You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.
You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.
Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.
You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…
I don’t believe that remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that he represented is supposed to be comfortable for us white folks.
And I wonder what we might learn if, on this national holiday created in his honor, we were to sit with his speeches that most challenge — not affirm — our worldview today.
I wonder what it would mean for us white folks, in churches, Catholic schools and affluent communities, to collectively step out of our comfort zones today and every day in his honor.
What if us white folks dedicated more time to listening to black activists today? What if humility became the root of our attempts at solidarity with diverse communities of color who are fighting every day for their liberation?
Every autumn for the past four years, I have facilitated three, three-hour sessions on issues of white privilege and white supremacy as related to experiences of foreign volunteer work for Franciscan lay missioners in training with Franciscan Mission Service. These sessions were born out of my lived experiences as a Franciscan lay missioner in South America.
In these sessions, we start with the basics.
I explain how I opened my eyes to the realities of racism only when I stepped out of the white culture I grew up in; in other words, when I stepped out of my comfort zone.
And we connect that experience to concepts of white privilege and white fragility that help explain how a college educated adult, like myself, could be so ignorant about issues of racism.
We also focus on history in that first session; primarily, the history of colonization worldwide and how that history implicated white folks, particularly white Christian folks.
We talk about why it is so important for white folks who are confronted with their own ignorance to respond by choosing to educate ourselves. And we cover basics like how to respond to issues and experiences related to racism that are new to us — namely, by choosing to humbly listen and learn.
We also directly deal with the racist stereotypes surrounding Catholic volunteer work. I share about my experience of being characterized as a “saint” who was “sacrificing” myself by serving in a country economically poorer than the United States.
I explain to the lay missioners in training how different the ways in which I was being categorized were from the personal expectations that I had for living in another culture.
I knew for myself that I was choosing to live in Bolivia because I was interested in their vibrant indigenous cultures and inspired by the grassroots social movements thriving there. I was choosing to move to another country to humbly learn and collaborate, not pity and patronize.
But the reality was that most of the white Catholic folks supporting my life as a Franciscan lay missioner assumed the opposite and so I had to learn how to respond to those folks and look for opportunities to not only educate myself but to share what I was learning with other white folks too.
It was a terribly uncomfortable process.
While I was confronting similar, local stereotypes where I was living and working — a testament to the destructive effects of colonization still so very alive today — I was also simultaneously trying to navigate how to communicate what I was experiencing and learning with folks in my own country who were as steeped in white culture as I am.
The whole process has been full of discomfort and yet I would not have it any other way.
Well, just this past autumn a lay missioner in training asked me in the final session of our time together, “How do you find the courage to confront these issues of racism?” She, like me, was working through dealing with how overwhelming the discomfort can feel at times.
And in my own process I had found two possible responses to this question.
One came from a wise friend of mine who aptly taught me that no matter how hard I think confronting racism is for me as a white person it is always, always, more challenging, traumatizing and even life threatening for people of color.
As a white person I have the privilege to choose to confront racism, but for people of color it’s not a choice but a daily lived reality. Choosing to engage in conversations about racism with a white person is often an exhausting and fraught experience for people of color.
What I shared with the lay missioner in training that day is that this reality ought to, at the very least, inspire humility in us white folks while also leading us to another response.
I told her that I find the courage to confront issues of racism as a white person, not because I am an expert on issues of racism and certainly not because I am some savior who benevolently decided to care about these issues.
I find the courage to keep learning and confronting these issues because I have formed intimate relationships with people of color whose life experiences are very different from my own, and I care about being accountable to them.
The answer is both that simple and the living into it that complex.
But what I have found is that at the very least it does require a willingness from white people to get uncomfortable.
Today of all days is a good time to practice that voluntary discomfort — to stretch beyond what we know and have experienced as white people to listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of people of color.
Here are some resources to engage that discomfort today:
Annemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.
I have never been to Charlottesville. In fact, I have barely spent anytime in the American South.
Like most people, though, I am horrified and sickened by the ugliness of racism that has been expressed there recently, especially last weekend. I want to know what to do, how to help and am trying to discern what sort of reaction I can muster.
Today I’ve been mourning the death and praying with the family of Heather Heyer, the counter-protestor who was hit by a car driven by a white supremacist on Saturday. I have been feeling heartsick for the friends and family of the police officers who died in the helicopter crash, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, too. I went to a somber candlelight vigil with another Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration on Monday night to pray for peace, healing and to mourn the the lives lost last weekend. I am trying to study the truth carefully, prayerfully. I know I have a lot to learn.
