Racism denies that all people have equal dignity, and further denies that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. As Catholics, we must defend and support any and all of our brothers and sisters who experience racial inequity. The Black Lives Matter movement aims to combat white supremacy and racial violence against Black persons, along with promoting the dignity of Black people. While admittedly some of the tenets of the movement can be challenging for Catholics—including the movement’s emphasis on the gay and transgender community—we should not let these areas impede our Christian duty to work for racial justice.
Pope Francis calls us to engage in the art of accompaniment: to “look more closely and sympathetically at others whenever necessary,” to “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5),” and to reflect “our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life” (EG 169). By participating in the art of accompaniment, we recognize the dignity and the value in the other, and we honor God by loving and listening to the other person.
In Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church, Olga Segura invites Catholics to engage in the art of accompaniment with the Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) movement.
Segura’s book is a breakthrough as the first book-length effort aimed at bringing the Church into dialogue with BLM. This is significant given the varied opinions of the movement in the US Church, from Bishop Thomas Daly of the Diocese of Spokane who issued a statement that “BLM is in conflict with Church teaching regarding marriage, family and the sanctity of life,” to Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso who knelt in prayer along with 12 of his priests in solidarity with BLM following the death of George Floyd.
While the US Church is divided on BLM, Pope Francis demonstrates solidarity with members of the Black community who are victims of racial violence.
During a General Audience following the death of Mr. Floyd, Pope Francis prayed “for the repose of the soul of George Floyd and of all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism.” The pope called on Catholics to not “tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form.”
Additionally, Pope Francis named George Floyd twice in Let Us Dream, supporting the racial justice protests following Mr. Floyd’s death:
There is another abuse of power which we saw in the horrendous police killing of George Floyd that triggered protests around the world against racial injustice. It is right that people reclaim the dignity of every human being from abuse in all of its forms. Abuse is a gross violation of human dignity that we cannot allow and which we must continue to struggle against. (25)
To know ourselves as a people is to be aware of something greater that unites us, something that cannot be reduced to a shared legal or physical identity. We saw this in the protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, when many people who otherwise did not know each other took to the streets to protest, united by a healthy indignation. Such movements reveal not just popular feeling but the feeling of a people, its “soul.” (101)
Birth of a Movement seeks to provide Catholics with the context to join Pope Francis in his support for justice for Mr. Floyd and for the Black community. This movement is congruent with our call as Catholics to combat the sin of racism, both on a personal and systemic basis:
#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc. is a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives. (BLM Global Organization mission statement)
Segura invites us to accompany the three co-founders of the BLM movement: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. We learn about their upbringing, the influence of the Christian faith in their lives, and their call to activism.
Cullors’s background particularly moved me. She grew up outside of Los Angeles in the valley suburb of Pacoima. At 16, her Jehovah’s Witness family members forced Cullors to leave the house when she came out to them as queer (30). Cullors’s formation in adversity and rejection created within her a desire to fight against injustice. At a young age, she joined the Bus Riders Group, a Los Angeles civil rights organization, and later became the executive director of the Coalition to End Sherriff Violence at LA jails. These experiences provided the building blocks to co-found the BLM movement.
Based on the co-founders’ respective backgrounds, I do not believe the birth of “#BlackLivesMatter” following George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict was mere coincidence. The reader can appreciate how each of the co-founders’ life circumstances prepared them for this deeply needed advocacy for the Black community.
#BlackLivesMatter symbolizes and encompasses the pain and indignation that the Black community experienced not only due to the failure in justice for the unnecessary and untimely death of Trayvon Martin, but the centuries of abuse and inequity that Black people have endured, literally on their backs, for centuries. Segura allows us to see this turning point from the eyes of the movement’s co-founders.
However, people within and outside the Church are responsible for poorly characterizing the movement and reducing it to Marxism and support for the LGBT movement (17). This stereotyping parallels the bias and racial profiling the Black community has become all too familiar with, and acts to negate the valuable and necessary justice work that BLM offers.
