The Intersection Between the Heart of Christ and Juneteenth
June 29, 2020
Upon hearing of a program being offered at the local cathedral that addressed poverty and the Church’s social justice teachings, I knew it was for me. Through JustFaith, I was provided insight to the heart of the Gospel of Christ as taught by the Catholic Church. Having entered this church as a young child in an apartheid state, I had already gained a deep appreciation of Moses and the Exodus from the Black Protestant Church. I also recognized the strong similarities between the enslavement and subsequent struggles of the Hebrew people, and those of us as African-Americans. The connection and assurance of God’s presence in the midst of ineffable suffering was as certain as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
My family entered the Catholic Church amidst the racial segregation of the mid-1960s. While the priests and parishioners welcomed us, I know our lived experience was not shared by all African-Americans, not even for those who identify as cradle Catholics. It was years later in JustFaith that I saw my families experience of welcome as a clear example of the Church’s social teaching on human dignity. This was transformative as I began to feel a pull towards a professional path guided by these principles. However, before that would unfold, the economy crashed and I became a ninety-niner, one who who received 99 weeks of unemployment benefits during the Great Recession.
An acquaintance called to ask if I would be interested in an internship with the archdiocese through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), a unit of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that addressed domestic poverty. I promptly completed and submitted my application. A short time later, I was offered the position. While it was part-time and with no benefits, it was an opportunity to move beyond unemployment and to do work that resonated with me. The new path was appearing.
By the time my internship began, there had been two significant changes that were causes for concern but I did not have the luxury of walking away from the opportunity. My first surprise was learning my acquaintance had resigned and been replaced. The second change was another reason for pause. The CCHD internship was a part of Social Justice Ministries and, in this archdiocese, functioned under Catholic Charities. With the change, the internship and Social Justice Ministries, which would become Justice and Peace Ministries, was moved to a new unit named Communications and Advocacy. The Advocacy component included Disability Ministries, Jail and Prison Ministry, and Respect Life Ministry as well as Justice and Peace.
The decision to combine Communications with Advocacy was problematic in the best of circumstances. Communications is responsible for representing the interests of the institution, primarily the archbishop and the archdiocese. Advocacy is charged with encountering those on the margins with the heart of the Gospel. There is an inherent tension between the two units requiring discernment and contemplative action from leadership.
On the first visit to my new office, I was escorted by the head of Communications and Advocacy. The short walk had only one memorable moment. For no apparent reason, I was told, “We don’t talk about liberation theology.” Not wanting to rock the boat before it left shore, I did not response. Although two weeks later, I was offered a full-time position in Justice and Peace Ministries, the director’s comment was a precursor of the challenges to come and, in time, I would begin to reclaim my voice.
How do you tell an African-American woman not to discuss liberation theology? Although the distorted slaveholder’s Christianity of the United States, present in Catholic parishes and Protestant churches, has denied it for four centuries, liberation flows through the veins of the Gospel and the heart of Christ. Jesus was a man who lived under oppression, yet his words are clear, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives. . .”
On this Juneteenth of 2020, the nation remembers the last enslaved people of African descent who learned of their freedom in Texas more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Shamefully, the oppression of chattel slavery was replaced by the era of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism that we continue to resist as did our ancestors. As “Black Lives Matter” is proclaimed, may our nation follow the guidance of James Weldon Johnson as we “Lift ev’ry voice and sing ’til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.”