Statement of the National Black Catholic Congress on the Civil Unrest in Baltimore

The National Black Catholic Congress has released a statement on the civil unrest in Baltimore:

The recent events in Baltimore, Maryland, along with those in Ferguson, Missouri and other communities in our nation, lead us to reaffirm our position as African American Catholics on the inviolate value of the Life and Dignity of every Human Person.

Deeply rooted in the Word of God and our Catholic Social Teaching, and in the spirit of the Pastoral Plan from the eleventh National Black Catholic Congress in 2012, we deplore the violence, brutality, harmful illegal and self-destructive behavior and the racism that plagues our communities. We call for prayerful, honest and peaceful dialogue that will lead to justice and truth.

Poverty and hopelessness breed violence and despair. With tragic frequency young people, our most treasured human asset, seem to be both perpetrators and victims. Not all anger and frustration manifests itself in looting or violent behavior, and many know how to positively, creatively and productively channel their frustrations.

More than ever we need a new model for engaging society on poverty and race. Faith communities have a unique and particular role to play in the healing of broken communities and are called to courageous witness. The Catholic Community in particular has been challenged by Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to enter fully into the struggles of the people who are most marginalized and on the peripheries of society. We call for a renewed a commitment to ministry with our youth and young adults, along with meaningful commitment to meet their educational, employment and other social justice needs.

The full statement can be read here.


A Very Catholic Week: The March for Life, Selma, and Immigration Reform

There are three things I heard over the past week that are stuck in my head.

First, “We are the pro-life generation!” Thousands of young people chanted this refrain at last Thursday’s March for Life in Washington.

Then, “We’re not asking – we’re demanding! Give us the vote!” This was a masterful Daniel Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film Selma, which I saw on Saturday. In the scene, the minister and civil rights leader is speaking to a church congregation of African Americans who had systematically been blocked from registering to vote in Selma, Alabama.

Finally, “La iglesia está con ustedes,” or “The Church stands with you.” This was the message delivered by Bishop Sullivan and pastor Fr. Vince Guest at an information session on President Obama’s immigration executive action at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton on Sunday. At the gathering, which drew over 500 people, experts from the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice described the president’s order, which could make thousands of undocumented South Jersey residents eligible for a type of temporary permission to stay in the United States.

Taken together, these lines and the events where I heard them offer some interesting points about discipleship. Here are three:

1) God takes sides; we should, too.

I once heard a conference speaker tell the story of an older brother, a younger sister, and a dad. The brother often picked on his sister, she would call out for Dad’s help, and he would intervene on her behalf. The son complained, “You always take her side! You love her more than me!” The father replied, “It’s because I love you both the same that I take her side. If someone ever picks on you, I’ll take your side.”

This anecdote gets at something crucial about God’s love. Of course He loves all his children the same amount. But like the dad in the story, that doesn’t mean he remains neutral in all conflicts. Instead, as we see over and over again in Scripture, he sides with the oppressed and suffering. Think of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt who Moses leads to freedom, the exiles in Babylon who God’s prophet Isaiah comforts, and the woman caught in adultery who Jesus defends from the angry, judgmental mob. To imitate God’s love in our own lives, we must be on the look-out for similar instances of the powerful targeting certain groups of people, and raise our voices with and for those in harm’s way. What incredible examples of this sort of faith in action I witnessed on the National Mall, at the movie theater, and at Holy Cross.

2) As we do our best to take the side of the poor and vulnerable consistently, we will find that we don’t fit neatly into the American political left/right binary.

I love the consistency of the message woven through my recent experiences: pro-life, pro-racial justice, pro-immigrant family. It reminded me of something Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a speech a couple years ago. We are called to be comprehensive in our care for “the uns,” he said: “the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated.”

I imagine a Catholic advocate phoning her Congressman four times in a given week, calling about various issues that the Catholic Church in the US is speaking up about. On Monday, she urges the representative to work toward the legal recognition of the unborn as human beings. On Tuesday, she asks him to protect social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. On Wednesday, she voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide. On Thursday, she calls for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. And on Friday, the congressman’s receptionist wonders aloud, “What party does that woman belong to, anyway?”

