I loved going there every Saturday morning even when the snow of Northeast Ohio dared us to penetrate a sheet of pre-dawn darkness as we careened, mutely, along icy country roads leading to a small parish whose children waited for catechism class to begin. I taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grades while the other two sisters who traveled with me taught the remainder of the classes from the first up to the eighth grade. These were children who actually hungered to learn more of their faith because they came from families whose earth-centered spirituality emphasized the importance of simple faith. This was a farming community.
The pastor had us stay for lunch after classes before the long trek home. But I came to realize after a year or so, that those bucolic hills throbbed with a growing awareness of the world and the effect religion could have in that awareness. It was in the late 1960’s, the war in Vietnam was in full swing and our nation was in the grip of protests for civil rights and racial equality. So I was not surprised when a bright little boy asked one day what Catholics should believe concerning Reverend Martin Luther King’s movement. We got into a discussion and I cited scripture and attempted a little of the Church’s teaching on social justice, adjusted to fourth grade level.
But at lunch, when I brought up the boy’s question in our conversation and my attempt to answer it, the pastor swelled with anger. His face flushed; his fist pounded the table. He went off on a tirade about how he will have “none of that communist drivel” in his school. He glared at me: Did I realize how other priests have to pick up the workload of clergy who “run around causing dissent simply because they want to be champions of ‘colored people’ and get notoriety?” Then came the sword of Damocles! He looked at the principal and shouted, “You tell Reverend Mother to replace this communist starting next week!” The sisters who were with me were shaken to the core. (They even passed on dessert!) I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or angry. Sorry to say, by the time we got home anger had taken over!
When the principal told the story to Reverend Mother, I thought I was in for another sobering lecture and dismissal. I was shocked when she replied, vigorously I might add, “I will call and suggest two options for Father. He either accepts you back, if you want to go, or he gets a layperson to replace you!” I opted to return because I loved the class and we were near the end of the school year with only a few Saturdays left. My confidence had soared with the support of Reverend Mother. She had given me an option and she did not side with the pastor!
This is only one little anecdote at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to race relations and the Church in the 1960’s. But is it really better today? Anyone who seeks justice with an open mind calling for the sharing pertinent to a fair decision is called a socialist, a milder term replacing communist but meaning the same thing. Some church leaders cater to the powers of government to secure funding, to attract wealthy donors, to resist challenging those who insist on their pre-Vatican II comfort zones. All at the expense of marginalized people. This still filters down to the ordinary pastor who must make decisions, as Jesus would want him to make, for the good of his parish.
I must take considerable prayer time to think of ways I can do my part, in my religion, to recognize my own prejudices and seize the action needed to be part of a growing solution to the evil of racism.
Do I find it hard to admit that racism is pervasive and that bigotry against any kind of differences is real and often influences religious leaders? What am I doing as a committed believer to inform myself and to take action in my Church?
Self-reflection is important to discover the covert threads of racism that exist in my own heart and psyche. In a future blog, we can discuss ways to discover where we fall short in our respectable places.