I live mere miles from Ferguson, Missouri. Having grown up in the Chicago area, I was mostly unprepared for life in a city where institutional racism and segregation was the law only decades ago. Then, Ferguson happened, followed by a series of similar events, and I begin to see the world through new eyes.
Not Just Politics
I grew up surrounded by mostly white, conservative people. I grew up hearing a certain rhetoric, and assuming that terms like “racism” referred to a political movement. I know I was ignorant, but I no longer believe that racism is a political issue. It is a human issue.
Since living in Missouri, I have been undergoing a slow process of reeducation. I’ve been reading books and articles and posts in Facebook groups, and trying to absorb as much as I can. In doing so, I’ve discovered two things. First, racism is very much alive and well in this country. Secondly, fighting racism matters to me as a white, Catholic woman.
There are two senses in which racism should matter to a Catholic. The first is extremely obvious. As Catholics and followers of Christ, we are called to recognize and defend the dignity of all people. We are called to treat all people with respect, to seek Christ in them and be Christ to them. Racism is a sin. We are called to proclaim nothing less.
However, there is a sense in which racism should be of special concern to us as Catholics in America. The Church is universal.
Jesus Wasn’t American
Most of us probably grew up with blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus in our first picture Bibles. While it seemed harmless at the time, and depictions of Jesus are often taking familiar features, it was problematic in more ways than one. To begin with, Jesus wouldn’t have been blonde-haired and blue-eyed. He was a middle eastern man of Jewish descent. He likely had dark hair and brown skin.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I distinctly remember the first time I heard about Christ’s possible appearance, as an elementary aged child. I remember seeing an image of a reconstruction of what Jesus must have looked like and being stunned. Where was his neatly trimmed beard? Where was his flowy, light brown hair?
The Gospel isn’t like Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays have been interpreted in numerous ways, retold in a variety of settings (including modern ones). The Gospel shouldn’t be like that. The Gospel happened in a particular time and place, and that particular time and place mattered.
God became incarnate as a middle eastern Jewish man. He became incarnate as a member of his chosen people, the Jewish people. He was part of a tradition, of a lineage. The Gospels even record this lineage, because it is so significant to the story. God never does anything frivolously, and in becoming incarnate when and where he did, he was revealing something to us. He was revealing his ongoing love for his chosen people. The Church has affirmed and continues to affirm that the Jewish people are our elder brothers in the faith. They are still beloved of God.
After the ascension and Pentecost, the Apostles began to spread the Gospel in the Middle East and Africa. The early Church was made up of many people of darker skin. As it spread to other parts of the world, the Church began to include people of European descent, of Asian descent, of Native American descent, and of all races and nations.
The Church was never made up of entirely white people. The Church has always been diverse. In fact, the Catholic Church continues to be extremely diverse, growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. Some of the highest prelates in the Church are African or South American.
However, in the United States, in a culture that is largely white, it is easy to forget how incredibly diverse our Church is. It is easy to forget how important that diversity has been to our history. There are saints from every culture, and with every color of skin.
A White Catholic’s Response to Racism
Anyone who has followed the news recently knows that racism is alive and well in our country. Whether knocking on a neighbor’s door for directions to school, or waiting for a business meeting to begin in a coffee shop, the color of a person’s skin can turn a situation from ordinary to potentially dangerous in a matter of minutes. It’s easy to read these stories, feel saddened, and then do nothing. How can a Catholic — and in particular a white Catholic — respond to racism in America?
The beginning is very simple. We must begin by listening and taking what we have heard to prayer.
We may be called to activism. We may be called to speak out. But first, we need to listen, really listen to the experiences of others. We need to read books and articles, watch documentaries and interviews, and talk to people who have experienced racism. We need to humbly acknowledge the ways we have may have failed in our own lives.
For me, as a white woman, beginning to understand the problem of racism in our country has been a conversion experience. I have begun to listen, really listen, to the experiences of others. I have begun to slowly speak up when I hear of injustice. I understand it is a small start, but I know that starting small is better than not starting at all.
Something else that I have begun to do is change the way that I talk to my children. My kids are all still really young, but we’re already talked about slavery and the Civil Rights movement, and the fact that people are still judged by the color of their skin. We’ve talked about how there’s no such thing as a “bad neighborhood,” because while there are some “bad guys” in the world (my four-year-old is really in to asking about “bad guys” for some reason), there are always good guys, too. There are good guys in every neighborhood and that means that there’s goodness in every neighborhood. To that end, police officers are often good because they help the good guys in the neighborhood. The good guys in every neighborhood are what make the world a good place. And the good guys come in every color skin. In a city that used to have segregation laws (and that is still mostly divided by racial lines) that’s an important lesson to learn.
But this is especially important for my little white children to hear, because they are Catholic. The Catholic Church is not a white church. In fact, Catholics of European descent are in the minority in the universal Church, and that’s a beautiful thing. It is beautiful because it is a sign that the Church is growing and spreading throughout the world. Even as some parts of the world have become more secular, the Church has grown elsewhere. The faith is alive and well, continuing to prove that the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
There is such beauty in the diversity of the universal Church, but being immersed in the Catholic Church in the United States, it is easy to forget that. What we are called to do is to open our ears and eyes and begin to listen. We are called to take what we see and hear to prayer, and to act as God calls us to. The change begins with you, in your own heart and in your home. And we are called to work for change, beginning with ourselves.
image: By Abernathy Family (Abernathy Family Photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons