Seeking Justice, Speaking Up

MikeBrownProtest“For what else shall we pray?”

Father stretched out his arms, inviting the congregation to share their petitions. This was it: the only part of Mass in our parish that allows individuals other than the priest or lector to speak. My prayer lingered on the tip of my tongue:

For an end to police brutality and racism in Ferguson, Missouri and around our country, let us pray.

 I hesitated. Taking a deep breath, I decided that I would let someone else say their prayer before I said mine. I sat, fidgeting in silence, awaiting someone else’s words. Surely there would be enough-

“For all of these things, we pray.”

I had missed my window. My hesitation had prevented me from speaking the words I knew needed to be spoken to our overwhelmingly white congregation. At that moment, I felt less like the Gospel’s Canaanite woman defying societal norms to speak out and more like Peter, denying what he knew to be true.

Although my silence came with shame, it also came with a recognition. Due to my identity as a white, cisgender man, I am afforded the privilege of silence without personal consequence. My personal silence was also symptomatic of a greater silence: that of the Catholic Church and of my fellow white Catholics on the issue of race. For centuries, and still today, our church has been bound up in the forces of institutional racism and white supremacy.

The Catholic Church’s history on slavery has been contradictory and confusing, rife with hundreds of years of both condemnations of and “justifications” for enslavement. In fact, it was not until 1965 that the Catholic Church condemned slavery as intrinsically evil. According to prominent Black and womanist theologians, the Church’s reputation in the Civil Rights movement was equally disappointing. As womanist theologian Dr. M. Shawn Copeland points out in America Magazine, “the Catholic Church in the United States, as an institution, had a marginal effect on the civil rights movement”.

The effects of the American Catholic Church’s disturbing and deadly racial history still ring true today. According to the USCCB, less than 3% of active American bishops are Black, and only 2/3 of these bishops are the head of a diocese. Black people make up more than 13% of the American population, but only 4% of the American Catholic population. American Black priests and women religious make up less than 1% of their respective populations.

These statistics and facts just scratch the surface of our Church’s troubling racial history and reality, and they are not coincidence. They are evidence of the fact that the Catholic Church is entangled in American structural racism and white supremacy. And the progressive Catholic movement doesn’t get a pass here. Although I’ve seen wonderful intentional work done around the issue of race in many progressive faith communities, we remain overwhelmingly (and often exclusively) white.

So, what can my fellow white Catholics do about these issues, especially in light of the killing of Michael Brown and #ferguson protests? Although I am no expert in the field of racial justice, here are just a few ideas from scholars, activists and friends that I have worked to apply in my own life.

  •  Listen to Black people. Stop “white-splaining” issues, acknowledge your own privilege and make a conscious effort to hear, understand, and most importantly, to change.
  • Become familiar with Black and womanist theology (M. Shawn Copeland and Diana Hayes are excellent starting points for Catholic womanism). Recognize your church’s and your own role in racism, and work to celebrate the Black Catholic experience and implement theologies of racial liberation in your faith communities.
  • Acknowledge that Black lives matter. Speak out against police brutality in communities of color and the murder of unarmed Black people, especially when it’s difficult or uncomfortable.
  • Address intersectionality. Learn and talk about the disproportionate levels of violence and harassment that Black women, especially Black trans* women, face.
  • Do something. Read these articles on becoming a white ally, where many of these ideas came from. Attend a rally in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors. Start productive conversations in your social networks, churches, schools and workplaces about race.
  • Stop hesitating. Be not afraid. Refuse to be silent.