Congregations use social media to amplify social justice work

October 1, 2021

They're engaging on immigration, traf´Čücking, violence prevention and environmentalism

By JULIE MINDA

With the world rightly consumed with the coronavirus last year, a group of leaders of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word congregation in San Antonio had a discussion about how best to keep the plight of vulnerable groups, particularly poor migrants from Central America, in the public's consciousness.

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The Incarnate Word Foundation, a ministry of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio, teamed with other congregations of women religious to erect this billboard in St. Louis, where the congregation has a presence.

They greenlighted a social media campaign to build public awareness of the asylum seekers and economic refugees waiting in crowded camps at the U.S. border and for migrants seeking safety and a better life in developed countries around the world.

The "Human Dignity Knows No Borders" campaign reached thousands of the congregation's supporters between June 2020 and May. And while the campaign has ended, its influence continues.

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Sr. Katty Huanuco, CCVI

This is according to Sr. Katty Huanuco, CCVI, a leader in the congregation's Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office. She says, "We see social media as a tool to educate people on social justice issues and to use our congregation's influence to nurture social change. We are conscious that in social media we have a very powerful tool and a very powerful opportunity and space to reach people. I believe we are called to use it to spread love."

Many religious congregations connected with the Catholic health ministry have reached the same conclusion.

Posts and tweets
Cathleen Farrell is communications officer for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas of Silver Spring, Maryland. She directs the canonical institute's content strategy, and a social media strategist executes that strategy. Farrell says the institute uses social media channels to inspire action around its areas of critical concern: care of the Earth, immigration, nonviolence, racism and women's issues.

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Farrell

Many Mercy sisters manage their own social media accounts. Occasionally, there is collaboration on social media messaging. For example, the congregation and individual sisters may post online content to combat the crippling impact of poverty and human trafficking on women.

The Mercy institute has more than 63,000 Facebook followers, more than 15,000 Twitter followers, more than 3,700 Instagram followers, more than 570 Pinterest followers and 86 subscribers to its YouTube channel.

The institute represents more than 2,000 sisters in North, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Guam and the Philippines. The institute, or congregation, is part of an international network of more than 6,000 Sisters of Mercy.

Extended reach
The Americas congregation's 3,100 lay Mercy associates, nearly 1,100 Mercy Volunteer Corps alumni and thousands of co-workers in Mercy-sponsored programs and institutions are a core audience for these posts. (Mercy Associates are secular women and men who are pledged to incorporate the sisters' charism into their daily lives through fellowship, prayer and service.)

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The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas uses its social media feed to inspire action to protect the Earth, support immigrants, advance nonviolence, fight racism and promote the economic and physical health and spiritual well-being of women.

The Sisters of Mercy's affiliated organizations and devoted followers sometimes repost Mercy institute content giving it wider reach.

The Incarnate Word sisters of San Antonio, a congregation with about 270 members internationally, likewise uses social media platforms to broaden the reach of its social justice activism on immigration, human trafficking, care of creation, nonviolence and the promotion of human dignity.

Sr. Huanuco says more than 6,700 follow the San Antonio congregation on Facebook, about 750 on Twitter and nearly 1,000 on Instagram. The Incarnate Word sisters and their sponsored ministries collaborate on their social media strategies and repost each other's content.

The congregation co-sponsors CHRISTUS Health.

Creating community
Farrell says the Mercy institute has found online venues to be an ideal medium for sharing the sisters' perspective and work. She says good writers, including Mercy sisters and institute staff, are able to distill the complex topics that Mercy prioritizes into content that is accessible and interesting to a broad audience. The goal of the posts is to entice and inspire social media users to go deeper into the topics and to act on them, she says.

Farrell adds the Mercy institute aims to show its social media followers how they can be agents for change through "personal transformation, influencing community choices, educational outreach, legislative advocacy, corporate engagement and spiritual practices."

She notes that when done correctly, the congregation's social media efforts around social justice create a community of like-minded people who come back to the online space regularly to learn and to engage with the congregation.

Sr. Huanuco says the Incarnate Word sisters are intentional about building a social media presence that is inclusive and welcoming of new ideas and perspectives.

"To me, social media is a place — it's a space of encounter, creativity and collaboration" with others, she says.

No borders
Sr. Huanuco points to the Human Dignity Knows No Borders campaign to show how social media work lends itself to expansive collaboration. The San Antonio congregation's communications team partnered with their counterparts at CHRISTUS and at the congregation-sponsored University of the Incarnate Word to develop the messaging and reach select audiences.

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The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of San Antonio decries hate and violence in this March social media post featuring congregation members.

Part of the campaign involved interviewing migrants and refugees to create a digital audio series where people talk about their pursuit of a dignified life, their journeys and their dreams. Sr. Huanuco explains: "We wanted to share that when we listen to others and when we encounter others, we are encountering another human being."

She says while the congregation, the health system and the university tracked the online measures of engagement with the series, true success in her view will relate to whether the campaign changes hearts and minds.

Social media fatigue
Farrell and Sr. Huanuco say there are many challenges to using social media effectively.

