"Why do we need the church? Why should we even look to the church to end racism when we can find other, better spaces to do that?"
The college student's question was directed to Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Milwaukee priest and prominent Catholic voice for racial justice, during a post-Ferguson lecture in St. Louis last year.
His response to the young woman? He was grateful for the question, he said, because it was both an indictment and a challenge. We as people of faith should be leading the charge of justice, but we are not. We are squandering the precious gift of faith that we should be passing on, and as a result many young people are finding the church irrelevant.
The student's questions are the same ones I have struggled with throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. I, too, have asked myself whether I could remain in a church that often felt irrelevant, hypocritical, and exclusive. I obviously decided to stay, and even to profess vows as a member of a religious community. Why? Because I believe in the power of showing up.
Sometimes showing up means sticking with a relationship even when things are tough or tedious. Often it means admitting a mistake or failure and giving myself permission to try again tomorrow. I've been given plenty of opportunity to practice this recently in prayer, ministry, community, and other relationships.
But perhaps the call to show up is perhaps nowhere more clear than in confronting the evil of racism. This week's horrifying news of the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the latest in the litany of black lives lost and brutalized in our country, jars me back to this reality. I ask myself: have I been too silent, too complacent, too afraid to rock the boat? Have I, to use Fr. Massingale's words, been complicit in squandering the precious gift of faith? Too often, I think the answer is yes.
Confronting racism can be painful and messy. It makes those of us who are usually quite comfortable very uncomfortable. We uncover biases, attitudes, and realities we'd rather not face. But as actor and activist Jesse Williams recently said in his stirring BET Awards acceptance speech, "The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander . . . if you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression."
Like the college student's question, this is both an indictment and a challenge, one which I believe extends to the life of the church. As an institution and as individuals, we must do our own work when it comes to racism. However, as a multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-everything body, what exactly does this mean? On whom does the burden rest?
There's an episode of "The West Wing" in which President Bartlet is asked a question about young people and their involvement in politics. The older generation and the younger generation each blame one another for failures in the political process, the president says. Older people think the young folks are lazy, young folks think the older generation has failed them. "So are we failing you, or are you failing us?" he asks. "A little of both. Decisions are made by those who show up."
I think the same sort of blaming can happen in the "church as institution" vs. "church as people" dichotomy. Institutionally speaking, is church leadership responsible for making audible, visible, and tangible all the beliefs we profess — including racial justice — and challenging members to live them out? Yes. Are leaders responsible for identifying the racism present in our institution and creating paths to root it out? Yes.
On the flip side, are parish communities responsible for creating vibrant, welcoming, relevant communities who encourage members to both embrace and question our beliefs and practices? Of course. And are we, as individuals, responsible for showing up, speaking up, and being the church we want to see? Yes. We all participate in creating, living, and being church.
To paraphrase the message of President Bartlet, are we — the body of Christ — failing the institutional church or is the church failing us? Perhaps it's a little of both. When it comes to racism, we can't heal what we haven't confronted. And we can't be a part of change if we don't show up.
[Christin Tomy is a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. She has lived and worked in Central and South America and has a background in Spanish and social work. She is passionate about social justice, good hugs, Iowa and most outdoor activities. She also writes for her community’s blog at catherinescafe.blogspot.com.]