Black Churches are Burning, the Faith Community Must Act

In the past month, several black churches have been burned to the ground, three as a result of suspected arson. People of faith should be deeply saddened and worried.

There have been attempts – by the media and by individuals – to downplay how disturbing these church burnings are. Some have dismissed these acts of arson as “vandalism,” rather than a deep indication of how racially divided our society continues to be. Some have focused most of their energies on the speculation that lightning may have caused one or more of the fires.

Here is a truth: some churches have been intentionally set on fire.  We live in a country with a history of people burning black churches – during the civil rights movement, after President Obama’s inauguration, and now.

Not all the churches have burned because of arson – but some of them have.  Not recognizing this – and focusing instead on lightning, for instance – shows the lengths that people will go to avoid the uncomfortable reality: we live in a society with deep racial inequality and injustice. The burning of black churches is a calculated act to destroy centers of black community. Even more than that, black churches have been historically used to resist systemic racism, and have been attacked for it in order to protect racist policies.

Here are three ways that individual persons and faith communities can respond:

1. Speak out.

Faith communities have largely been quiet on this topic.  Some churches have joined in fundraising efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned.  Too many have said nothing. But the faith community should be leading the response.

To stay silent on this issue is to side with those who are actively trying to preserve racial injustice and unjust social structures. That many communities of faith have remained silent is deeply troubling.

2. Ask the hard questions.

Churches can and should be on the front lines of the movement for racial equality. As individual persons and faith communities, we should be asking hard questions: how have my actions (or the actions of this organization) contributed to racial inequality?  How have they ignored it?

When addressed honestly, these are difficult, uncomfortable questions, but they are worth asking.  Finding the answers to these questions and responding accordingly is a critical and pressing challenge of our time.

3. Examine your own practices.

Why is it that when I attend church, I’m so likely to see mostly people of my own race?  Churches are both products of and contributors to a racially unequal society.  I was recently in a meeting where a faith leader dismissed the need to examine racial inequality at their church because they had no “exclusionary policies.” Racial inequality persists in our society even in the absence of explicit “exclusionary policies,” and, in some cases, governments and private institutions are beginning to recognize and act on this. Our churches should be held to an even higher standard.

As voters, consumers, and citizens, each of us is playing a part in maintaining the status quo that marginalizes (and endangers) some members of our communities.

Good intentions are not enough. We must act to build a more merciful and more just world. May we let this be our call to action.

Jenny Heipp is a fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.


Catholicism: A Story of Identity

There was a point in my life when I thought I wanted to be a Buddhist. Disillusioned with the strict dogma and old-fashioned views of Catholicism, I began to look elsewhere for my religious fulfillment. I had heard through multiple friends about the benefits of meditation, and once I started to meditate I began to learn more and more about the rich and beautiful Buddhist tradition and the spiritual foundations of meditation. After that, I was hooked. Where Buddhism seemed so hip, cool, worldly, and, I’m ashamed to say, exotic, Catholicism seemed so… conservative. Even downright Republican, and as a card-carrying liberal Democrat, God forbid someone ever assume that about me!

But the deeper I got into Buddhism, the more and more I felt like a fraud, a cultural appropriator who was there more for the novelty and uniqueness than any spiritual or emotional transformation. I mean seriously, the story of disillusioned Westerner turning to Eastern philosophy to fill “The Void” is such a tired cliché that it made me cringe to think I was becoming that person. Read More


How We Should Respond to Violence and Division

As the United States continues to experience senseless acts of violence and deepening societal divisions, I’m reminded as both a Catholic and a citizen that all of us have a responsibility to promote and protect the common good and the general welfare. Nothing reminds me more of such responsibilities than when I read the speeches that Robert F. Kennedy gave in 1968, in the direct aftermath of the shooting and killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. RFK’s timeless words of wisdom about the life and death of Dr. King can perhaps restore some measure of solidarity and unity to a deeply wounded nation. Read More


Liturgy and Perfection

As a parish pastoral associate , one of my favorite “ice-breaker” questions for small groups is: “What has been your most profound experience of Liturgy?” The answers are usually quite revealing, ranging from wedding Masses to funeral Liturgies to “mega-Masses” like those at World Youth Day. My answer, however, is always the same: my most profound experience of Liturgy took place in the fall of 2011 in a small chapel at San Hermano Pedro Hospital in Antigua, Guatemala.

I was in Antigua for a three month language immersion program, in an effort to learn enough Spanish to be competent in my new job at a Latino parish. I was introduced to the hospital by my Spanish teacher—she would typically attend Sunday Mass there and visit with patients afterwards. One day during our class, she invited me to come to Mass with her the following Sunday and experience what it was like helping at the hospital. Read More


Plain Persons, Popes, and the Benedict Option

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. (Gaudium et Spes, 1)

For many conservative or traditionalist Catholics, Laudato Si, an encyclical devoted to ecological concerns, has the jarring appearance of secular ideology wrapped in the guise of Christian platitudes. (For this, see especially Christopher Ferrara’s post at The Remnant.) Many of the same Catholics would see the roots of such modernism in the doctrines of Vatican II and especially Gaudium et Spes, with its call for sympathy with the aspirations of secular modernity. But this would be mistaken. Laudato Si continues the tradition of papal engagement with modernity begun by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. Leo linked the concerns of the Church with the concerns of plain persons, the average man or woman suffering as a result of changing economic conditions. Lamenting the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few, he says,

In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. (#3)

Although the encyclical opposed revolution, it supported the formation of labor unions as new institutions that could serve to protect and promote the common good of laborers, and counseled profit-sharing as a means of mitigating the tension between labor and capital. Read More


Laudato Si Addresses Climate Change, Environmental Threats But ‘Integral Ecology’ is the Key

Pope Francis’ long-awaited encyclical, Laudato Si, was released to the world in its final form last month. Shortly after becoming pope, Francis signaled his intention to release an environmentally-minded encyclical, and the letter has attracted significant media attention for its strong words on the need to protect the environment. This is especially true in the United States, given the way polarized political attitudes feed a contentious debate about the reality of climate change despite a worldwide scientific consensus on the matter.

The media focus in the run-up to the encyclical’s release was centered on climate change and humanity’s relationship with the environment, sometimes framing it in light of religion’s supposedly antagonistic relationship with scientific thought. Many stories analyzed the encyclical through the prism of American politics—the willingness of uber-popular Pope Francis to take on such a hot-button issue. Depending on whom you ask, this is either a praiseworthy move from the Bishop of Rome or a gross overreach of Rome into politics.

But to reduce Laudato Si to a document entirely about climate change, or even simply one on environmental concerns, is to mistakenly narrow the scope of the encyclical and Francis’ intentions. Laudato Si does not limit itself to ecology in the biological sense, but addresses it in the much wider, radical sense of oikos, the Greek concept of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling place.’ Read More


7 Surprising Ways that Pope Francis’ Encyclical is Calling You to Change

Pope Francis’ approach to climate change is surprising. He affirms practical and common-sense wisdom about how to care for the environment – for example, by turning down the heat, using less plastic, and reducing water use – but his encyclical also contains a much broader diagnosis of why we should be worried about climate change.

At its root, Francis says, climate change is the result of the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin” (2). Our irresponsible use of the earth, Pope Francis tells us, is a reflection and a result of our damaged relationships with each other and our distance from God.

It’s tempting to think that Pope Francis’ encyclical is just for the politicians, lobbyists, and environmental groups, but he’s actually talking to the everyday person. “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation,” he writes, “each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvement, and talents” (14).

Read More