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Friday, February 18, 2011

Preaching on Racism

           Fr. Steven Janoski is a priest in the Springfield diocese, now serving as a campus minister at Benedictine University at Springfield. A few years ago he earned a doctoral degree at the Aquinas Institute at St. Louis University, and wrote his dissertation on preaching about racism.

          I recently got a copy of the dissertation, started to read it, and discovered that Fr. Steve had served for three years as pastor of four small parishes in Calhoun County, Illinois. Many of us friars know Calhoun County, because for years we would travel there on weekends to help pastors with weekend Masses.

          Calhoun County is almost totally Catholic, and is not a wealthy county. There is no industry, and much of the land is not suitable for farming. It is also racially homogeneous. In 2000 there were only two black people living in the county, out of a population of about 5,000.

          I loved the area. Shortly after my parents were married in 1928, a friend took a home movie of them tending a campfire on the banks of the Illinois River at Kampsville. It became a place I would re-create in fantasy, a link to the exciting 1920s, the era of Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone.

          But, like much of the Springfield diocese, Calhoun County has some racism in its history. Fr. Steve used his three years of service in that county, and subsequent years in nearby Troy, Illinois, as the basis for interviews dealing with racism and his efforts to preach about it. Those interviews were the basis of the dissertation.

          James Loewen is a native of Decatur, Illinois, my hometown. After he earned his degree in sociology, he began a career teaching, first in a black college in the South, and then at the University of Vermont, working to combat racism. Two of his best-known  books are Lies My Teacher Told Me, which examines high school history textbooks and documents the historical inaccuracies and downright falsehoods that characterize most of those books. More recently he wrote Sundown Towns, a study of places that would not allow black people to stay in them overnight. The diocese of Springfield is home to several such towns.

          For years, the Office of Social Concerns of the Springfield Diocese has been struggling to find some way to deal with the race issue in the diocese. As Fr. Steve documents so well in his dissertation, much of the diocese is rural in character and racially homogeneous. Much of the population has no opportunity to interact in person with someone of another race. Can the Church do anything to promote a Catholic racial approach in such places? By “Catholic racial approach,” I mean an approach detailed in several official statements of the U.S. Catholic bishops, beginning already in the 1970s. Specifically, can priests combat racism by preaching about it in their Sunday homilies/sermons?

          I have struggled with this question. I developed the following argument. I cannot “lecture” a congregation about what they should do about any controversial political or social topic because they cannot answer back. I have the microphone. When I propose something controversial, I want people to be able to reply to my proposal. Furthermore, people come to church to worship, not to be lectured about politics.

          Fr. Steve presents a counter-argument to my position. He says that the prophet is not preaching effectively unless he or she gets people riled up. God does not call us to be popular, but to preach the truth, even when it discomforts people. “To Comfort or to Challenge” was the title of a book by a sociologist back in the 1970s that dealt with the question.

          I am not convinced. I believe that challenge can only be done effectively after one has developed a relation of vulnerable, faithful involvement (intimacy) with the other party. Or at least, after one has tried, consistently and over time, to develop such a relationship. (I recognize that sometimes people are closed to such a relationship.) I describe it by a metaphor: the thorn of power grows out of the rosebush of intimacy in order to protect the rose. If it doesn’t grow out of the rosebush, it becomes oppressive.

          So, over the years, I have gently raised the racial issue in my preaching, but always on the periphery of the more central question that I believe must characterize a homily: what does this passage say about God? But is that good enough?

          I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the racial prejudice that I fear still characterizes much of the city where I live.

          In September 2011 the annual priests’ convocation will spend a day and a half on the topic of racism. Perhaps the priests could begin a conversation on the topic, how to preach about racism. If we do that, we will need help.

          We will need help from the people in the pews, and from the people not in the pews. We will need help from the Catholics who will hear the preaching, and from the people of color who are being affected by the racism that still lurks in our bones.

          The trick will be: how can we get that kind of help?

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