Dear Friends on the Journey,
If you’re like me, the video of the Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes was alternately nauseating, infuriating, unfathomable, and disgusting. And the nightly news played it over and over and over…I could hardly glance at it the second, third or…twentieth time. Certainly this terrible incident pulls back the veil, again, of our nation’s original sin of racism – as Jim Wallis accurately names it.
Last Saturday, I was invited and chose to “attend” the Interfaith Prayer Service at Boston City Hall that Mayor Walsh and Police Commissioner Gross called. It was beautiful and gut-wrenching, consoling and empty: “Is this all we can do?” I thought.
I have been at some of the demonstrations on the Boston Common – the Paulist Center’s front yard, admittedly at the perimeter – listening, grieving, wondering what to do. Each of the four gatherings had a different tenor, a different tone, and, in one instance, a sadly different conclusion. For, on Sunday night, some outside folks, at least as the Boston Globe reported, attached themselves to the anguished cry for justice by breaking into stores and looting in Downtown Crossing (the Paulist Center was “tagged,” but by Monday evening, we were clean).
What can one say? For reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t communicate with you until this late moment. And that may be just as well. For I have been reading statement after statement from national organizations and leaders (including our own Cardinal Seán https://www.bostoncatholic.org/news/may-30-2020-cardinal-sean-p-omalley-statement-killing-george-floyd). From his statement:
“The killing of George Floyd has catalyzed reactions across the nation. It has done so
because it is not a singular, isolated event…There is a history here, one documented
over decades in print, and now in social media and on television in our homes. The
history is clear and tragic: George Floyd was an African American man who died at the
hands of a police officer. This is a narrative which has been repeated often and in
multiple locations across the country [think Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric
Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin]. The history is well documented, but it is
known experientially in the African American community in a way that is not widely shared.”
I also find great inspiration in the words of Sr. Shawn Copeland, retired BC theology professor:
“On this Feast of Pentecost, as a nation, we gasp for air as rage flames in nearly every
corner of our country. White racist supremacy is suffocating us, choking the very life
and breath of God out of us all. We need Jesus to breath on us, to gift us with the Spirit,
to apostle us to action and service so that our brothers and sisters might breathe.”
This Missive will have to function as longer reflection and a call to action.
I know that some may have wished from me or from “the Paulist Center” an immediate strong statement of condemnation of this truly condemnable action. Others may have recommended a strong statement linked to the “white privilege” which so many of us benefit from and which was so painfully on display in the Amy Cooper event in Central Park.
But I have four grave reservations at leaving it at this. Why?
I have been very strongly influenced by Robin DeAngelo’s talks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45ey4jgoxeU) and her book on White Fragility. In a recent interview, DeAngelo said, when raising the question of racism among some white folks, at least two people have said, “Oh, I’m not a racist, I’m from Boston.” Or “I’m a vegan, how can I be a racist?” While these are smile-inducing, they do reflect a not uncommon lack of self-awareness.
So my hesitation in speaking with you, members of the Paulist Center Community, is that sometimes when speaking informally with you about this virus within us, the conversation quickly moves to other people. We retreat quickly into examining the consciences of others: people from the South, Republicans, gun owners, rural people, Southie, you name it.
But as a pastor, I am deeply concerned about your racism…and mine. This horrible event and the pain of our African American brothers and sisters demands that we look within.
My second reason for hesitation is that, at the Paulist Center, we are blessed with many African American members – and other persons of color – and I want to include them in our conversation. Not to have them “represent all African Americans,” but precisely not to act on the presumption that the Paulist Center Community is a white community. Who would feel excluded then? But I don’t want our conversation on racism to presume an all-white community. We are in this together.
My third reason for hesitation is that my hope is that I can raise the issue of how a Roman Catholic community gathered around the Table can be led to consider racism from a Catholic perspective and not just (as worthwhile as it might be) from an American and human perspective. In our tradition, as Pope Francis said this week, racism is a sin for which we must seek forgiveness and then make a firm purpose of amendment. Books like White Fragility, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, The New Jim Crow, and How to be an Antiracist – all teach us aspects of our American racist history. But they do not come at it with our Catholic background and resources.
So, you see, I have an allergy for simple condemnatory statements that allow us to express our outrage – as legitimate and cathartic as that may be – and which then allow us to go to the next Facebook page or Tweet and get all worked up over that. Or statements that are subversively self-congratulatory about how virtuous we are. As virtue signaling inevitably does. Amy Cooper revealed what we should all know: white liberals (I know, not all Paulist Center members are liberals, for, remember, all are welcome here) can have the racist and/or white privilege button right there when needed. Because it’s never been disconnected. Bias or racism is often unconscious and has little to do with motives. Many of us – me included – grew up enjoying the benefits of privilege…and never knowing that we had it.
Fourth, I’m a bit gun-shy here. I forget whether it was after Charlottesville or Charleston (see: racist incidents start to meld into one another) but some folks at the Paulist Center put together a program on racism. “We have to do something,” we said. Folks from the Family Religious Education Program, Susan Rutkowski from the Social Justice Committee, and I and a few others worked on it. And it was a sad failure (at least in terms of numbers – which is a crucial criterion. As in “the Paulist Center had a great program on racism which few people attended”). Now don’t misunderstand me here (as I think it would be easy to do): we examined ourselves as to why this didn’t work and we concluded that a) maybe it was the wrong time (Sunday after mass); b) maybe people address this issue in other venues (diversity programs, Catholic schools, public schools); c) maybe people are weary with compassion fatigue – “I can’t take on another issue!”; or, d) “I’m from Boston AND a vegan.”
So what am I proposing? Grand statements, for the most part, leave me flat. Action, even if a modest effort at education, is the direction I would like to take (and we’ll be discussing this in the Pastoral Council). And I would like to draw from our Catholic faith, both because we have a rich source in our Catholic teaching (despite a horrible record in our Catholic history) that builds on our faith as followers of Jesus and which we can contribute to our national dialogue and action.
So here’s the assignment: Read Fr. Bryan Massingale’s powerful essay. “The Assumptions of White Privilege and What We Can Do about It” https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/assumptions-white-privilege-and-what-we-can-do-about-it Massingale draws from his experience as a black Catholic, a theologian, and an activist. His essay is not a Tweet, not an op-ed piece in the newspaper, but an investment in your time to go deeper. You cannot do it justice in ten minutes. Give yourself 45 minutes to read it. Think about it. Prayer about it.
In the next couple weeks (keep reading my Missives!), we will set up some kind of Zoom
meeting to discuss this article. Stay tuned for the details.
Our African American brothers and sisters are in deep pain. And when one part of the body is in pain, we are all in pain. So I find inspiration and hope in Shawn Copeland’s Pentecostal words (for us who worship in the Holy Spirit Chapel):
“We need the Spirit to breathe on us, breathe with us, and breathe through us so that we may turn away from indifference, suspicion, and hostility and turn toward openness,
compassion, and solidarity. If we are to be authentic disciples of Jesus, we need the
Spirit to empower us to walk the way of truth, to live out justice in clear and concrete
ways, and to act in self-transcending love for our brothers and sisters as witnesses to
the pax Americana of God’s abiding love.”
And let us pray for/with one another.
Director, the Paulist Center
Tomorrow will be the “more usual” Missive, including links to various prayer opportunities.