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Reflection on racism

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Last week a friend emailed asking why the Catholic Church hasn’t said more regarding the Black Lives Matter and the protests taking place in the United States. I said to him essentially that many bishops have responded, including Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. However, I admit, most of my answer was a typical milquetoast response of someone who is uncertain about how to respond. In fact, I understood his request was not that the Catholic Church per se needs to respond, but rather why haven’t I said anything, why hasn’t this priest, this member of the Catholic Church, said something in light of the pain and suffering marking our country.

I have not said anything up to now in large part because I have not known what to say. I believe, however, that I must speak up, even if by speaking my goal is to provide a little bit of clarity from someone who is watching the events from afar, as I serve the diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic.

The continuing pandemic has struck us here in the Dominican Republic with closures, fear and uncertainty. Through the support of many generous people in the United States, the parish here has distributed food to those most in need, primarily to families of Haitian origin, those who are disenfranchised and are not the recipients of government food stamps nor the emergency aid due them. I had a little army of youths assisting me in making the lists of people in 17 villages and then distributing food house by house to about 250 homes in danger of hunger. 

On the last Saturday in June, I rewarded the group of young servants by having a field trip to a local waterfall — chicken and yuca never taste so good as when you cook over an open fire next to a waterfall. At one point I sat down to pray the rosary and I began meditating on issues of the day, asking Our Lord and Lady for some light. As I looked out at the youths with me, I noticed that they were all Black. I had not actually noticed this before. My parish is almost entirely Black and mixed — a result of the slave trade that ran through this island for many years. My closest associates are Black, but again, I hadn’t actually noticed until I sat down to think about these issues. I think I noticed when I first arrived, but race faded into the background as something mildly inconsequential. At some point the people you live with are simply the people you live with and treat with love.  

Because many people have not experienced racism, I think it is difficult for some to relate to the legitimate tension and anger that we all ought to share. 

There was a high school where a gang began to dominate the life of the school. Everyone knew the gang members and got out of the way when they walked the halls. One day a young man decided that this was his school and he was not going to cower in fear. He did not get out of the way of the gang members. That night he was brutally beaten and left for dead. After that, no one dared deny the gang anything. This is a real example of how a small minority was able, through violence, to subjugate an entire school — teachers, principal and students — in part because more people weren’t willing to risk themselves to confront the evil in their midst. 

As with the example of a society in which there is a small, impactful minority, the experience of racism (as well as terrorism and sexism) is amplified because of the violence it does to the human person. Thus, a small minority can have a large impact on society as a whole, even if society doesn’t accept the ideology of the small minority — but doesn’t confront it either. 

When George Floyd was murdered, every commentary that I saw on his murder correctly condemned the police involved, particularly the policeman who killed Floyd. Why weren’t such condemnations enough? Why have we seen protests across the country despite the universal condemnation of this act? I think it goes back, to a certain degree, to the problem of the high school, the lived experience of those being persecuted that bespeaks an injustice and persecution that, although not institutionally systematic, is ever present to the group. However, although society as a whole is called upon to stand up and condemn real injustice such as Floyd’s death, such condemnations, although necessary, are not, in the end, the solution. 

I went to the University of Virginia. In my time there, I recall one racist incident that thrust public debate upon the campus. Later, my roommate walked into the dining hall and saw a table with Black students and an empty chair. Instead of joining some of his friends, he went over and sat down at that table and asked them what their experience of racism was and what followed was a wonderful and interesting and perspective-changing conversation. This may sound like a small gesture, but I think it is gestures like this that can make a difference. 

My own experience as a missionary in Bánica, Dominican Republic, has brought me into close association with folks who are Black, and somewhere along the way, I forgot to realize that they, or any of the children here, are Black. I think that the more we are able to sit down at that table as my roommate did, and work together, and pray together, and be there for one another on an individual level, the more we will be able to remove racism from the system, heal the wounds and bridge the divides. 

A few weeks ago, two young women, Sarita and Collette, came to the parish because one of them needed food, and her friend accompanied her to make the request. I invited Collette to a youth Bible study (Sarita is a little older) and she came enthusiastically even though her first language is Creole, not Spanish. Collette lives on the outskirts of town and has to walk a little farther than the other students. One Thursday afternoon it was raining, so the other youths and I drove out to find her so she could participate. Rarely have I seen someone’s face light up with so much joy when she came out, looked at me beaming and said, “I didn’t know you were going to look for me!” Then she ran inside to change and in a few minutes we were off to the Bible study. I wonder if anyone outside of her family has ever looked for her.

Don’t we all like to be looked for? Are we looking for one another? Our Lord Jesus Christ came to us, like us in all things but sin, taking the form of a slave and dying on the cross. He came to us as the good shepherd to look for us and to find us. It is his love that we proclaim in our own shortcomings, and his love that can make us whole. As Catholics, we ought to desire to live that same kind of radical poverty by which real unity is achieved. Institutional responses will never be enough. In the first place, let us love God above all things, God who emptied himself to receive you and me, and if we love him, we will imitate his life. Second, love your neighbor as yourself; let us love our neighbor so intensely that nothing short of Christ’s sacrifice is a sufficient gift for my neighbor.

Fr. Weber serves at the diocesan mission in Bánica, Dominican Republic. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020