I don’t know how to make sense of what is happening in the United States of America. I don’t know how to pray or move forward in the mess. I am not sure where God needs me to focus my energy and prayers to help transform society, contribute to the healing of racial wounds and stand for truth and justice. I feel lost.
I have been compelled this week, therefore, to pray with some of the voices I know from Charlottesville.
First, I re-read this poignant essay from my friend Natasha Oladokun, “Why Are We Here if Not for Each Other?” before I got ready for Sunday Mass. I highly recommend that you read and pray with this essay, too, and allow yourself to consider the hard questions. Here’s an excerpt:
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, said Jesus — the champion of the marginalized and poor, the so-called religious radical who was executed by the state, the God to whom I’ve offered my life. It is an injunction that rarely makes earthly sense, especially now: how can I bless when I have nothing left to say? And what should I pray for? A plague of locusts?
In her book-length lyric essay Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the poet Claudia Rankine asks, “Why are we here if not for each other?” This is the question I keep asking myself and whomever else will listen. Perhaps, in its own way, it’s the question. If our lives and work and words are not in the service of transformative devotion to and for our neighbors, then what, in heaven or hell, are we doing?
Secondly, I have been challenged and grateful for this message from another friend who calls Charlottesville her home, Andi Cumbo-Floyd. I have read this over and over, and am trying to take the challenge to heart:
My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,
I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff-arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday. We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it. I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.
But they are us.
I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.
I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior. I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.
I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.
So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too. I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW. But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person. If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.
We need to have our hearts broken.
But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.” So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.
And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want. I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.
But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.
Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.
And we must change. WE, the white people of America, must change.
With all my love for all of us,
These two essays have been churning questions and agony within me, haunting me. Over and over I wonder: Am I racist too?
The insistence of this moment is that we all realize that our actions for racial reconciliation must be both internal and external. Internally, each of us must enter into the chasm of our hearts and minds and ask ourselves the most necessary and challenging questions such as: How am I racist?
I majored in history in college. Doing so helped me understand that all of the “isms” are complex, systemic and sinful. Racism, especially, is one of the worst “isms” that we need to confront, especially in ourselves, as it can be subtle and unconscious, and likely to come out sideways in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
That’s the way social sin works. Even if we are working against it, we still absorb some of the evil. We all are harmed. We must repent.
This tool is especially helpful to me as I work to see more of the truth of how I may be racist without realizing it:
Externally, we must work for racial reconciliation in every possible way. Prayer, education, protest, social action are great ways to start. (You can look here to see if there is #StandWithCharlottesville event happening near you.) Intentional conversation circles and dialogues are valuable. Also, the Episcopalian Bishops of Virginia offer great specific actions here in their list titled “Concrete actions in the face of white supremacists and others whose message is counter to Christ’s embracing love.”
No matter how we proceed through this mess, let us remember that every person is worthy of God’s love and mercy. Let us not clump anyone into a group that we are against, but realize that even if they are acting in a way that goes against God, that they are also a child of God and need to be honored and loved as such. Let us be clear that Christ’s love is for all people, every race, language and nation.
And, fortunately, God gets to take the lead through this struggle; it’s not all up to us. Step by step we struggle forward, letting Jesus take the lead and bring us closer to true peace, reconciliation, healing and freedom. Amen.
I had a knot in my stomach all day. I couldn’t focus at work. I lost my appetite. I felt exhausted as soon as I woke up. My mind was running with a thousand scenarios of things going wrong. I became keenly aware of that familiar feeling: a low-grade but persistent anxiousness; a lump that sits somewhere between my heart and stomach warning me of something to be feared; an impending lack of control.
It was March 1, 2017. Ash Wednesday. For the past three weeks I had been meeting with fellow community members of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker and our friends from the Mennonite Worker to plan a vigil and direct action. Our intent was to lovingly, but boldly, address the American Catholic Church’s reluctance in naming the xenophobia and racism that have characterized Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency. We sought to implore Archbishop Hebda and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release a public statement directly addressing the rise of xenophobia in our Church and society.
After work I sped home to prepare for the action. My mind was spiraling as we packed our car with a banner, ladders, candles and ropes. I thought of my heroes and their steely determination. Their seemingly complete lack of fear. I thought of the iconic photo of Dorothy Day picketing with Cesar Chavez, calmly gazing into the eyes of a police officer right before her final arrest at the age of 75. I thought of Daniel Berrigan on trial for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Seemingly unaffected by a pending three–year sentence to federal prison, Dan boldly proclaimed to the court, “We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty and if necessary our lives: the violence stops here.”
