I grew up in small town Texas and traveled 25 miles to a larger city to attend a Catholic high school. In order to get from my town to the city, we had to drive through one of the most well known KKK hotspots in Texas. I could typically feel my anxiety level rise a little when driving through – especially once I started driving myself. I can still remember the day as if it happened yesterday: driving on the interstate on my way to school my senior year and seeing people standing in the median. There they were. Four people dressed in the white hoods and livery of the KKK waving large Confederate flags. “Car, don’t fail me now,” was my prayer.
It’s been a little over 20 years since that fateful day, but I do not pretend that those days are altogether part of the past. That day is part of a continuing legacy of racism and oppression in our country. And while I have not seen people in KKK dress since 1993, I am acutely aware that the problem of contentious race relations in our country continues. One need only mention Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown or the cities of Ferguson, Missouri; McKinney, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio – and we cannot deny that we have a serious and systemic problem in our country.
What is easier to deny, however, is how these issues permeate our church and our religious institutions. There seems to be a tendency to believe that our church is free from the racial tensions and inequalities that exist in other areas of life. True, we’ve come a long way since my oldest sister was in school in the 1960s – attending segregated Catholic schools, worshipping in the black Catholic church down the street. We can certainly say that there has been progress. And yet, should we be content? I think not.
A few years ago I was speaking at a “meet the religious on campus” brown bag lunch at a university. During the question and answer period a woman spoke up, “How is it that you’re black and Catholic? Were you raised Catholic?” One might imagine my shock. But what I realized is that she was vocalizing something that may have been in the minds of others gathered there or in the area. In the Midwest, and indeed around the country, one doesn’t find many black folks in the pews of our churches. This, of course, is excepting the churches that are predominantly black – in which it is rare to find people who are white. While I recognize that there are exceptions to this broad generalization, the exceptions are few and far between in my experience.
When I first moved to the Midwest I was looking for a parish home. A few of our sisters are connected to a large suburban parish with a vibrant, younger, justice-oriented congregation. One Sunday I joined them at this parish. I was the only person of color in the large congregation, and many stared at me as if I was the first person of color to ever worship there. And if all people of color who dare to worship there were stared at in that way, I can see why I was the only one.
In recent years we have also seen the mass exodus of Catholic schools and parishes from the inner city. Suburban parishes and schools are flourishing, while inner city ones struggle to keep their doors open. The solution that many dioceses employ is to close these struggling schools and parishes – to leave the inner city. In leaving these areas they often leave behind families of color, the poor, immigrants and people on the margins. How, then, can people of color or those who are otherwise on the margins of society ever feel welcomed by a church that seems largely unconcerned with the struggles of their families and neighborhoods?
These are the experiences and questions that occupy my prayer and my thinking a great deal over the past several months. How are we, as a church, called to respond? Do we have something to say about the racial violence and the less obvious forms of racism in our nation? How are religious congregations, which are majority white, called to respond? What is God saying to us in this moment of our history? What is God calling me to?
I don’t have answers. But I welcome dialogue as a step in the right direction.
[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]