well.”
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