With my mind and heart racing amidst a cascade of doubts and fears, I felt like I had missed the memo. The seeming difference between my anxiousness and their prophetic conviction was laughable. I wondered about Dorothy’s doubts and Dan’s fears. Did they have them? Or had God given them some kind of divine courage for holy conflict that rendered their doubts and anxieties obsolete?
And, most importantly, when will God give that to me?!
As a white Midwesterner, conflict avoidance is my cultural bread and butter. Growing up, tension or disagreement were to be feared and resented. They were signs of something gone irrevocably wrong; something over which to feel tremendously anxious. Yet here I was, about to help manufacture an almost-assuredly tense situation within a Church I call home. I found myself doubting, searching in vain for Dorothy-like divine courage. Is this worth it? Am I doing the right thing? Is the conflict, the worry, the anxiousness necessary?
While I wrestled with these doubts, fears and questions, a small inner voice (which I often resent) assured me that Jesus’ answer would be a resounding “Yes!” It’s become painfully clear to me I cannot claim to be Christian and deny Jesus’ call for direct action, which leads to inevitable conflict and anxiousness. While it’s incredibly important for me to take care of myself and not stretch beyond what I can handle, Jesus’s social vision clearly calls the most comfortable of us into discomfort. As in Mark 10: 17-27, Jesus did not lovingly challenge the rich, young man to give safely within the confines of comfortable charity but to relinquish all his wealth for the service of others.
Jesus’ is an orientation toward loving and creative tension; a tension resulting in Christ’s inherent opposition to oppression. Soon before he was crucified Jesus and his disciples staged a direct action at the Jerusalem temple, confronting temple authorities’ collaboration with the Roman Empire and exploitation of the poor. In analyzing Jesus’s incident at the temple, the biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg writes in his book “Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark” that “Judaism was not the problem [for Jesus]. The problem was the imperial captivity of the temple and its authorities’ collaboration with the Empire.”
In her “National Catholic Reporter”article Jamie Manson explains that many American bishops likely refrained from critiquing Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric because of social and economic gains to be gleaned from his presidency. She writes, “In the course of the presidential campaign, the bishops’ conference put out one press release about promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue and one release about “partisan divides” on migration issues. But as Trump inspired hate-speech, xenophobia, bias crimes and violence toward women, the bishops remained mum … the evidence suggests that the bishops’ conference threw under the bus the needs of these vulnerable peoples for the sake of advancing their anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, right-wing religious liberty agenda.”
The bishops’ behavior is tragically similar to the conduct Jesus condemned at the temple within his own religious tradition. Their silence is proving lethal. President Trump has engaged in an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and violence directed at many of the most oppressed and marginalized. Much of his executive action is in direct contradiction to the core of Catholic social teaching. In an attempt to follow Jesus’s call into discomfort and to mirror the loving tension he manufactured within the religious institution he called home, I came to see our Ash Wednesday action as not only necessary on a political level, but completely in line with my Catholic identity.
I have also come to see the inevitable anxiousness as not only necessary but also sacramental. While I must be aware of my limits and the reality of unhealthy anxiety, especially in the form of mental illness, I see some level of anxiousness as a gift; a signpost on my journey toward Christian discipleship. An indication that—with God’s help—I can to learn to embrace fear and then to let it go.
We pulled up to the Cathedral of St. Paul during the evening Ash Wednesday service, gathered our equipment, took a deep breath and were off. We ran up the stairs and leaned extension ladders on the two large marble pillars framing the cathedral’s front door. Two Catholic Workers ascended the ladders and hung a large banner reading “Speaking up for unborn lives more than black and brown lives is white supremacy – #silenceissin” across the door, calling on Church hierarchy to condemn racism and xenophobia with as much tenacity and consistency as it does abortion.
After hanging the banner we spent 20 minutes in silent prayer. Several of us engaged with passers by and church goers leaving Mass. We encountered a range of reactions from disdain to joyful support. Eventually, a priest came out with a small group of men. He read the banner, immediately instructed the men to tear it down and quickly moved back inside, choosing not to engage with us. (Check out this time-lapse video of our experience.)
