For the past three months our country has been faced with the great challenge of fighting a modern-day plague that is infecting millions, ending the lives of hundreds of thousands, and negatively effecting the lives of just about all of us. That plague is known as Coronavirus, or COVID-19. As if things couldn’t get any worse, our country is also, once again, being faced with another great challenge, the senseless murder yet another unarmed black person. This second great challenge has plagued our country for much longer than COVID-19, yet it hasn’t been afforded the same urgency as Coronavirus has been given. I bet aliens cruise past our planet, lock the doors of their spaceships, and nervously checking the rear-view mirrors until they’ve flown lightyears past our solar system! Our planet must surely look like a messy place to be for outsiders. And in many ways, we have much to do to make our planet more hospitable for all of its inhabitants, many of whom feel like outsiders because they suffer daily with the curse of racism.
Although COVID-19 has changed our world and placed restrictions on our lives, like many of you I have faith that God is with us in this struggle and will see us through it. Hopefully, someday soon life will return to normal. We’ll be able to go back to work, go back to church, go out for a night on the town, travel, visit friends and family without having to social distance, and get back to a world no longer preoccupied with staying safe and preventing the spread of contagion. However, if we’re not careful, if we don’t see the signs of the times and respond to them, we risk missing out on an even greater opportunity to deal with an even more insidious plague that has been part of the fabric of our nation for over 400 years. A plague which is responsible for the destruction of many more lives and many more dreams than COVID-19 has destroyed. The plague of racism has touched every life in the United States, both black and white members of society, and it is the greater plague we are being challenged to combat at this current moment in our history. Unlike the Coronavirus, which has required us to practice social distancing, wear masks, refrain from gathering, and which forces us to rely on medical professionals and scientists to find a cure, the plague of racism requires us to take off our masks, engage with one another in dialogue, and find the cure together, not waiting for others to give us guidance on what can be done to make it go away.
As Roman Catholics, we believe that all life is sacred, and that we have a duty to protect life at all stages of development. In the United States, we Catholics do a fine job of championing the rights of unborn babies, but I believe that our church has fallen short in challenging us to be pro-life for all people at all stages of life. Our Catholic hierarchy craft catchy statements about being in solidarity with the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed members of our society, but we often fall short of actions that show we mean what we say. Last week I saw a great quote on Facebook that I reposted to my Instagram account which sums up where I think we need to be as a church. It reads, “If you are pro-life for an embryo, be pro-life for a fully developed black man.” This, my fellow believers, is essentially what we were called to be when, on his last pastoral visit to the United States in 1999 Pope St. John Paul II told Americans that we should “be unconditionally pro-life, to eradicate every form of racism as part of our wholehearted and essential commitment to life.” Being pro-life doesn’t just mean that we need to save babies from abortion, it also means that we need to be anti-racist, to actively work for justice by confronting the plague of racism in our society. I believe that in order to respond to this challenge, we must first take off our masks, uncover the disease of racism in our hearts, and then go out and uncover and expose the disease of racism in our families, our churches, and in our society.
Now you might be thinking, “I’m not racist! I treat my fellow African American, black, or immigrant neighbors with dignity and kindness. When I see racism, I try to address it.” The current riots and renewed focus on the indignities and violence faced by black men and women by the police and white supremacists has also exposed how we white Americans have unwittingly become part of, and benefitted from, the continued plague of racism. That might come as a shock to many of you, I know it came as a shock to me when I first heard that I might actually have unknowingly contributed to racist systems in our society, but this fact is evident in many of our socio-economic structures and in our naivete of systems in our society that reward white people and exclude black people. Racism is so insidious in our society that perhaps we whites don’t even realize how privileged we are. White privilege doesn’t mean that your life hasn’t been hard. It means that your skin color isn’t one of the things that makes it harder, and uncovering how that plays out in our lives can make for some uncomfortable discoveries. Most of us of a certain age have come to realize that there is no growth without pain, there is no progress without having to give up something. Uncovering our white privilege might make us feel uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of dismantling systems of oppression meant to exclude black people.
As a middle-aged white male growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in the Boston area, I prided myself on the fact that my family and I were not racist. My parents and siblings had black and brown friends, we never talked down to, or negatively about our black friends and neighbors, and we were always incensed when we heard of injustices against the black community. Later on in my 20’s, I felt a call to mission and spent the better part of a decade in the countries of Kenya and Ghana, working with the poor and trying my best to come to terms with economic and racial disparities I witnessed as a result of institutionalized racism perpetrated against my African sisters and brothers by western countries. Much later, when I attended a traditionally African-American University for graduate studies in Washington, DC, I became even more convinced that I possessed a singular understanding, not common to my white brothers and sisters, of how oppression and racism have robbed the black community of an equal share in the American dream. What I have become painfully aware of in recent years, and especially in the past two weeks since the death of George Floyd, is that I still have much to learn about the privileges that have shaped my life because I’m male and white. I too have work to do to become more aware, to “get woke” as one of my African-American friends likes to tell me, and to uncover the places in my heart that are dimmed by the darkness of racism and white privilege.
St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the religious order of which I am a member, lived a life centered on Christ, always striving to uncover his authentic self in the light of Christ’s love. As we continue our journey toward a life where COVID-19 is a thing of the past, let us not forget the urgent call we’re presented with by the Black Lives Matter movement to start working toward an end to racism. Let us not forget the call from Pope St. John Paul to be fully pro-life, to uncover the darkness in our hearts placed there by institutionalized racism, to welcome our black brothers and sisters into a society where they feel welcomed, equal, and full members of our church and our society. And my that grace be ours to follow St. Francis of Assisi in uncovering our authentic selves in the light of Christ’s love.
Bro. Paul O’Keeffe, OFM