If we truly let our faith inform our politics, then that’s the question people might be asking themselves about us.

3) Siding with those who are vulnerable is risky.

In Selma, King gives a sermon in response to the racially motivated murder of a teenager in the town. “Those who have gone before us say, No more! No more!” he says. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

I think of the hundreds of parishioners who gathered at Holy Cross on Sunday – many of whom, who, despite the risk of deportation, keep working to provide for their families and secure civil rights. I feel for the young pro-life marchers whose peers look at them with suspicion or condescension. Selma invited me to remember those in who were beaten and killed because of their race, and to lift up those who continue the ongoing hard work of racial reconciliation across the country.

After the March for Life, I made it to Lindenwold just in time for our diocesan Respect Life Mass, hosted at the Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass was Matthew’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” Jesus tells his followers. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

As risky as faith can be, Christ reminds us that he is with us always. There’s no finer solace – and no finer call to action – than that.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


Race, Economic Justice, and Ferguson: An Interview with CCHD’s Ralph McCloud

Millennial had the opportunity to interview Ralph McCloud, the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the official domestic anti-poverty agency of the USCCB, on some of the important topics that have emerged as part of the national conversation in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri.

RalphMcCloud

Ralph McCloud serves as the executive director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

It seems as though one of the things motivating people to protest is the sense that racial bias is leading to unequal and unjust policing. Do you see this as a major problem in the country? If so, what can be done to address it?

Racism continues to be a major problem in the country. Unjust stops, arrests, the use of militia-type tactics on citizens and discriminatory sentencing policies have led to a growing distrust among African Americans and other people of color toward police and the judicial “system.” There is a feeling that we will not be treated fairly and because of that, there is growing polarization, mutual disrespect and alienation on all sides… until it erupts unfortunately in a tragedy. You know there’s a problem when police view neighborhoods as war zones and kids feel like they’re under occupation.

Is there an issue of systemic or structural racism that is motivating those protesting?

Why is it the norm when dealing with people of color and alleged “criminals” to utilize violence? Why do we consider certain types of communities disposable? It’s a fact that racism shapes American attitudes and policies around criminal justice. It is systemic and structural, but on many levels and by many systems… We spend a great deal of time and energy applauding the gains we’ve made, but we ignore how far we still have to go. This isn’t just a law enforcement issue; it’s also about health care, education, economic opportunity, political participation. There are systems and structures in the United States keeping people from living up to their God-given dignity. Violence has never been solution to our problems.

What role does material inequality play in undermining efforts to reduce racial divisions and achieve a more unified, just society?  Do you see a connection between economic injustice and the protests in Ferguson?

Without question. In Ferguson, I see folk denied access and opportunity. Violence is the reaction of a society that refuses to address the growing divide between those who have and those who are disposable, what Pope Francis calls the throw-away culture.

People of color are more likely to be denied access to those things they need to reach their goals, what you might call the American dream. Historically, when people are denied opportunity, frustration and anger reach a boiling point.  People want to exist in a peaceful society, where they can raise families, contribute, educate their children, and be safe. When these goals are out of reach for lifetimes and generations, despair sets in.

What can be done to bring greater economic justice and reduce poverty in America?

This tragedy should make us rethink the evil that rampant inequality is inflicting on our communities, the use of violence to enforce it, and the “roping off” of opportunity to growing parts of our society. Whether its people of color, immigrants from the wrong country, or a growing group of people below the poverty line, we have to ask whether it’s appropriate to police the margins with violence and punishment. This type of punishment starts with impoverished communities and poor education, continues with lack of economic opportunity, and ends up in a prison and immigrant detention cell.

A preferential option must be shown to those communities where high poverty exists. Intensive efforts must be made to stimulate economic development, to educate tomorrow’s work force, to give families a sense of ownership and pride in their communities. Will we treat people, as Pope Francis has asked us to, as artisans of their own destiny or will they be objects of punishment and exclusion?