St. Ignatius of Loyola included in his Spiritual Exercises a Presupposition to be “more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how one understands it. If one is in error, s/he should be corrected with all kindness” (22). In contrast to the viewpoints from within the Church that effectively demonize BLM, Segura offers a charitable interpretation of the movement, giving BLM and its co-founders the benefit of the doubt. Additionally, in an Ignatian manner, she helps us find God in the BLM movement.
In the spirit of this Presupposition, we should also acknowledge that there are certain ideas presented in the book that are not in alignment with Church teaching, such as on gender theory (63-64). While Segura applauds Pope Francis’s writings as foundational to racial justice (58, 126), including Laudato si’ (13), she does criticize the encyclical’s silence on gender intersectionality while affirming cisgender norms (14).
I believe Segura is sharing her perspective of the transgender community and the need for solidarity and dialogue from the Church. I also believe that we can remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on gender theory, but rather than deny the experience of transgender people, we can accompany them as Pope Francis calls us.
Additionally, in line with Pope Francis’s message, we can enter into this tension on gender theory not as a contradiction but a contraposition (Let Us Dream, 79), and thereby utilize discernment and compassion for the transgender community. In this manner, transgender people are not demonized but viewed with the eyes of Christ.
Moreover, that there are parts of the book that do not align with Church teaching does not mean we cannot affirm Segura’s overall message to support Black Catholics and the Black community.
Within the framework of the BLM movement, Segura invites us to accompany the victims of racial violence and the family members who mourn them. The author introduces us to Tracy Martin, mother of the deceased Trayvon Martin. We read how she found her son “as lifeless as a broken rag doll” (3). Segura describes Trayvon Martin’s life and background (1-2). We become familiar with him as a person, and not just as a victim. Trayvon was not just a nameless random Black person or a thug in the making. He had hopes and dreams, even a desire to be a pilot.
Those hopes and dreams ended in bullets.
I would invite the readers of Birth of a Movement to take a step further. We not only can read about the victims and their mourning loved ones, but we can pray with and for them.
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius offers the Contemplation on the Trinity (102). In this prayer, the Trinity looks at the world from above and invites us to look along with the Three Divine Persons. However, in this modified interpretation of the Contemplation, imagine the Trinity looking upon the life of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd. Imagine seeing how this person died in an untimely and brutal fashion. Look how the Trinity looks upon the deceased and those who mourn their loss. Feel what the Trinity feels. Speak to the Trinity about what you are experiencing as you witness the devastation from the death of any one of these Black persons. Ask the Trinity how you are being called to respond to this injustice.
In light of Segura’s presentation of the movement, BLM can provide a context for responding to the Trinity’s call to stand with members of the Black community in their fight against racial injustice. Segura writes, “Black Lives Matter is not a movement pushing an extremist agenda that contradicts our faith; it is the secular version of our Catholic social teaching” (19). BLM applies the principles of prioritizing the marginalized on the basis of the solidarity that is central to the Church’s social teaching, and does so specifically for the Black community. This is significant because the Church, particularly in the US, continues to fall short in its care for Black persons, including those who are baptized members.
The Catholic Church’s involvement in the sin of racism includes its role in the enslavement of Black people. Segura cites Dr. Shannen Dee Williams’ research on chattel slavery and the Church, noting that “the church served as the largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas, including Louisiana, Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) and Brazil.”
Dr. Williams further highlights that even after the abolishment of slavery, “most white Catholic religious orders of men and women and seminaries continued systematically excluding African-descended people, especially US-born black people, from admission on the basis of race well into the 20th Century.”
Reading these words made me sick to my stomach. I felt shame for the Church’s involvement in the sin of racism.
But I am more upset by how little the Church has done to atone for these sins. This should be no surprise that to this day, Black Catholics feel alienated and unwelcome in US parishes.
Therefore, I am grateful that Segura offers the following recommendations to the US bishops (50-51):
- Issue a formal pastoral letter addressing the harm done to Black people by the Church, from slavery to inconsistent and tone-deaf responses to police brutality, and apologize for the Church’s complicity in white supremacy and failure to minister to Black people on a public level.