Before leaving we sang a beautiful but haunting rendition of the Kyrie. As the doleful melody rose into the snowy sky, I felt the anxiousness drain from every limb of my body. What replaced it was a confident calm and deep joy. In that brief moment, I felt the fortitude of Dorothy and Dan within me. I let the cold air slowly fill my lungs, breathing out all the tangled thoughts, unraveling the knot in my stomach. The anxiousness died and resurrected, transformed within me. Another deep breath. I was right where God was calling me to be.
Note from the Editor:
Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis Bishop Bernard Hebda makes reference to these events of Ash Wednesday in the March 9 edition of “The Catholic Spirit.” Read it here.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Joe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.
I love Christmas. The rhythm of Advent, the hopeful anticipation, the clarifying cold, the scent of evergreen, the congealed wax at the base of the Advent wreath: these memories and images are so deeply ingrained in my soul and psyche that this time of year, more than any other, embodies a powerful —even sacramental —sentimentality. The nostalgia is an annual reminder that creation is basically, foundationally good.
But over the past few years Christmas has taken on an additional quality for me. As I age and continue to live in a Catholic Worker community, I have more experiences in closer proximity to deep human suffering and social oppression. Many people do not have this luxury. Many, from day one, were born into oppressive conditions and endure the poverty, xenophobia, and bigotry crafted and maintained by those who benefit most from empire.
I was born near the apex of our society’s system of social privileges. I’m a white, straight Christian man born into a class-comfortable family. But my time in the Catholic Worker and participating in activism led by communities of color and poor people has led to a conviction that my understanding of Christmas (and my Christian faith generally) is meaningless if it does not address the social realities of the world in which I live.
Last spring my community, The Minneapolis Catholic Worker/The Rye House, worked with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Mennonite Worker to host an annual Catholic Worker “faith and resistance” retreat. Close to 80 Catholic Workers came to Minneapolis from around the country to pray, learn, and participate in a nonviolent direct action. Our retreat focused on the murder of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man shot by police in November 2015. We reflected on the history of systemic racism in our country and the wake of violence in its path. We talked at length about the racism embedded in our beloved (and predominantly white) Catholic Worker Movement. Following the lead of organizers from Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation Project we discerned and prepared to take direct action in an attempt to better reveal the endemic racialized violence that killed Jamar.
The day before our action one of our leaders, activist-theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about his faith. As a Christian he believed in what he called “a low Christology.” He believed in a Jesus born under duress, in a dirty stable, to an unwed mother. He believed in a Jesus that drank and laughed. His Jesus was messy, flawed, and beautifully human. But importantly, Sekou saw God’s choice in locating Jesus as revealing an emphasis and preference. In an interview with Medium.com, Sekou says “… the gospel of Jesus [is] a story about God choosing to become flesh … among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world. Jesus — a Palestinian Jewish peasant living under Roman occupation — is the salvation of the world. God in flesh was a subject of an empire.”
At our retreat, Sekou explained that because God chose to embody when and where God did, the whole context of Christ’s life cannot be read outside of the context of the liberation of the oppressed. Not only is Christ’s historical location an indication of this fact, but the unavoidable emphasis of Jesus’s core message corroborates God’s intention. As Richard Rohr says in his book “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent,” “Jesus’s consistent teaching … say[s] that there are three major obstacles to the coming of the reign of God … power, prestige, and possessions.”
Christmas then signifies the very beginning of this radical embodiment. The holiday so beautifully represents the intentionality of the incarnation and the beginning of a life lived in joy-filled, loving resistance to social and economic oppression. But what does this Christmas reality mean for people like me, who have more in common with Roman colonizers than Jesus Christ?
First I believe we must acknowledge that Jesus’s message of liberation is for all of us: God locating among the poor and oppressed is a blueprint.
While American social and economic inequality obviously crushes marginalized communities first and foremost, the mechanisms that replicate the wealth and power of the privileged rob all of us of our humanity and dignity. To be complicit with an abusive economic and social order is an attempt to erase a part of our souls that yearns for connectivity. These social sins obstruct our divine programming that pushes us to see ourselves in others; to love like God calls us to love.
Second, we must be honest and courageous about locating Christ (the crucified) in our midst.
