Exemplars 10

Lessons from Bluffton

College of Arts and Sciences

Sociologist Meg Wilkes Karraker explores the role of religious and civil organizations in promoting the common good.


Nurenberg, Germany, 1958: Looking out the window of the apartment building on the U.S. Army base where I lived with my parents and sister, seeing children eating garbage from the same cans where, minutes before, my mother had deposited our household waste.
Rome, Italy, 1998: Visiting an apartment where African and Eastern European women live while attempting to escape from sex trafficking, opening the door to a bedrooms and seeing the same “Hello Kitty” pillow on the bed that was on my own teenage daughter’s bed in Minneapolis.
   Those memories, four decades apart, serve for me as reminders of the dehumanizing consequences of violence, oppression and injustice, especially that suffered by the most vulnerable members of society. For three decades I have been blessed to serve on faculties of Catholic and Lutheran colleges and universities. In those places and in my personal life I have been challenged by faith teachings on society’s response to the stranger. 

   While I hold in the highest esteem those who engage in ministry and service to “the stranger in our midst,” I know my talents lie elsewhere. I seek to apply the sociological imagination to research on American and Italian communities wrestling with diversity, an increasingly complex issue in this postmodern, global society. In one current research project, I examine how one community, which I call “Bluffton” (a medium-sized city in the upper Midwestern United States), has used networks among religious and civil organizations to create a compelling ethic for the common good around diversity and immigration.

   In 1989 Bluffton made the national news for cross-burnings and hate-speech directed at her few black citizens. Shortly thereafter, a group of civic leaders mobilized to pass city ordinances, form a civil rights commission, launch an educational campaign, and even recruit black families to move to Bluffton. Bluffton counts two-thirds of its citizens as Catholic, and Catholic sisters and their congregations have long played key roles in education, health care and social services in that city. Not surprisingly then, sisters and their congregations were central nodes in the networks that formed to organize committees and to establish services that would serve Bluffton’s increasingly diverse population. For example, in less than a decade, one of their ministries has collaborated with the archdiocese, business and civic interests, colleges and universities, community service organizations, and ordinary citizens to provide English-language and cultural literacy classes for newcomers to Bluffton from more than 80 countries.

   My training and experience is in quantitative survey methods.  (Think “On a scale of one to seven, how much do you agree or disagree with the following statement?”) This research has given me an opportunity to ‘get in touch with my qualitative side.’  I began my research by reading everything I could about the six women’s congregations in Bluffton: fascinating histories, newsletters, reports, websites. I then interviewed sisters in Bluffton who led ministries serving migrant women and children, along with leaders of their congregations.  Finally, I interviewed religious leaders (Catholics, but also Protestants and Jews) and civic leaders from across a wide range of institutions in Bluffton. 

   The following are among my findings: Catholic women’s congregations historically active in education, health care and social service are active in ministries around migration today. Next, Catholic sisters and their congregations are deeply and broadly enmeshed in religious and civic networks active on behalf of migrants. Sisters and their ministries are held in extremely high esteem by Catholics and individuals in the religious sphere but also by people of other faiths and those who work in education, government, human rights, journalism, philanthropy, social services, and voluntary organizations.

   In some ways, my research has affirmed that which I already knew.[1] When it comes to serving those on the margins of society, Catholic sisters and their congregations are surely among the original faith-based social servants. However, nothing trumps demographic decline. Hence, congregations with aging (and fewer) members have leveraged not only broader religious and civic networks, but also powerful intercongregational networks to provide effective and efficient ministries, as well as impressive efforts advocating on behalf of migrants.  Still, as one scholar has said, we do not understand that, in 20 years, there will be no sisters.  Who then will step to the brink so nimbly to provide these critical social safety nets? 

   Bluffton is a place of impressive community spirit. However, 20 years after Bluffton responded with such vigor to the hate that rocked it, census data reveal that today people of color are more likely to be poor and that immigrants are less likely to be naturalized citizens in Bluffton than elsewhere in the state or in the United States. In the 21st century, in Bluffton, in the United States, and throughout the world, diversity and immigration ethics are ever more complex. My research suggests that, in addition to social networks and social capital, communities need to achieve a certain level of social solidarity–charism, in the vernacular of Catholic sisters–if those communities are to maintain the momentum to provide for the common good of all citizens. In some of my next research I hope to explore how family businesses (another set of under researched institutions) translate values into building critical educational, philanthropic, and other institutions to advance that common good in civil society.


Meg Wilkes Karraker is professor of sociology and Family Business Center fellow at the University of St. Thomas.  She earned her B.A. from Clemson University, her M.S. from North Carolina State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, all in sociology, with supporting coursework in international development anthropology, education, history, psychology, and women’s studies. At the University of St. Thomas since 1990, she has served as the first Director of the Luann Dummer Center for Women, chair of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, and director of family studies.  She is also the immediate past-president of Alpha Kappa Delta, the international sociology honor society, and is a member of the American Sociological Association’s Department Resources Group. Karraker is the author of Global Families (Sage) and co-author of Families with Futures: Family Studies into the 21st Century (Routledge), both forthcoming in second editions in 2012.



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“When it comes to serving those on the margins of society, Catholic sisters and their congregations are surely among the original faith-based social servants.”