- Acknowledge the way Church leaders, comprised mainly of white men, benefit from privileges not afforded to Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC).
- Reflect on how this privilege prevents Church leaders from seeing the brutality and oppression towards Black people, and call on their white priests and donors to also engage in this exercise.
- Work to keep Black members in the Church, which includes listening to their cries and declaring that the Church is committed to Black liberation by supporting BLM.
- Build a safe place for Black people in the Church by condemning all racial harm, from belittlement to police brutality.
In forming these recommendations, Segura utilizes the tenets of BLM, which she identifies as closely aligned with Catholic Social Teaching, as the means to better equip the Church to welcome the Black community and support these members against anti-Black racial injustice.
Segura suggests that if the Church in the US does not follow through on these recommendations, it risks further disenfranchising members of the Black community.
Despite this disenfranchisement, Black Catholics assert that the Church belongs to them.
In the book’s Forward, Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt echoes the question Segura grapples with: “‘How do Black people remain Catholic through all of this?’” (xi) She introduces us to her great-uncle Calvin of New Orleans, and recounts his deeply powerful words, a response to this repeated question, stating that “‘this is my church, too, and I’m not going to let them mess it up!’” (xii)
While reading Segura’s book, the Spirit led me to another passionate response, though in an indirect and unintentional manner.
Segura recounts the words of her Dominican mother, expressed in Spanish, about her desire to bargain with the shopkeeper with Segura’s translation assistance, negotiating intently with the words “dile que no me voy.”
No me voy – I’m not going. In the heart of every BIPOC Catholic, the Spirit cries out within them, no me voy. This is my Church, I belong here, and no one has the power to tell me otherwise. In effect, the BIPOC Catholic tells the evil spirit of white supremacy, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)
When BIPOC Catholics get side-eyed when they walk into a certain parish, or a parishioner asks a Black priest for a real priest instead, let these words from the Spirit reaffirm the conviction that the Church is BIPOC’s rightful home. No me voy.
Those who don’t want BIPOC members in the Church, though, are free to leave.
By reflecting on the aforementioned experience of Black Catholics in Segura’s book, juxtaposed with the mission and the tenets of the BLM movement, I have a deeper appreciation for the need to highlight Black voices within the Church, as well as to defend their inextricable place within our Church.
All Catholics, including Black Catholics, have the Sacrament of Baptism as the guarantor of their membership in the Body of Christ. Anyone who denies a Black Catholic a place at the table of our Lord, whether subtly or directly, commits sacrilege against their Holy Baptism.
Similarly, excluding Black Catholics from their proper membership in the Body of Christ would be loosely akin to harming the Eucharistic body of our Lord.
We need to recognize the grave harm committed through implicit and overt racism in the Church, whether it be by priests, bishops, religious or laypeople. When racism persists in our Church, the very person we drive out is Christ.
Birth of a Movement highlights the vulnerable and painful experience of Black people due to the sin of racism, and in doing so enables Black Catholics to realize that they are not alone. Utilizing the structure and the precepts of the BLM movement, Segura reveals the areas of the movement’s congruence with the Church’s social teaching, which commands the inclusion of Black persons in the Body of Christ and protection from racial harm. This book allows all Catholics, particularly white Catholics, to become familiar with the Black Catholic experience of alienation and disenfranchisement in an effort to, hopefully, encourage and foster a more welcoming Church. Segura also challenges the Church in the US, particularly its hierarchical leaders, to reflect consistency in the values of the Church by owning and repenting of the injustices towards the Black community, including but not limited to its role in slavery, complicity in white supremacy, enjoyment of white privilege, and failure to minister to the Black community on a public level.
Calling the Church to repentance on matters of racial justice is a way to truly reflect Christ and his mission on Earth, as well as to helping the Church to reconcile with her disenfranchised members. In many ways, the secular BLM movement teaches the Church to be more fully oriented to the Gospel and more committed to the values it upholds.
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