Rev. Sekou says “The situatedness of the first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation is the same situatedness of black people in America. Thus we must resist in the way which Jesus resisted.” Sekou and other black liberation theologians accurately position the social realities of black people in America as modern mirrors reflecting Jesus’ lived experience. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons [Martin], Jordans [Davis], Renishas [McBride] … Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”
The day after Sekou spoke at the retreat we nonviolently blocked traffic and two transit trains in front of the Twins’ home opening game at Target Field. Our hope was to temporarily disrupt the status quo and try to steer white Minnesotans’ attention toward the reality of endemic, state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people in our city. As I peacefully stood in front the train, arms linked with other Catholic Workers, I felt Rev. Sekou’s words rooted in my heart. He helped me locate Christ in Jamar Clark, and in all the other black and brown people killed by the police. He helped me understand that God, through Christ, is calling all Christians to take risks in building the kingdom of God. In the midst of the cacophony of car horns, police sirens and hurled insults from Twin’s fans I felt grounded in my Christian identity, knowing that God demands that I work for an end to racism and modern-day crucifixions.
Eight months after our retreat, in the midst of this Christmas season, I hear Rev. Sekou’s words again as I listen to the familiar and sacred story. I feel God calling us, through the work of Christ begun on Christmas day, to learn to embody “Emmanuel” (God with us). I believe that Christmas, for Christians, must be a sacred reminder that we are called to participate in a joy-filled revolution that abolishes social and economic hierarchies and embraces real reconciliation in the form of reparations. “Anything less,” Sekou bluntly, but honestly, reminds us “is heresy.”
Joe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia’s through the La Crosse community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now he spends most of his time working at The Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.
I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.
This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.
We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.
Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks. He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.
In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.
In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”
“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”
This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own. He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.
And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.
So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.
But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”
We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.
Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.
I am afraid this blog post is going to be a terrible, tangled mess: sorry about that. But considering the mess this is all about, a jumble might be the best I can give.
My thoughts are tangled because so much has been stirring within me since last week when I learned about the killings of Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and Philando Castile (in Minnesota), and then police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith (in Dallas).
My heart has been heavy with more sadness—too similar to my grief for the 50 people killed in Orlando on June 12th. I’ve been praying prayers of lament and trying to lean on my faith; that love prevails. As a Christian who desires to be an agent of nonviolent social change, I have also felt overwhelmed, helpless, disappointed, doubtful and frustrated—how can these horrific events and lingering tensions lead to healing and peace?
Mostly though, I have been feeling a lot of guilt.
I didn’t ask to be born with this white skin. I never wanted to inherit centuries of stolen privilege and power. I’ve never wanted to be an oppressor and blindly participate in social structures that keep my brothers and sisters of color in poverty, assumed criminals. I’ve never wanted to walk around wearing white privilege every day, but I do.
I understand now (but didn’t before: more about it later) that much of the racial violence flaring up throughout our nation has been centuries in the making. As a nation we’ve never healed our racist wounds and now racism has become an infection, sickening and slowing our chances for unity and peace. The disease of racism has corrupted our economics, communities and ways of relating to one another.
We can’t blame anyone for the racial conflicts but ourselves, as we’ve all contributed to the causes that ignite anger and hate among us; structural racism is real and creating a mess of problems, tangled together and killing our children. When we submit to lies and take a side, when we ignore the suffering of anyone—this is sin and evil staring us down and laughing.
Whether I like it or not, I participate in the evil of racism every time I enjoy my white privilege. When I feel the tinge of excitement over seeing a “run-down” neighborhood flipped into an area with funky shops and remodeled homes (that’s what gentrification is), I’m ignoring the plight of the poor. When I savor easy access to healthy food and transportation without anger for the lack of attainability my black and brown brothers and sisters have of such beneficial basics, I’m failing to love. And, when I experience nothing but respect and kindness from police officers and assume it’s everyone’s experience, I’m turning away from the Truth.
I had to leave the nearly all-white farming community in Iowa where I grew up in order to learn the ugly truth: racism, as portrayed to me in history class, didn’t end after the civil rights movement. I discovered this in college partly through Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (which really impacted my life); while studying abroad in South Africa; while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and witnessing lack of health care for people of color. I first heard about predator police patrolling black neighborhoods from my students at an all-boys African-American high school on Chicago’s south side. The powerful truth in this video mirrors their stories (but be warned: it’s violent and contains offensive language).
It’s taken years of observing, listening and relationship-building to get to my current consciousness; to understand the privilege of my skin color and the complexity of our social sins; to realize that practically every inequality I’ve encountered is an aftereffect of our shared racial wounds; to move beyond white guilt and to white responsibility. I want to share the principles that have guided me as I clumsily deal with my white privilege, hoping to contribute to racial reconciliation.
Please white brothers and sisters, join me in these actions for everyone’s sake. And, brothers and sisters of color; please comment and correct me where I’m mistaken; suggest what we could do to better share this privilege—rightly yours—with you.
