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KEVIN CULLEN

As a kid, this nun sat during the anthem at sports games — and was kicked in the back

Associated Press/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (left) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (right) knelt during the national anthem.

By Globe Staff 

Helen Banks grew up in Cambridge during the 1960s, before Boston became a sports-mad town.

Her father would get home from work, put his briefcase down and at the last minute suggest that she and her brothers join him to attend a Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics game.

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Compared to today, it was an uncomplicated proposition. None of the teams sold out back then. Before 1967, Fenway Park had more open space than Boston Common. The Celtics were putting up banner after banner, but the Garden was half empty. This was before Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins so they could always score Bruins tickets.

Tickets were not only plentiful, they were cheap.

Even as an adolescent, Helen Banks was a socially conscious girl. She took part in civil rights marches. She opposed the growing escalation in Vietnam. And by the time she was 12, she decided to act on her conscience. She stopped standing for the national anthem when she went to Fenway Park or the Boston Garden.

“I didn’t go to church when I was a kid,” Helen Banks said. “But I prayed. I loved sports, but given all that was going on in the country, I would take that moment to sit and be still and pray for our country.”

Her father and brothers did not share her conviction. They continued to stand. Some people would occasionally ask why she didn’t stand, and, after she told them she was praying, most seemed to accept her answer.

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That is until she went to a Celtics game with her dad one night. She was 14. As she sat during the national anthem, she detected some grumbling behind her. She was sitting in an aisle seat and when she stood to applaud a Celtics basket, a man kicked her in the back, sending her tumbling down some stairs.

She climbed back to her seat, sore, embarrassed and afraid. The man who kicked her mumbled something to the effect that if she didn’t like America, she could leave. Her father didn’t seem aware of what happened. She never felt safe at a sporting event again.

A half-century later, as the nation cleaves and the president obsesses over professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem, Sister Helen Banks is taking a knee, too. Actually, she takes two knees, every day. She is a contemplative nun with the Sisters of the Love of God, a small Anglican order in Oxford, England. She prays for hours, every day.

On a visit to her hometown this week, Sister Helen remarked on the difference between patriotism and nationalism. She worries about the growing force of nationalism in her native land and her adopted land.

She sees patriotism as the love of country and the freedoms and ideals at its core. Patriots, she says, acknowledge their country’s faults and work to fix them. Nationalism, she says, is a negative force, founded on notions of supremacy and triumphalism, an ideology bent on excluding groups of people.

“I saw how nationalism led to the Brexit vote in England,” she said, “and I see it in the way athletes are being vilified for engaging in a peaceful form of protest. I think taking a knee, as an act of conscience, is respectful. I respect what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”

Now closing in on 70, Sister Helen was out shopping Thursday in Cambridge, looking for a Colin Kaepernick jersey.

“I thought I could wear it when I’m outside, gardening,” she said.

But she couldn’t find one.

After shopping, she came upon a “ghost bike,” a white bicycle memorial in Porter Square, where a year ago, Dr. Bernard “Joe” Lavins, a research scientist, was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer as he rode his bike to work.

As the midday traffic buzzed frenetically, Sister Helen Banks prayed for Joe Lavins, and for her country.

Sister Helen says prayer can change the world, for the better. I pray she’s right.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist He can be reached at cullen@globe.com