The protests in Ferguson have increased calls for criminal justice reform. One element is sentencing reform. Can sentencing reform be done in a way that brings greater safety and security to the people living in economically depressed areas while reducing unfairness in the system and helping those who have committed relatively minor crimes from falling into a life of crime? A number of existing proposals seem to disregard the impact on the law-abiding citizens in these areas who want greater safety and security for their families and who are disproportionately the direct or indirect victims of these crimes. The preferential option for the poor seems to create an imperative to drive down crime rates and drug abuse in poor areas, but also to eliminate unfair sentencing and counterproductive penalties that will result in more crime. Is this type of reform possible? A second element of criminal justice reform might be to help rehabilitate those who are imprisoned and help to reintegrate them into society. Would this be helpful? What reforms might be useful in this area?

It’s a fact born out in American history that more prisons don’t make our communities safer.

When you look at the current sentencing guidelines, for drug offenses in particular, huge disparities exist. The pall of criminalization keeps extending over more and more groups of people on the bottom while at the top we’ve witnessed rampant impunity. Who are we criminalizing and why? Who do we fear and why? We need to ask questions that get to the root of the problem.

The culture of our prisons isn’t one that leads to success on the outside. We need to assist persons who have made mistakes and who want to do better to get on a path to success, which includes employment, education, housing, voting privileges, etc. Restorative justice is becoming popular to help heal both the victims and the perpetrator of crimes. Another approach is to look (pre-sentencing) at what unique needs the perpetrator had going in—drug and alcohol use, anger issues, depression, family problems, low educational achievement, etc. and make sure those issues are dealt with before re-entry, making rehabilitation a condition of release. It is also critically important to acknowledge the faith component of rehabilitation. Inmates need access to those things that will strengthen and sustain their faith life.

All of this can only happen when local communities come together in trust—trust inter-racially, trust inter-economically, trust neighborhood to neighborhood. Sadly, Ferguson is any city USA and any city USA can be Ferguson.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

CCHD: Putting the Gospel into Practice by John Gehring: “At a time when 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty and extreme income inequality is growing, a contribution to C.C.H.D. is a powerful way to affirm Catholic identity and empower those struggling to lift themselves out of difficult situations.”

“Getting” Pope Francis, or Not by Michael Sean Winters: “Here, too, we see the greatest point of continuity between Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, both of whom, in different ways, were rooted in the Communio school of theology we associate with the Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Christian proclamation is first and foremost about God and His accomplishments and only consequently about us and our obligations, moral and otherwise.”

The Christian Intellectual by R.R. Reno: “Love and freedom. There’s nothing uniquely Christian about these qualities in an intellectual. Socrates had both. But grace perfects nature and helps us overcome our weaknesses. The Christian intellectual may not be welcome today as a Christian, but it’s as a Christian that he can be salt and light.”

TJP Sits Down with Coach John Beilein by Dennis Baker, SJ: “I do the Examen all the time during the season.  That helps me put things into perspective—how grateful I should be for the life I’ve been blessed with.  Sometimes I write my Examen down with my iPad.  I have pages and pages and pages during the season.  So I think it’s just the overall appreciation of understanding your purpose in life, understanding God’s will for you.”

The Triumph of C.S. Lewis By Fr. Robert Barron: “He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.”

When Children Are Traded by Nicholas Kristof: “A first step to address this issue would be to make adoption agencies responsible for children they bring to America, including finding new homes when adoptions fail. If we have rules about recycling bottles, we should prevent children from being abandoned and recycled. The larger point is a more basic failing in America: inadequate child services. Kids don’t get the protection they need from predators, nor the nutrition they need, nor the books and reading programs they need for mental nutrition. The threat to the food stamp program, whose beneficiaries are 45 percent children, is emblematic of this broader problem. Children don’t have votes and are voiceless, so America’s most vulnerable become its most neglected.”

The GOP’s Cruel Crusade Against Food Stamps by Norm Ornstein: “I would love for all sides to find common ground here: Provide the kind of job training that will enable people to find work and move out of poverty while helping them with the basics of food, shelter, health care, and transportation. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mindlessly without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.”