1.) Always avoid paternalistic thinking and behavior. Never give people your pity and create projects you think will increase their standard of living without asking what is needed, wanted. (And keep in mind that cultural dynamics may cause people to agree with your ideas no matter what they believe.) Similarly, make sure organizations serving people of color are not managed solely by white people.
2.) Celebrate diversity. Culture is a beautiful gift from God that ought to be understood, reverenced and appreciated. If you serve a culture not your own, it’s necessary to move cautiously yet eagerly to see all the beauty in the difference (especially if you’re a white person).
3.) Listen. While teaching in Chicago, I was frequently the only white person in the room. It was incredibly important for me to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Whenever I didn’t understand something I had to put aside my pride and fear and let my students explain their world to me. I’m sorry for not engaging in this way more often.
4.) Become allies. Any action you can muster to offer the privilege of your well-respected voice, advocacy for peace and healing, is crucial. It can take a lot of courage and skill but is very important to correct racial language, assumptions and attitudes when necessary. (Be aware that the sin of racism can creep into all of us.) Talk about racism even when it’s uncomfortable, donate to organizations of social justice governed by African Americans and ask your elected officials what they’re doing to ensure peace for the people most marginalized—our black and brown brothers and sisters.
5.) Educate yourself and the next generation. Watch the news and pay attention to bias; search for balanced news sources. Ask critical questions, read, study and share information that helps others understand the truth. If you have children under your care, especially white boys, make sure they are learning narratives about humanity that reveal the God-given dignity and equality of all people.
6.) Pray and witness. Now is a time for communal reconciliation and prayer services for peace. Join in a solidarity action or peaceful protest (like this one, recently in Madison). Plan one for your community or hold a prayer service in your Church or home and invite people of color to contribute to the planning, music and dialogue. Remember that reconciliation is God’s work and we are made to be instruments of peace, working for God’s mission. In order to build up God’s reign of love, we must truly love and pray for each other.
It will remain tough and messy, but all of us who are white must act. It’s just as Jesus said: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48)
As I wade further into the mess I’m aware that as one of many, I have a lot more to learn. Yet I’ll remain in this struggle and not tire because it’s what we are made for—to be one, arriving together to the time when justice and freedom is known by all on earth as it is in heaven. Through God, by God, and in God’s love, one day we’ll arrive.
Today, this high holy day, at liturgies worldwide, we will know no sacrifice at the banquet table.
Communion will be different, stirring up spiritual hungers to remind us of the pain of our loss, the awfulness of the absence of Christ. On this solemn day, an unusual ritual will file us forward; all of us are all called to reverence the cross.
For me, reverencing the cross is really a ritual of bizarre paradox. All at once, we grieve the death of our beloved Jesus and give thanks for the freedom his death has permitted us. We meditate on his wounds, the lashes, the whip cracks and the cries of anguish and celebrate his non-violent love so freely expressed. And, we kneel in awe and wonder and cry with an awareness that our sin caused his pain.
Ultimately, in the midst of paradox, this is the day for us to acknowledge our sins, simple and complex, which have created crosses for others. We ignored an opportunity to learn about an overwhelming social issue and enter into solidarity when we turned off the bad news. We became part of the crowd that yelled, “CRUCIFY.”
We wrongly decided to put our recyclable waste in the bin headed straight for the landfill. We cut wounds right into God’s creation.
We let selfishness consume us and ignored our coworkers in need of God’s mercy. We handed them a crown of thorns.
We didn’t learn to love our hurting, peaceful, Muslim neighbors and reacted to the news of another terrorist attack with cruel assumptions and accusations. We decided we didn’t want to love our enemies. We pounded them with nails of violence and judgment.
We gave into materialism and wasted our wealth on superficial pleasure, cheating on our fasting. A spear of greed pierced our side.
We are part of the picture of Jesus crucified. Rightfully, our hearts are sad and dark on this day.
Let us unite with Jesus on the cross, for his drops of blood reveal our sinful ways.
I have asked my good friend and occasional Messy Jesus Business contributor, Amy Nee-Walker, to share her perspective on the recent events in Baltimore for our readers this week. Amy and her husband Ted presently live in the Jonah House community in Baltimore with their one-year-old son. Here are her responses to my questions.
What would you want young people to learn from the events in Baltimore in the past week?
