For some twenty-four of my twenty-seven years as a priest I have lived in and ministered to largely African-American parishes and communities. It has been a great blessing to me spiritually, liturgically, and personally.
As you may imagine, I get a lot of questions from people when racially charged events appear in the news. I’m asked what my parishioners think as well as what I think.
This past week began with the death of two African-American men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, in interactions with the police. Their deaths are certainly tragic and appear prima facie to be unnecessary, even possibly criminal. And while the investigations into the circumstances must continue, the videos are nevertheless horrible to watch. Add to this a long string of recently publicized deaths under similar conditions and the result is a widespread, deeply held belief among African-Americans that the weapons of law enforcement are too quickly drawn, guilt is too easily presumed, and deadly solutions are too frequently the recourse when the dispatcher notes that the subject is a black male.
The week ended with the tragic shooting death of five police officers and injury of several others. These officers had no connection with the questionable deaths earlier in the week other than the blue uniforms they wore. Whatever injustices police in other cities may have committed, the shooting of the Dallas policemen was an egregious crime that will likely set back any reasonable discussions on these matters for a long time. Violent responses only encourage more injustice and more violence. Absolutely no one is helped by this act of declared vengeance by the assailant, a man who does not deserve to be named.
In the midst of all of this, how should we respond? Something tells me that the first step is to stop and really listen to one another.
Not a Spokesman – Although I have pastored in and been immersed in the African-American community for many years, I often humorously note, “I’ve been white all my life.” I cannot begin to know the depths of what it feels like to be African-American in a country with a history like ours. I am not, and cannot be, a spokesman for the black community. And thus I resist answering those who ask me what my parishioners think. My response can only be inadequate.
But I can say that I have learned to listen and simply to accept the experiences of others, experiences that often surprise me because I’d like to think we’ve made more progress than what I hear. My parishioners are people whom I trust and I will not doubt their experiences just because they aren’t mine, or because I think America isn’t or shouldn’t be like that. Our parishioners have varied backgrounds. Many are college-educated. Some are government employees; some own their own businesses. Some work in healthcare: doctors, nurses, or nursing home staff. Others are teachers, lawyers, or work on Capitol Hill. Still others have IT-related jobs, work in retail, or are involved in real estate. Although some of our parishioners are poor, overall my parish is an upper-middle-class African-American parish. With 600 in attendance (120 of whom are children), the offertory alone is almost a million dollars per year; other donations amount to another 200,000. We are not a poor, black, inner-city parish by any definition.
Despite this, most of my parishioners (many of whom earn six figures) can attest to the ongoing frustration of “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and “hailing a taxi while black.” A man in my parish who is nearly sixty and a professional with a job on K Street, rejoices that Uber has arrived; prior to that it was very difficult for him to get a cab. He once filmed his attempts. Empty taxi after empty taxi drove right past him only to stop further up the block to pick up another patron, usually white and/or female.
Stories like this shock me. I think to myself that this can’t possibly still be going on in America. But these are people I trust and have lived with for a long, long time; they are not fired-up activists looking for trouble. They are talking about experiences that are realities for them. I once took a walk with an African-American deacon from a nearby Catholic parish. He was wearing trousers and a button-down shirt—ordinary, “respectable” clothing. We stepped into a store and he said to me, “Now watch. I am the ‘face of crime.’ We’re going to get extra scrutiny.” Dubious, I kept a little distance from him so that I could observe. Sure enough, that extra scrutiny was subtle but undeniably there.
Many African-Americans have also experienced problems with their treatment by the police. This is not to say that every interaction with law enforcement is bad every time. But it is common enough that many African-Americans do not have the same level of trust in the police that white Americans do. The widespread anger in the black community is not artificially created by activists or by the media; even if they at times light the fuse, the powder keg comes from past experiences and from events that are still happening today.
This may not be your experience or mine. We tend to doubt the experiences of others, especially when they are different from ours. But the point is that these are the experiences of many, if not most, African-Americans.
The first step in listening is to accept the stated experiences of many African-Americans without discounting or doubting them, to respectfully acknowledge them. A respectful reply could be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry that this has happened to you in the past and still continues in our country. Thank you for telling me so that I can better understand.”
White Americans also have experiences with race that are painful. In fact, one of the greatest difficulties in this time of political correctness is that many of the feelings and experiences of white Americans are excoriated and/or disallowed. In some sense they are not even allowed to express them at all without being shamed or sidelined.
There is much dismay and fear among many white Americans at the soaring rate of crime in poor neighborhoods, the high rate of black-on-black crime, and the further breakdown of African-American families. There is also a frustration when, despite the emergence of a strong black middle-class in many regions and the election (and reelection) of an African-American president, many activists minimize progress and still label the United States a racist country.
Most white Americans do not simply lay this at the feet of the African-American community. The causes are also seen as rooted in a poorly designed, patronizing welfare system that has undermined poor families, isolated them in housing projects and inferior schools, and locked many into a suffocating cycle of intergenerational poverty.
But again, publicly expressing such thoughts, fears, or experiences is extremely difficult in today’s politically correct culture. And thus resentments simmer and honest conversations about mutual solutions seem impossible.
The terrible, radical act of an isolated gunman has surely not helped the advancement of honest, respectful, candid discussion of our various experiences. But I remain convinced that such conversation is essential. We ought not to doubt or excoriate the experiences of others.
Some will say, “What good will listening do? It’s just a bunch of talk.” Perhaps, but if real listening can take place, maybe better understanding and mutual respect will pave the way to better, more mutually satisfactory solutions. I know it’s big and idealistic, but I think there’s a place for big and idealistic—even in this cynical, decaying culture of ours.
I’m no policy wonk; I’m just a white guy who has loved and ministered to God’s people in largely African-American parishes for a long and wonderful time. There’s something about this long conversation over the years that has fostered mutual respect, love, and understanding. Believe it or not, we actually talk about things other than race! We talk about God and about the stuff of life: family, the death of loved ones, the latest movie, football, the weather, and how bad traffic is getting. People are people.
After all these years I can say to my parishioners, most of whom are African-American, “For you, I am your pastor. With you, I am your brother. From you, I am your son.”
Life lived together can do that. Race gives way to relationships, fears to familial feelings, concerns to commonality, and different experiences to delightful enrichment. It’s a long conversation that isn’t over yet, but that already blesses us.
Thank you, Lord. Help us to listen.