Q & A with Sr. Brittany Harrison, a 'habited hipster,' on connecting with young people

Sr. Brittany Harrison (Provided photo)

In her Twitter bio, Sr. Brittany Harrison describes herself as a Jedi, Ravenclaw, GifQueen — and, of course, a "real" nun. The Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco serves as the campus minister and the chair of the theology department at Mary Help of Christians Academy in New Jersey.

Harrison is also a regular contributor to Relevant Radio's "Morning Air" show, where she discusses youth culture, social media and Salesian spirituality. Harrison spoke with Global Sisters Report about internet evangelism, Pinterest contact-paper projects, and how women religious can connect with young people.

GSR: I think it's safe to say you're one of the "cool Catholics" on Twitter. Do you think the rise of the hipster Catholic on the internet helps evangelism?

Harrison: Being a hipster, like it or not, is a fad that will change with time. In five years, something else will be the "it" thing to be. I never considered myself a hipster, although I was elected the "Habited Hipster" for 2015 on Twitter — perhaps not considering myself a hipster makes me a hipster? But I see how this desire to be countercultural is very attractive to people.

What helps evangelization, when your audience is primarily social-media based, is authenticity. There is a growing segment of Catholic sisters on Twitter — and many of us are friends on social media and in real life — but none of us tries to totally replicate the style of the other one. We each express our charisms, share our ministries and try to build relationships with our social media followers as a means of accompanying them to a closer relationship with Christ. Many of my followers, as well, have helped me to grow closer to Christ through our interactions.

Anyone who studies marketing technique, a hobby of mine, will tell you that when it comes to social media marketing, people want to follow credible individuals who represent a brand, not the brand itself. People want a personal connection with something good, attractive, beautiful and meaningful.

I believe the presence of religious men and women on social media offers that opportunity for connection for those who may not have religious in their local community or church. Sometimes we will seem cool or really countercultural, but I hope that at the end of the day, our followers always find us to be credible, authentic witnesses to the Gospel.  

For you, how does being a "cool Catholic" connect with the Salesian charism?

St. John Bosco was the coolest saint ever. As a young person, he learned how to walk on tightropes, do magic tricks, perform gymnastics and even make clothes. Now, I can barely make myself an apron, and I am not gifted with those other talents, but the value taught to us by Don Bosco is the same: Develop the skills that enable you to serve and entertain others so that you can introduce them to the one whom you love — Jesus. When you go fishing, you must bait the line.

Sometimes Salesians do magic tricks for young people, or dance, or make music, or do any number of awesome things — not to be impressive, but to open up a connection with the young people so that a space for conversation and accompaniment can occur. I'd say Salesians are among the coolest Catholics, but perhaps I am a bit biased.

What advice would you give to (perhaps older) sisters who want to engage with young people but don't know how?

Dear sisters, remember that your voice is valuable to young people. Even if you are not familiar with how to use a smartphone and don't understand Twitter, you have an invaluable gift to offer the young: your presence. No other sister can offer the presence that you offer, for your gift is unique and unrepeatable.

Today, young people thirst to be listened to and to have adults "waste time" with them. For a young person to know that someone could be doing something else but they choose instead to be with them and to listen to them is a precious affirmation of their value and goodness. Many young people barely get to spend time face-to-face with their parents; they have very few mentors or guides.

We do not need a cellphone, an iPad or an Instagram account to spend time with a young person. All we need is an open, listening heart that welcomes that young person and creates for them a sense of home in the time we spend together.

What tools do you use to stay connected to pop and youth culture?

To stay connected to youth culture, I spend a lot of time listening to teenagers, asking them about what interests them and what they spend their time watching on Netflix. When I do not understand a trend, I ask them to explain it to me. My young people teach me a lot, and I am grateful to them for that.

I also use a Spotify account and devote some time each month skipping through the top 50 songs, trying to catch the common themes and ideas, which gives me insight into the longings expressed by the culture.

If there is a popular show that they are watching, I try to watch a few episodes or at least look it up and read about it. Youth culture is constantly changing, so my goal is not to be as engaged in it as they are — that would be exhausting — but at least to have my finger on the current trends, which lends me insight into how to shape our programs and initiatives on campus.

Sr. Brittany Harrison's desk (Provided photo)

Lastly, did you really cover your desk in contact paper? How long did it take? It's taken me two months to do two floating shelves.

Yes, I really covered my desk in contact paper. I would say it took about 90 minutes of dedicated work. It would have been faster if I had someone helping me. What really slowed me down was trying to make the application straight and getting it stuck to my habit.

Halfway through the project, I was full of regret for even beginning it, but I told myself that if I could overcome this trial, I could face anything that week. I also had to remind myself that perfection will only be found in heaven, so I had to be at peace with slightly crooked lines — and if anyone commented on it, I would say it was intentional and part of my aesthetic.

When I finished, the desk looked great. It was a relatively fast way to glam up an old desk, and I was proud of the result. My advice? Don't give up on your floating shelves. If you can contact-paper something, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You can quote me on that.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is a Global Sisters Report staff writer. Her email address is daraujo@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]