“Observe without judgment” is a phrase commonly used in meditation. One is asked to observe–while withholding judgment–his or her own self: thoughts that run through the mind, sensations being experienced within the body, feelings rising to the surface. It is only through observing without judgment that we can begin to have a truer, fuller sense of what is happening and attain a state of peace and wholeness in body, mind and spirit.
I would like for myself, and others–young, old and in-between–to take hold of this concept and to extend it beyond the self. What I want people to learn about what has been unfolding this past week in Baltimore is not exact. I am still in the process of trying to understand and sort it out and respond appropriately myself. But I think, if nothing else, I want people to look and to listen and to do this without judgment. I want people to learn to not just perceive what is happening but also to seek to discover why it is happening; not stopping at the easy answer that some news outlet, or peer, or even parent, is waiting to feed you. If you can begin by observing without judgment, you will learn to ask questions that don’t have assumed answers already attached.
In terms of asking the deeper question, I would also like to share some words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Words that my husband Ted and I were recently reminded of and have continued to contemplate as events unfold:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent…
… I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
It is my view that these triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are the deep and wide-reaching roots that are fueling violence, not just here in Baltimore but throughout the country and the world. That is something I would like people to examine in their own lives and communities as I intend to examine it in my own.
What do you think the rest of the world doesn’t know about Baltimore?
Having lived only a year and a half in this city, there’s a lot that I don’t know about Baltimore! Living here has been a continual educational journey. This is a city with a very complicated past and present. I wonder whether the rest of the world knows that preceding the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore City Police Commissioner and the Department of Justice were in the midst of an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. In 2014, The Baltimore Sun released a long-researched exposé outlining cases of police brutality in Baltimore. Attorney Bill Quigley sums up that report well in two sentences. “Over $5.7 million has been paid out by Baltimore since 2011 in over 100 police brutality lawsuits. Victims of severe police brutality were mostly people of color and included a pregnant woman, a 65-year-old church deacon, children, and an 87-year-old grandmother.”
For those who wonder why there is so much tension between protesters and police, I hope this shines some light. For those who think the only reason someone might resist arrest is because they are a criminal, I hope this helps them begin to realize there are times when people evade police not because they are afraid of getting caught in wrongdoing, but because they are afraid for their life.
But I also think the world does not know enough about the positive, creative ways that people are trying to take back their streets from the rioters who trashed them, the wayward pockets of police who torment them and the political leaders who frankly didn’t seem to give a damn about this particular neighborhood until it hit national news. First of all, most of those taking action are advocating for peace and collaboration–some who want to have the opportunity to mourn and grieve for the loss of their friend, son, and brother–Freddie Gray. And there are many who want to both confront the oppression they have experienced for generations as well as show there is more to this city, and more to these neglected neighborhoods, than crime and destitution.
What do you love about Baltimore?
One of the things I love about Baltimore is how easily identifiable it is as a city, it is itself and nowhere else (unless you go to the inner harbor which, sadly, has become a cookie-cutter middle class shopping district with the usual chain stores and restaurants). The city strikes an awkward balance between crowded row houses and expansive green parks and forest space. It is teaming with locally-owned businesses, a love of fried fish and crabs, pockets of incredible historical sites that include civil war memorials as well as the birth places of Billie Holiday and Edgar Allen Poe. And there are many community-based initiatives from planting trees and community gardens, to providing after-school activities, to street festivals and art fairs.
But more than that, I have been so moved by the hospitality, kindness and humor of the people we have encountered. We help with food distribution for those needing grocery supplements, and though the people come here in deep need they also come with great patience as we bumble our way through the long line of recipients. They come with a generous interest in us and a concern for one another; sharing when they’ve been given more than they need, bringing things back for neighbors and friends who couldn’t make it down themselves due to illness or other impediments.
When I was pregnant with my son, Eli, we were on WIC; a food assistance program for pregnant mothers and infants. It is a wonderful program but can be complicated when it comes to shopping. More than once a long line would form behind me as the cashier examined my grocery selection and compared it to the approved items on the WIC check. I would turn to the line that had formed behind me, mostly women, all African-American, blushing and apologizing. Not once did I get a rude or impatient comment; more often I would hear, “that’s all right Honey, we’ve all been there.” Similarly, when we started going to a local church where we turned out to be the only white people, we were afraid of being seen as interlopers. Instead, we were quickly and warmly embraced, invited to events and meetings and welcomed to return. Since his birth, our son has been cooed over and doted on wherever we go, even when he tackles the other children with his overly-enthusiastic hugs and kisses. “Don’t worry about that,” one mother said to me. “That just shows he’s loved and loving.”
