The Racial Divide
When we Glenmarians gathered for our 16th General Chapter in June 2015, we assessed the mission needs of our times in rural America. With horror, we recognized the outbursts of racism during the recent months in the larger culture. Unarmed black men were being shot. Black people at prayer were being killed. Black people died while in custody, and even a black child was slain while playing with a toy gun. Each incident possessed unique characteristics in exceptional circumstances, but underlying all these tragedies, people of faith could identify the covert and overt killer as racism.
Reflecting on Glenmary’s own ministry in rural America, we are attempting to examine ourselves and challenge others to identify the scars of racism inflicted by our culture and our own indifference. Our “Statement on Racism” stemming from our chapter deliberations presents an invitation to journey through stories of struggle to a new level of consciousness, stressing not an end point, but an ongoing process of conversion. Like an examination of conscience, reflecting on racism to see the racial divide reminds us what we have done, and what we have failed to do.
Racism: From the Visible to the Hidden
A number of years ago, the Ku Klux Klan vowed to march and recruit in every county seat in southwest Virginia. On the day the Klan came to Gate City in Scott County, a Glenmary mission area, church workers were prepared. They offered helium-filled balloons, imprinted with the message “Love Thy Neighbor,” to townspeople who lined the three-block center of town. The state police showed up in force, and nearly every county worker was deputized to ensure the peace.
Because the Klan’s permit allowed the march only from 3 to 4 p.m., anticipation grew until the school bus carrying the Klansmen, escorted by police cars with flashing lights, finally discharged its 19 passengers. Some were old, with one on crutches. Others looked mid-life healthy, but two were young teens holding Confederate flags, yawning and appearing bored. Spontaneously, someone in the crowd started singing “Amazing Grace” and most onlookers joined in. One young tough with his own Confederate flag shouted, “Long live the Klan!”—but the singing and self-discipline held the crowd. The march that Sunday fizzled like a dud firecracker.
Researchers find the Klan attracts people with a limited education who face economic insecurity. The easy reason they give for their problems is that somebody else has caused them—blacks, Latinos, Muslims—but not the complex socioeconomic system they inhabit.
Sometimes racism grows from small-town isolation. Richard Toboso, a Glenmary seminarian from Kenya then assigned to our mission in Lafayette, Tenn., was playing tennis when a group of teenagers drove into the park and watched him. After a few minutes, racial slurs filled the air.
“I guess they were expecting me to react, but I remained quiet and continued playing,” Richard said.
Frustrated, the teens drove off, but returned a short time later and parked next to Richard’s car. More slurs. Finally, when the game ended, Richard walked to his car.
“To their surprise, when I reached them I greeted them—and they felt a sense of shame.”
Richard and the other Glenmarians reported the harassment to the Lafayette police, who listened empathetically and encouraged them to report future incidents immediately.
“I left the police station contented,” said Richard, “and with true forgiveness for those teens who never thought about what such utterances can cause.”
Elsewhere in Glenmary missions, other stories sound similar. Glenmary Brother Jason Muhlenkamp reported from Early County, Ga., where the population is roughly 50-percent African-American: “Sadly, the racial divide among people can be seen, and racist comments can be heard.”
He mentioned that when the Early County Ministerial Fellowship recently held a tent revival, it stressed not only Christian unity but racial unity. “The two cannot really be separated,” he reflected.
Yet, while overt racism throbs like a black eye in some small towns, other expressions simmer subtly below the surface. Susan Sweet, a Glenmary coworker, explained, “For the most part, one would never guess that there are racial problems in the small Southern towns in which Glenmary chooses to place missions. Nobody talks about race. People of various races mingle in restaurants, stores, parks and other public places. They work together and play together, but they exist in parallel cultures.”
She described hunting for a house years ago in a Mississippi town. She complained to her neighbor that there appeared to be no houses for sale, so she was told to find a realtor.
“It seems a realtor has a list of homes for sale unmarked with ‘For Sale’ signs, so that potential buyers might be screened,” she observed.
This situation was later verified by a black friend who was shown homes only in black neighborhoods, until she insisted she knew of a house downtown that was for sale. Indeed, the realtor showed the house, but she quoted a price double the asking price for whites.
Discovering the Light of the Gospel
“Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”—from Brothers and Sisters to Us, U.S. Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Letter on Racism, 1979
People of faith might never march blatantly with the KKK or shout racial slurs at visitors in the neighborhood. However, behind a sales counter, churchgoers might make race-conscious decisions in real estate, lending practices and business deals. And there are still other sides of racism.
Glenmary Father Frank Ruff participated in an “Undoing Racism” workshop years ago with 20 community leaders from Todd County, Ky. “One of the biggest learnings,” he said, “was how privileged white people are without even knowing it!”
He realized that white people were taken seriously, respected and trusted. Not one white participant had experienced being followed by store personnel while they shopped. “Yet,” he said, “every African-American in attendance had that experience.”
Susan Sweet concurred from her observations that white privilege permits a successful businessperson “to get loans, live where he wants and go to the school of his choice.”
Perhaps white privilege remains the subtle, unexamined part of racism that only dialogue and self-examination can disclose. It challenges Glenmary and our friends to pray for strength to say No to hatred, No to division, No to racism.
But it opens the risky Gospel mandate to say Yes to dialogue with those different from ourselves, so we can say Yes to conversion.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 Glenmary Challenge.