A very long time ago, on a very hot and sunny day in the middle of summer, I found myself traveling in a crowded city. I was visiting a Sister friend of mine and was traveling by train and then by subway. I decided to wear my white habit because it kept me a lot cooler than my black one. I was told by a fellow passenger as I checked connections, “Do not be alarmed that when the subway reaches 196th Street, the change within the clientele of passengers will be noticeable. Shrugging, I thought, “Yeah whatever. I have traveled in the Bronx; no different there.”
Sure enough, when the train came to that stop, many of the passengers who looked like me left the subway. I thought, “Would I have even noticed that if it wasn’t pointed out to me?” Once again, I shrugged it off.
Getting off at my stop, I had a several block walk to the convent. As I walked down the streets, there was a gentleman selling essential oils on the corner. I passed him and eyed his oils and thrilled over the scent of the incense burning. He saw me, screamed, and pointed at me, “Child of Satan, go back where you came from! Your kind is not welcome here!”
Instead of being insulted or even afraid, I turned to him full-faced and said in a tone that was truly intrigued, “Why do you say that?”
He began to preach to the crowd that was quickly gathering. He quoted every Scripture passage about individuals who had leprous sores to be separated from society. He equated my white skin to the fact that I was conceived in sin and was an abomination to the Lord. He then turned and said that I truly was a child of Satan because of my blue eyes. They were as cold as ice and I could never love because I was not fully human, he said.
He went on for about five minutes, drawing a somewhat large crowd. He then thumped the Bible down on his table with a thud and screamed at me, “Do you have any defense, anything to say about your leprous abomination?” With that I heard someone whisper, “This is going to be good!” I stood there and said calmly, “I have only one response to all these accusations that you so very eloquently brought before all of us. I am indeed a sinner! It is only through the gracious mercy of God’s love that he has saved me. This sinner promises to pray and sacrifice for your salvation as well.” With that I walked away.
I have no idea if my words changed this person’s heart, but the crowd was left speechless because my response to him was gentle and peace-filled, while his words were filled with hatred.
I share this story because this was the first and only time I looked into the ugly face of being hated because of the mere color of my skin. Reflecting back to that experience which has been brought forth due to the images of rage and protests that I have seen on the TV lately, here is a white woman’s reflection to that person as well as the crowd that stood watching.
“To the man who was selling essential oils on the street corner: Because you saw me as a mere ‘white woman,’ you stripped me of my identity as a beloved daughter of God. Because you used words that I cannot repeat about the relationship between my mom and dad, you took my dignity away because you saw my existence as an offense against God who made me. You made me a second-class citizen by taking away my citizenship not only from the United States of America but also from the human race. Your words tried to destroy people who look like me, our culture, and our community because of your righteous hatred.
To the people who watched this spectacle: Because you merely watched, I felt completely alienated and alone. I was a visitor to your city, to your neighborhood, and you did not welcome me because you saw me as an object of momentary entertainment. You stood by and did and said nothing. Your decision of inactivity brought the horrors of racial injustice (legal stealing of land and property, lynching, torture, rape and murder, imprisonment on reservations, concentration camps, inferior schools, segregated neighborhoods and jails, and guinea pigs in medical experiments) into the modern times, into that very moment.”
The pandemic has truly changed the world. It has created enough silence within our collective conscience to call out, “You are not alone! I have your back!” All of us have felt the struggle of “being forgotten, being alone.” Our collective ears finally heard a cry of, “HELP!”
Now, we are left with, “What can I do?” First, take a deep dive into our personal attitudes toward any human person that appears – only on the skin level – to be different than yourself. Pray for the grace to love them as God loves them. Confess anything that you find buried within your heart that goes against the example of Jesus.
When you see an injustice, Do NOT just stand there. Do something! When you confront an injustice within the structure of society, speak out, write letters. Finally, educate yourself about the effects of racism.
We are indeed in this all together! God can use this to create change and make the world a better place, but He needs us to cooperate!
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness