In just a few months, our entire world has completely changed right before our very eyes. The global pandemic has shown us that we are all connected in some amazing way. It has isolated us in a way that nothing else in modern times has done before. Yet, as we fought against the isolation, we called out, “You are not alone!” In the shutdown, the entire globe became silent as we realized the fragility and temporariness of life.
From the silence of the pandemic, we heard one voice cry out, “I can’t breathe!” With the death of George Floyd, the world screamed back, “Enough!” It was as if the silence of the stay-at-home order made this cry of discrimination into a deafening roar. Something in all of us was awakened. I have spent the last few weeks praying and reflecting on the images of hatred, anger and civil unrest that have pierced the silence of my heart.
In the parish and neighborhood where I grew up, most of the people I came across looked like me. My first experience meeting a person of color came with the beginning of elementary school. I was six years old and a bit nervous going to the “big kids’” school. When I met my first-grade teacher, I could not take my eyes off of her. I thought that she was absolutely beautiful with her black hair, her dark skin and her white teeth. She took time with each of us. We all learned in a personal way that she truly cared for each of us individually. What was more striking for me was the way in which she taught us how to pray. I loved to sneak a peek and watch her after she received Communion. Her love of God was clearly visible, and she taught us about God’s love not only by her words but by the way she treated us. She expected that we would treat each other in a way that mimicked Christ in the modern world. Whenever I think about prayer, I cannot help thinking about Sister Alice Francis. Because of her, I know have an image of God the Father as a man of color who rejoices in the simplicity of the sunset or the sunrise He just created.
Where does anyone, especially a white religious, begin to talk about the evil of racism? Conversations about sexism and Catholic-bashing I could lead, hands down. Racism? No way. I understand walking into a store and having people stare at you, or little kids calling out as they point, “Mommy, what is THAT?” I have seen the fear on people’s faces who’ve viewed my veil as a burka since 9/11. But prejudices against the simple color of my skin? I have no idea whatsoever about that.
Even though I am ignorant about a personal experience of this kind of prejudice, I do believe racism is born from evil. The Evil One divides and separates and makes enemies of one another. This is the antithesis of what the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, is all about. It leads to the mistreatment of people based on their race, color, national origin, or ancestry. This mistreatment takes place first on a person-to-person level. From there, it spreads out to institutions that legalized or tolerated structures of society that benefited one group above another. This is always sinful!
In 1979, the U.S. Bishops wrote a pastoral letter on racism called, Brothers and Sisters to Us. One paragraph from that document reads: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of the family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. . . . racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.1
Where do we go from here? I personally think that each of us needs to listen to our brothers and sisters who have been affected by racism. Give them a chance to speak their experience of what it means to be a person of color in our country. If we are truly open to their experience, to their story, our hearts will change. A small shift in perspective can change our actions and thus in turn can change our society. Jesus calls to us to act like he did, to love like he loved, to speak like he spoke – a lesson I began to learn so many years ago by one teacher in New Jersey!
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness