“We really ought to have superhero suits,” I have joked to fellow members of my ecumenical anti-racism team. I was trained in 2005 and 2006 to serve on a team called Illinois Christians Encountering Racism, part of the Illinois Conference of Churches. Our current membership is scattered widely across the state. We would love to have the power to convene a meeting by flying to some central location. We settle for audio and video conferencing.
Anyone who engages in work against racism comes to understand very quickly that victories against racism are not the sort of feat which can be illustrated in some graphic novel. Progress against racism starts in individual human hearts. We must think of how we behave and of what words we use to talk about social situations in our country. We must confront ourselves with the ways in which racism has in fact distorted our spirits.
Currently we are hearing, in general conversation, terms which I was introduced to in my training: “white privilege” and “systemic racism.” Hearing these terms so commonly used now, I conclude that a great many people have looked into their hearts and have seen that societal influences have indeed warped our ability to perceive people in a healthy way.
And yet, hearts and spirits are resistant. Offer a brief anti-racism training to some Christian group: you will find that this is not at the top of the list of things to do. Some assert: “I treat all people equally.” I challenge such people to reflect on how they choose to pay attention to or ignore particular persons. We could consider the warning in the Letter of James (2: 1-10) about acting with favoritism, even within Christian communities, on the basis of merely superficial details.
I discovered that I was not far removed at all from the current outcry. The Leadership Team of the Illinois Conference of Churches, three days after the death of George Floyd, was putting together a statement, and I volunteered to write a first draft. I decided to get in touch with my sister, Kathy Yates, who is the assistant principal of a Catholic school in Minneapolis: the Risen Christ School, a “dual-immersion” school conducted in English and Spanish, whose student body is largely the children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The now infamous street corner is three blocks from the school; many school families were affected by violence, including at least one family made homeless by a fire in their apartment building.
I was pleased to read, in these pages two weeks ago, the statement “Chain reaction of fellowship” from the Black Catholic Commission of our diocese. Along with the commission members, I recognize that “praying, learning, and taking action” are steps every one of us can take. If you are a member of a group which is open to experiencing anti-racism training, let me know and I will see what we can put together. I stress that my team is ecumenical, so we may be a good fit for a group of Christians of various denominations. The Dominican Sisters of Springfield have been very active in anti-racism work; I participated in a training which they hosted some years ago.
Many assume that looking intently at racism can only be a “downer.” My experience has been the opposite. Looking at the pathologies of our society is sobering, but also liberating. Just opening up to a deeper telling of the human story can cause us to see things more from the perspective of a superhero in flight.