Race in America has been a difficult topic, and never more so than in the time since George Floyd’s death. Since that sorrowful event, we (and I mean the we that includes everyone) have been careening in a direction that seems to me a dangerous one, one in which the “us”es and the “thems” dig into their respective trenches to denigrate and demonize the other as we approach a point of no return.
It has been said that “you are what you eat”. We seem to be morphing into a society where “you are what you look like”. Put another way, we are moving away from a country where people of good faith and goodwill look for the content of one’s character to a place where thou shalt be judged by the color of your skin. I make no excuses for being in the Dr. Martin Luther King camp on this issue, for I see the alternative as a corrosive environment that leads inexorably to an ever-increasing cycle of mistreatment, grievance, hatred and violence.
I had an experience recently that reaffirmed my underlying belief that any difference we can make towards coming together as one people will be made on an individual level, person to person. That experience affected me and I thought I would share it.
As I have written previously, one of my sons was recently ordained as a Catholic priest. As a member of a religious order (rather than as the more common diocesan priest) he travels in a wide geographic area that covers several states. During their seven-year formation period, those young men spend their summers assigned to one of the ministries in which the Order is engaged. Last summer my son was assigned to a parish church that is not the kind most people think of when they think of a catholic parish – this one is in a geographic location with a population that is almost exclusively African-American, and this parish reflects those demographics.
My son’s experience there was an enriching one for him. He developed a warm relationship with the pastor of the parish. Like my son, he is a Dominican friar. Unlike my son, he is African-American. While there was not much opportunity to meet parishioners because of Covid, those my son did meet were unfailingly kind and welcoming to him. He, in turn, expressed to me a love and respect for the people of that parish community. To be black and Catholic in America is not as uncommon as many might think, but it is certainly not the norm in the African-American community. My son loved the zeal of those parishioners, telling me that nobody was in that church because it was the popular thing to do in the larger community. He described those folks as some of the most intentional Catholics he had ever met, and he was impressed by that.
After his ordination, he called that pastor and asked if it might be possible for him to visit and celebrate a mass there as he traveled to his new assignment assignment. The pastor welcomed him for a brief visit and my son was designated as the celebrant and homilist for the Sunday morning mass there. It was my blessing that the parish live-streamed that mass so that Marianne and I were able to watch online. It was truly a moving experience for me.
I could sense the love in that sanctuary. There was a young priest who showed a love for the people there and who brought his A Game in preaching to them. There was a church-full of faithful Catholics who showed their love and affirmation for a young man who was newly ordained and who wanted to be a part of their community, if only for a day. Kind words were offered by the pastor and kind words were offered by the new priest in response. There was black and white in that church, but that was not what mattered. There was a community where everyone was valued and affirmed as a child of God.
There are communities of all kinds. Yes, there are races and political parties, but is that how we ought to be defining ourselves? I will admit that there have been a handful of people in my life with whom I have not gotten along all that well. Most of us can acknowledge troubled relationships like that, and most of those relationships (at least in my experience) are because of certain individual personalities whom we find difficult. Most of us, I suspect, have good one-on-one relationships with most folks we actually know. And it is much harder to ignore or stand for ill treatment of those people we actually know as opposed to those who are nothing more than names or photographs or disembodied traits to us.
Even when we don’t know someone individually, there are other things that make for community when we come together – like love for a particular sport or sports team, an appreciation for good food and drink or maybe even something like movies or music.
On that recent Sunday, that particular parish church was full of Catholics who came together in a unified community and welcomed others within that community, despite any other differences they may have had. In watching that community, I saw the vision of Martin Luther King come alive as those in that church loved and respected each other as people of faith, who looked for (and found) a common ground from which to enter into a fruitful human relationship.
This, it seems to me, is the only real path that leads anywhere good. Does one have to embrace a Judeo-Christian worldview for this to make any sense? Because that was certainly Dr. King’s worldview and the worldview of virtually all of his allies. But that is another discussion for another day. For today, I am content to see the good that comes from those who follow in King’s footsteps and can join hands as friends. It’s not everything, but it’s a good place to start.
Photo of attendees at the 2017 National Black Catholic Conference in Orlando Florida, from Angelusnews.com