Father Albert Foley: How one priest took on the KKK by Kristen Hannum: “Everything changed for Foley in 1943, when, as a young Jesuit, he was assigned to teach the class ‘Migration, Immigration, and Race’ at Spring Hill College in Mobile. His research—which included interviewing local black Catholics and wide-ranging reading—opened his eyes: Segregation was sinful. He looked to the church fathers and social justice teachings to better understand his new realization and to discern what should be done.”

The Habit of Gratitude and Hopefulness by Christopher C. Roberts: “We are praying that a good community of peers will be in place when they become teens. And we are trying, gently for now, to prepare our girls for being different from the surrounding culture in sometimes uncomfortable ways. I hope for the moment that we’re laying in the spiritual and psychological resources to see us through whatever’s coming.”

Now and Then I Feel It’s Working by J. Peter Nixon: “There is always a temptation as a parent to think that your children are clay that you are called to shape. The truth is that we are merely stewards of something precious that ultimately belongs to God. If he can call a prodigal like me back to him, he can certainly do the same for my children if he so chooses. In the end, faith is his gift to give, not mine.”

How Children Succeed: You Should Read This by Jason King: “We need grit to be able to confront sin—personal, social, and original sin—and keep going.  We need grit, but we also do not develop it by ourselves.  We need a community that is safe enough for us to develop trust and confidence in our decisions and actions.  We also need a community that fosters vulnerability, one not closed off to adversity, not closed off to others.  We need the Church to help us become disciples who perpetually pickup our crosses and follow Christ.”

The pope is forcing us to redefine ugliness by Benjamin W. Corn: “Because our aesthetic standards are arbitrary, our definitions of beauty have shifted slightly, over time, to encompass, for example, anorexic-appearing fashion models with little resemblance to the shapeliness of Botticelli’s Goddess of Beauty. There is one vital point in that dynamic: the arbitrary—including our ideas of what is beautiful, ugly, visually acceptable, or socially stigmatizing—can change. And each of us can contribute to that change.”

In Central African Republic, thousands turn to bishop for protection by Barb Fraze, CNS: “More than 35,000 people are living on the 40-acre diocesan compound in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, seeking protection from rebels who are targeting Christians, said the local bishop.”


The Promise and Challenge of Already but Not Yet: Personal Reflections on MLK’s Vision

Fifty years ago this week, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gave an iconic speech.  It offers a vision of the best impulses of the American experiment. No matter how many times I watch video of Dr. King I still get goose bumps. I want  to be that community, where children are judged by the content of their character. As a Catholic theologian, I have always been struck by the realized eschatology throughout King’s prophetic messages. And, fifty years later, as I listen once again – I am struck by the “already but not yet”

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”

Newscasters and activists have been highlighting the racial and ethnic diversity of the crowd. This weekend and in today’s celebration, leaders highlighted both our successes and our failures – the arc of justice is long. For me, listening today I could not help but think of my grandfather, John E. Clark, Jr. who embodied the hope of King’s Dream and presents me, his granddaughter with a persistent challenge to fight for justice, in all its complexity.

The great-grandson of slave owners, his mother was the last born in the manor house of a Maryland plantation. Her ancestors served in the Revolutionary Army and the Confederacy for Virginia. Raised far from that legacy in Vermont, my grandfather grew up in a loving and devoutly Catholic home with few material resources.  He earned a full scholarship to Fordham by taking an IQ test.  This Southern heritage was not his culture or his upbringing,  but he chose to face it none the less. After college and library school, he became a community librarian and used his position in the community to fight for justice. He and my grandmother brought their children (and later their grandchildren) to protest marches, political action campaigns, and community service projects. Active for civil rights, he was honored by the Long Island NAACP (as well as the Anti-Defamation League).  I was always proud of my grandfather, whom I adored and admired beyond words – but never was I prouder than when NY Newsday profiled him alongside 5 other Long Island civil rights activists who died the same year as Rosa Parks (Oct 2005).

My grandmother loved to tell the story of my dad spending the day with my grandfather at work (director of a local library). When they got home my grandmother asked about their  day to which my father responded “Dad just walks around talking to people all day.”  At his wake countless library patrons stood on line to tell us how he listened and they always went away with the sense that he had heard their concerns, even if he disagreed. What made him remarkable is that he did not walk around talking, he walked around listening.

