The Catholic elementary school I attended was in the heart of South Omaha, an area that was most recently populated by the families of European immigrants who worked in the packing plants and railroad yards that still dotted the dreary industrial landscape. Few of our parents, who were two generations removed from their immigrant grandparents, still worked those jobs. Over the years, those immigrants’ families began losing their identities as Irish, Polish, Croatian and Czech and instead thought of themselves as all just white. The neighborhood, and those jobs, began being taken new ethnic groups — African-Americans and new Spanish-speaking immigrants.
I attended literally hundreds of masses during Catholic elementary school and high school. Memories of those masses blur into a montage of carefully timed bell ringing, the intoxicating smell of incense and the taste of papery communion wafers. The ritualized choreography of the mass is still embedded in the muscle memory that I can reflexively replicate today.
One day stands out in my memory like few others of the hundreds of masses I attended during those elementary years. I must have been in 5th grade or so. We had a Friday afternoon mass, which usually signaled some kind of special celebration or holy day. For some reason, my mother was there.
Students always sat with their school class in the very front dark wooden pews. Unless we craned our neck completely around (for which teachers would have instantly reprimanded us), we were unable to see the smattering of usually older, retired adults who typically gathered with us for those weekday masses.
I saw him when he came up to receive Communion. The stranger’s dreadlock-covered head bobbed as he walked up the aisle. I’m sure we all marveled at the stranger’s dark skin and laid-back demeanor as he approached the priest for Communion. The priest stopped before serving him Communion and asked (presumably) whether or not he was Catholic. The man’s deadlock covered head nodded emphatically in affirmation of his Catholicism. The priest, who had served a few hundred school kids only seconds earlier, reluctantly served him Communion.
For some reason, my mother had been at this mass. She later defended the priest’s actions as she talked with a few of the other mothers after mass. She said that “Father” (the priest) had to ask if the stranger was Catholic or not. I stood by them silently taking it in. As a 10-year-old, I didn’t have any words for what had happened, but I remember intuitively feeling like something was very odd and wrong about this situation.
Even as a 10-year-old I was blessed with intuitive skepticism. I didn’t have words for the institutional racism and classism embedded in this situation. I couldn’t demand that the adults around me live into the radical hospitality we as Christians are supposed to show all people. Nor could I ask some of the very obvious questions: Why would an African-American man who wasn’t Catholic venture into an afternoon mass filled by a bunch of white school kids and their parents? Only the faithful do something like that. Would a strange white man have been questioned in the same way? Definitely not.
Though I’m grateful for that intuitive inkling and my subsequent life experiences and education that helped me recognize the injustice in this situation, I also have to be honest and vigilant about the upbringing from which I came. Though this particular situation stands out in my memory, I’m sure there are countless others I don’t remember that taught me that people of color are not welcome in my church. As a progressive Christian person who has lived her adult life largely in racially, culturally and ethnically diverse settings, I always have to guard against a natural reaction to see people with darker skin as outsiders. I must work harder to not react in fear, judgement and hostility toward those who are different. I even have to work against my mental tendency to think that African-Americans are not Catholics. (Which, of course, is ridiculous.)
I do this work because I don’t want racism to define my familial and cultural story. I want to be part of churches that welcome ALL to the table, rather than perceiving the stranger as a threatening outsider. I don’t want to stand around silently while white people justify inappropriate racist behavior. I don’t want to block people from coming fully to the table or use my privilege as a white person to further subjugate my black and brown sisters and brothers. I want to raise awareness of this racist dynamic when many other white people would prefer to pretend we live in a “post-racial society” and that “race doesn’t matter.”
Let’s just admit it: Race does matter. We (white people) benefit from it. All of us, regardless of how enlightened our upbringing may have been, are formed in a world in which we are taught to take advantage of the subjugation of black and brown people, mostly by ignoring and denying the problem. We need to tell our own stories of how our formative years set us up to view the world this way.
Telling the story helps me live up to our civic ideal of equality and fulfills my Christian commitment to living God’s earth-shattering promise that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
So, white people what’s your story?