There is a great deal of noise on every social media channel, and it can be difficult to break through that clatter, Farrell says. She adds that many users are getting turned off by the vitriol voiced on social media platforms and are disconnecting. It's important that social media not be "the only arrow in your quiver," she says.

Sr. Huanuco says, for now at least, the pros of having an active presence on social media outweigh the cons. "I feel called to address the priorities of our congregation, and I believe it's a benefit to us to be on social media to do this.

"I think we as congregations can continue to explore how social media use can be a way to transform the ways we do things in our ministries. It encourages us to think more openly," Sr. Huanuco says.

Visit chausa.org/chworld to learn how the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston, the Incarnate Word sisters of San Antonio and the Sisters of Mercy have been using social media during the pandemic, to offer hope and comfort to others.

Through social media channels, congregations provide spiritual nourishment, advocacy, hope

While congregations of women religious long have had an active presence online, many such communities significantly have stepped up their use of social media during the pandemic. This has enabled them to maintain their outreach ministry when in-person contact is not an option.

Social media has become a preferred conduit for sending encouragement and spiritual nourishment to people worn down by loss and stress as the pandemic grinds on. That is according to representatives of ministry-affiliated congregations that have kept their social media channels humming throughout the pandemic.

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Quiroga

"The congregation's strategy for social media is basically the accompaniment of individuals and families during this health crisis," says Martha Quiroga, communications director for the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, a sponsor of CHRISTUS Health.

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Sr. Keating

Sr. Kevina Keating, CCVI, congregational leader of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston, another CHRISTUS sponsoring congregation, says the congregation long has found having an online social media presence to be "excellent tools for mission. What's different (since the pandemic's onset) is the realization that our connection with the global community is now more dependent on social media. In some cases, it is completely dependent on it."

Hunger for spirituality
Cathleen Farrell is communications officer for the institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. She says a central role the sisters have played throughout their history – one that became amplified during the pandemic and other 2020 and 2021 stressors – is that of spiritual comforter. "We knew even before the pandemic that people have a hunger for spirituality, but during the pandemic this has been proven in spades. People have been frightened. They have been needing something meaningful. And we are glad we can provide" them with spiritual resources.

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Like many other congregations, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Houston, Texas, have been posting information and resources on their social media channels to help people cope during the pandemic. That Houston congregation posted this message from one of their sisters, on strategies to handle the stress.

The Mercy institute posts prayers, reflections, messages of encouragement and spiritual guidance on its website and blog as well as on its social media channels, including on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Farrell says Mercy has received numerous messages from people who have used the spiritual resources, saying they were powerful and a real source of comfort.

Sr. Keating of the Houston Incarnate Word sisters says, "something in our DNA has a deep feel for those who are suffering, a desire to reach out, to encourage, to support, to bring healing and hope. With social distancing (and other restrictions in place), social media is the perfect platform" for fulfilling this mission. Her congregation posts all its content in English and Spanish.

When lockdowns began during early peaks of the pandemic, the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, quickly pivoted from providing spiritual services in-person to providing them virtually. Sr. Elena Gonzales, OSF, posted a daily rosary recitation offered for those patients with COVID-19 and for their caregivers. When she recorded the rosary outdoors on the grounds of the motherhouse, the recitations sometimes were punctuated by the honking of an errant goose.

Open doors
Sr. Caritas Strodthoff, OSF, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity archivist, says at the start of the pandemic, sisters from many of the congregation's locations in the U.S. contributed video greetings for a "Message of Hope that the congregation compiled and posted on YouTube. And, for a spark of joy, the congregation has posted videos of sisters singing "You Are My Sunshine" and other tunes to their fellow frail elderly sisters sequestered in the infirmary of the congregation's convent in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

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Sr. Strodhoff

The Houston Incarnate Word sisters also post videos of their celebrations of special occasions, such as a June "Live, Love and Laugh" event to celebrate cultural diversity and a July associate appreciation event. Sr. Keating says, "It is important to remember beauty and the good being done especially in a difficult time. There is plenty negative and even false information out there. As religious and as Catholics we want to contribute a constructive voice."

Built connections
Sr. Keating notes that with so many people isolated at home during the pandemic, "Social media allows us to reach a larger audience, to directly connect in an individual way, to maintain communication and conversation when avenues are limited. The congregation responds to individuals who comment on its posts.

The San Antonio Incarnate Word sisters developed a communication plan at the start of the pandemic focused on keeping internal and external audiences informed about how the congregation and its ministries were affected by the pandemic and how they were coping. Among the sisters' online activities: sending out a "Good News" email every week and sharing spiritual resources daily.

Mercy's Farrell says that at the start of the pandemic, the institute set up a private Facebook group for sisters, and hundreds quickly joined to share with one another updates from their daily lives, encouragement, prayers, reflections, photos, art and other contributions. Facebook has been a great connector for the sisters, helping reconnect sisters who are spread out geographically. Farrell calls it the modern-day equivalent of sharing a cup of tea among friends.

— JULIE MINDA

 

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