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Judi Ketteler Trump, Covid-19 and racism taught me to stop being nice and embrace my rage

This has been a year for rethinking my affability. Which is how I found myself screaming at a nun.
Illustration of woman in running clothes standing in front of stained glass on a church screaming. One of the windows is designed with Trump's face.
I passed a scene that lit hot fury in me at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.Jimmy Simpson / for NBC News

Civility, niceness, peacemaking: I've always regarded these qualities as central to my identity. That is why, after feeling devastated in 2016, I made it my mission to find common ground with people who supported President Donald Trump. Or, at least, not to seethe with judgment at them. I thought that if I could just be magnanimous enough, empathetic enough, respectful enough, I could learn from others at the same time that others learned from me.

I've come to see that instead of changing minds, I've mostly been trying to avoid categorizations like "angry," "mean" and "difficult."

But after four years of Trump and his allies beating the drum of racism, abusing human rights and making a religion of science denial, it's clear there is a wide swath of people in America who aren't interested in listening or learning. My niceness has started to feel like one more enabling behavior, and my peacemaking — while charming for the youngest of seven kids — runs the risk of making people at the receiving end of racism feel unseen, as brilliantly described by the writer Eunice Brownlee.

I've come to see that instead of changing minds, I've mostly been trying to avoid categorizations like "angry," "mean" and "difficult" — labels hurled at Black women while white women like me hide behind civility.

In short, this has been a year for rethinking my affability. Which is how I found myself screaming at a nun.

One Tuesday last month, as I ran up the main drag of my small suburb of Cincinnati, I passed a scene that lit hot fury in me: Several hundred small white crosses sat in the yard of the big Catholic church on the corner with a sign saying they represented abortions performed in the United States.

Every year, these crosses appear the first Sunday in October for what U.S. Catholics call "Respect Life Week," and every year, I am appalled by the display. I'm staunchly pro-choice, but the root of my anger isn't so much the Catholic Church's stance on abortion as it is the hypocrisy of its shaming women while it has never properly atoned for allowing thousands of children to be sexually abused.

In particular, the priests who covered up abuse at the Covington, Kentucky, high school where my brother went in the 1970s — the same smug men who treated my parents horribly when they kicked my brother out for a minor infraction.

It's an old rage that visits me every year. But seeing an institution supposedly acting in the name of one of history's most important social justice voices making this particular statement at this particular time — when we had so many systemic problems the keep children in poverty, so much racially motivated violence and so much loss of life in general — made me erupt.

"Sister!" I shouted at the nun who happened to be crossing the street as I ran by.

She stopped and turned to me, her cocoon of a habit making her face even more noticeable. She was pretty and unassuming, probably just a few years younger than 46-year-old me, but her sweetness did nothing to stop my ire.

"This is shameful!" I threw my hands toward the crosses.

"Where are the crosses for the 220,000 dead from the coronavirus, while Trump — who I know this church supports — does nothing?" I continued. "Where are the crosses for Black people lynched by police? For the children who died at the border and for the parents and kids separated?"

She was trying to speak, but I kept on. "Where are the crosses for all the children that priests molested? For all the pain the church has caused to families everywhere, including my own?"

She tried to answer me. But I interrupted. "The church doesn't care about children! They've never cared about the welfare of children! It's about power!"

I was crying, rage and sweat dripping off me. And then she did something I didn't expect.

She apologized.

"I understand, and I am so sorry the church caused you pain," she said. "I'm so sorry this display is upsetting to you."

It is hard to remain not-nice when someone is actually acknowledging you and allowing you to rage at them. I calmed down a bit.

She told me she was a teacher at the grade school associated with the church and had no control over what the church itself did. She still called abortion "the original evil," but while I told her I didn't agree, I wasn't trying to change her mind about that.

"These crosses, with everything happening now ... it isn't right, Sister," I said. "And you know it. Just please pass that on to whoever is in charge."

I ran home after that, fueled by a cocktail of adrenaline, shame and indignation. Fifth-grade Judi who loved to sing along when Sister Marie Therese played the guitar couldn't believe what her adult self had done. But 46-year-old Judi didn't want to be a compliant people pleaser anymore, not if it meant I failed to speak out against injustice.

I replayed the encounter every night that week when I went to sleep. I remembered people in passing cars looking at me and the couple across the street who walked by, no doubt aware of my yelling. I realized that I didn't mind it if they thought I was mean or difficult as much as I thought I would. I was letting go of my need to be likeable, and that was progress.

I was unsettled, though, because I knew my action lacked real purpose. My goal wasn't to scream at people on the street — particularly women who took vows of poverty and held no actual power — but rather to unapologetically disrupt things like racist statements, the normalizing of science denial, dangerous disregard of public health and the idea that we can "agree to disagree" about reality.

In other words, I needed discernment.

When it was time for my long Sunday run, I designed a circuitous route that avoided the church, using streets I rarely ran, because I didn't want to see the crosses again. Plus, I was afraid I might bump into the nun. Halfway in, I couldn't believe what I saw: the nun herself walking up the hill toward me! My mouth went dry, and I felt dread. And then, strangely, peace.

"Sister," I said as we met, breathing heavily and taking out my earbuds. She stopped, still with that sweet look. "I want to apologize. I'm not sorry for my rage, but I'm sorry I directed it at you. That was wrong."

She accepted my apology and reiterated that she was sorry, too, about my pain and that she had thought about me that week.

"I was actually trying to avoid bumping into you today. That's why I'm on this stretch of road I never run," I said.

"I was afraid of bumping into you," she replied. "So I walked a route I don't usually walk." We both laughed.

"I don't believe anymore in the same things you believe," I said. "But the serendipity of us meeting, when we were both trying to avoid each other? I think this is how we're all spiritually connected."

"Amen," she said.

I know now that decency is a woman who doesn’t need to hedge, smooth or charm. Who doesn’t need to seek consensus about the heinous.

My dad, who died in 2013, often does little things like this for me. Dropping an answer into my brain when I'm confused or giving me courage to face something I don't want to face. He was clever in life, and he's stayed clever in death. This meeting had his cosmic fingerprints all over it. He was giving me a chance to make things right, to own my mistake and use it to do better next time.

Also this: He and my mom had been the ones who taught me about decency. Though they did an excellent job, my picture had been incomplete.

I know now that decency is a woman who doesn't need to hedge, smooth or charm. Who doesn't need to seek consensus about the heinous. And who definitely doesn't need to be nice when the situation isn't a nice one.