These are not aspects of Baltimore likely to be recognized by folks who drop by the Inner Harbor for seafood, or who have formed all their ideas of the west side of the city (where we live) through watching The Wire, but to a young mother and new folks in town, it means the world.
What’s the story the media isn’t covering?
I think we can agree that the media loves bad news. For some reason, bad news is what gets a majority of us to tune in. Because of that, most of the reports on what’s happening in Baltimore, beginning with Saturday’s largely peaceful demonstration, flash images of smashed cars, burning buildings, looting stores. In fact, when everything is calm or when groups are gathering for prayer or just standing and talking, even “live” reports will flash back to images from earlier in the week that are more dramatic and scintillating. I don’t want to indicate that the damage done has not been real and impactful. Many of the people who came to our food pantry the day after Monday’s riots were saddened and frustrated by the damage done to their streets and businesses. One man commented that he doesn’t know where he will get his elderly mother’s medication now that all the nearby CVS stores have been looted and subsequently closed. Another said he lost his job, one of the few available in this area, because the building was burned down A friend reports that in their zip code, unemployment is at 50 percent (8.4 percent city wide). Several of the men commented that they didn’t leave their houses, not because they were afraid they would get hurt in the riot, but because they were afraid of being accused of participating in it just by stepping outside.
But there is so much more happening! Because schools were closed, the high school drumline (which we hear practicing almost daily from our house) marched through the streets with the school’s cheerleaders dancing before them. Churches held outdoor prayer services (some in front of their own buildings, others surrounding those places that had been burned down), seeking to bring healing to a traumatized space. Local clergy are meeting with local gangs, discussing ways of reaching out to the community and beginning to work together to seek not just calm but real enduring peace. Throughout the week our local Josephite church, Peter Claver, has been a hub for organizing–to meet the needs of people lacking food or other resources, to help with neighborhood clean up and to engage in the more long-term work of confronting social structures which are precariously imbalanced.
How has living the Gospel been a messy experience for you in the last week of your life?
Probably that hardest thing for me living in the midst of Baltimore’s present turmoil has been fielding the reactions of those who live outside of it. I guess that belies my privilege in that, because I have a car, I am not cut off from access to food, toiletries, or medications when drug stores and convenience stores in the neighborhood are burnt down. And frankly, because I am white, I am not afraid of being falsely accused of participating in destructive actions or being badgered or beaten by law enforcement.
What I do struggle with (as someone with a network of friends and family who have widely disparate takes on world events as well as philosophies of right living) is trying to bring a balanced perspective and to reveal what may otherwise go unseen. I think those who very sincerely and understandably want to be on the side of the oppressed are quick to rationalize and validate any actions. This is also true of certain forms of violence (such as property destruction)– long-suppressed reactions from people who have experienced many painful forms of violence throughout their entire life–even the lives of the generations preceding them. On the other hand, there are those who want, without question, to dismiss and criticize any behavior that is disruptive, uncomfortable or that defies their sense of what is appropriate. They are quick to have a scathing review of unruly protesters yet are ready to ignore the economic and social violence that has been far more enduring and harmful to peoples’ lives.
I find myself truly challenged to live my own exhortation to “observe without judgment.” I am challenged to observe what is happening on the streets, first with curiosity and compassion, before slipping into criticism and assumptions whether I am observing protesters, police or politicians. I am also, and perhaps all the more so, challenged to observe the comments and viewpoints of others that are pouring in with patience and humility, looking to the Spirit to help form my response and not simply relying on my reactive feelings. This is a struggle for me as I feel very deeply the turmoil of my community (even as I am aware of my own status as somewhat of an outsider); tucked away in this 22 acre-cemetery of which we are stewards, where the sounds of helicopters and sirens compete with the song of birds enjoying the shade of our blossoming apple trees.
I am coming to a point where I find the need to quiet my own roiling thoughts and emotions, my fast-forming opinions and judgments. Coming to a place of inner stillness, I ask myself to imagine “Where is Jesus in all of this?” With that question, lines of police in riot gear melt away, a disinterested mayor takes the backseat, burning buildings fizzle out. With the question comes tears: tears of a devastated mother who lost her only son, a mother who is representative of many and yet who is deeply immersed in her own very real and individual loss; tears of Jesus as he holds her grief-stricken body in his own wounded arms and mourns a multitude of violent deaths and broken hearts and the loss of even one precious child.