In his steadfast commitment to peace and justice, my grandfather represented the promise, the “already” of King’s prophetic vision. What made that possible  is that he recognized and exposed his own white privilege. The unity of  the descendants of slave owners with the descendants of slaves is not a Utopian  party in which everyone just gets along – it requires unmasking injustice. In “Unpacking the Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh explores why it is so difficult for whites to admit and accept their racial privilege, an exercise that is worth the time.  In part, I think that is part of why even though we can all quote the I have a a dream section, most of us don’t pay much attention to the earlier sections of that speech (or his speech “Why I am against the war in Vietnam”). But if we are honest with ourselves and the public debate right now – we will hear the biting critique of King rings as true now as it did in 1963.

“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

At this past weekend’s celebration, Newark Mayor Cory Booker noted that his father used to remind him that “he did not hit a triple, he was born on 3rd base.” Like Booker, I was raised with the knowledge that I was born into significant privilege – that privilege was not monetary but education  and with that a significant responsibility for the not yet.  In a poignant essay “King and I” Bryan Massingale cautioned against sanitizing King or placing him on a pedestal.  Listening to King’s speech challenges me to face my own ancestral history and the subtle ways in which I am privileged because others are treated with suspicion still.

I love history and  family history in particular. I have always had an insatiable desire to understand who and how people are connected – but a side effect of that is when I discover a new colonial ancestor, I risk finding records like this:

“I give and bequeath to my niece Mary Jane Wills, three hundred fifty dollars, which sum I desire to be applied to her education. I also give and bequeath to my niece Mary Jane Wills, one negro woman Charlotte, my carriage and horse.”

This was my great-grandmother’ s grandmother, a woman who until today I didn’t know her name. Facing the reality of white privilege and the complexity of the American story requires that I face this part of my heritage along with my Irish ancestors fleeing the famine.

The legacy and injustices are social and structural, they are not limited to the literal descendants of the colonial families. Often conversations about racism and white privilege get stalemated because people are uncomfortable with the implications of complicity or guilt. Why are we so afraid of being uncomfortable? For me, avoiding this discomfort is impossible. What I learned from my grandfather’s lived response to King’s challenge is a vision that proactively sought justice. His faith pushed him to name and relinquish the privilege of a situation he didn’t create, but that perpetuated injustice. Perhaps the greatest gift my grandparents gave me was a model of fighting for justice as lived Catholicism wading into the  already but not yet of King’s eschatological dream.

This article is also featured on Catholic Moral Theology.


USCCB Statement on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

The USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church released a statement on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom today. The bishops make a number of good points and conclude by saying:

We join the call for positive action that seeks to end poverty, increase jobs, eliminate racial and class inequality, ensure voting rights, and that provides fair and just opportunities for all.

The full statement can be read here.


Fifty Years Later: Catholics Still Fighting for Racial Justice

This past weekend, I had the honor of representing Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Millennial at a panel entitled A Catholic Conversation on Race, Religion and the March on Washington

The event, co-sponsored by Catholic Democrats and Pax Christi USA and hosted by Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in DC, discussed the gritty reality of the Church’s response and non-response to racial and economic justice issues throughout the past fifty years in the United States.

Quite simply, it was an all star lineup.

Moderated by Ralph McCloud–the executive director of the Catholic Campaign of Human Development, panelists included Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, John Carr of Georgetown University and formerly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Sister Patti Chappell of Pax Christi and Donna Grimes of the USCCB.

The broad stroke conclusion I came away with was that the Catholic Church has been a co-worker in the racial justice movement, but at times has failed to be the prophetic voice that Christ calls us to be.

It is especially important as attempts begin across the nation to curb the voting rights of minority populations.

If our Church and its leaders put a tenth of the resources into civic and economic rights that it puts into the pro-life movement, we would forever change the fabric of American society.

Yes, we were there in 1963, and yes, we are here in 2013 fighting for racial justice. But our efforts must be redouble, refocused and refined.