Ascending the Path Together
After George Floyd's death, Jen was seeking a new way to look at the situation. She found it in the company of friends who are meeting to study Catholic Social Teaching together.
For most of my life I have had a sleepy relationship with the topic and reality of race in the United States. I am white and grew up in a Denver, Colorado, suburb with mostly white friends and classmates. It wasn't until a graduate-level multicultural class that I began to realize the varied experience Americans face because of the color of their skin. I learned about red-lining and segregated schools and neighborhoods, and these concrete examples of people being excluded from housing or education based on their ethnic or racial background--which occur even today--were like a glass of cold water poured on my dozing eyes.
I became curious and began reading about and listening to the experiences of Black people and people of color in the United States. Despite this awakening, though, I remained closed off and somewhat defensive among my colleagues and friends, thinking of myself as a good and kind person, someone who was not personally contributing to the problems of race in America. In my mind, it didn’t concern me directly.
It wasn’t until I started work preparing the Baldwin exhibit for the New York Encounter in August of 2019 that I began to lower my defenses, becoming more free to explore what race in America meant for me. I was finally able to talk openly with people about my personal history with race, why it mattered to me, my assumptions, and how much I didn’t know. Within the Baldwin crew, I found Catholics who had their own questions about race and humanity based on concrete experiences and a deep love of Christ, truth, and charity. The group consisted of teachers, students, and business professionals from around the U.S. We followed James Baldwin’s method of honesty, curiosity, and looking closely where the others were looking to try and see what they see, just like Baldwin did with his dear friend and mentor, Beauford Delaney.
My role in the exhibit was developing the timeline of Black American History. I learned about the Black people and historical events such as W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells, the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Saint Peter Claver, and Minstrel Shows with black face. It was an enormous task to discover so much previously unlearned information, and I worked at it for months.
The experience of the exhibit itself surprised me. I finally met the members of the planning crew in person, many of whom I’d spoken with for hours over the phone or on video chat. Seeing the attendees' responses and the discussions that followed was life-changing. However, the most important part was the way we, as a group, brought our questions and interest in race and America to the New York Encounter. No one was trying to convince anyone of anything; we were all trying to discover something that we longed to know ourselves. Through it, I also realized that Black American history is American history and that my Black brothers and sisters share the same America that I do. We are deeply connected and we impact each other.
Three months after the exhibit, in the throes of a global pandemic, I was shocked and heartbroken by the news of George Floyd’s death. Floyd was a fellow American who deserved to live. He was my brother and he died by the hands of police. I turned to my friends from the Baldwin exhibit to help me make sense of what was happening. How did it happen that yet another Black American was killed in such a violent and senseless way? As a Catholic, what is an appropriate response? From those conversations I was invited to join a group to study the Catholic Church’s social teaching.
We began on July 1, an unusually cool day in the Pacific Northwest. As twenty participants of various ages, professions, and perspectives introduced themselves, I nervously anticipated how our conversations might go. I needed something different than the divisive voices I heard on the internet. I needed my whole self to be invited into these big questions. I hoped that by looking to the Church’s teaching with friends and not-yet-friends from CL, I could make some sense of how to respond to the upheaval I saw all around me.
Over the five weeks we met, the group studied the beginning chapters of the Compendium of The Social Doctrine of The Church. We looked at chapters 14 to 16 in The Life of Luigi Giussani as well as the lives of saints and holy people of our time, including Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero.
My experience in the group led me to more questions. Like my experience in the Baldwin exhibit, I didn’t have to ask them alone or with my defenses up. I found people who were looking in the same direction as I was. This was clear at the very first meeting when the foundational principles of the group were set by Father Michele, who invited us to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we disagree. He also reminded each of us that we are gifts and to love each other as such.
Yet again, I was invited into the complexity of what it means to be human. In this gathering I found the possibility of a new perspective, one that rises above political or theoretical concerns and ascends to the heart. A perspective that arises from the wisdom and tradition of the Church that holds tightly the dignity of each person--a dignity based on being created, redeemed and having the capacity for transcendence (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, chapter 1, section 3). Being there for those five weeks felt like the silence held on a CL hike. We were ascending a difficult path together, taking in the complexity of the environment around us, and all with the invitation to turn inward and up to God in the company of others.
Jen, Seattle, Washington