Extract from Leslye Colvin (USA), “Life, Freedom and Dignity: Reflections of a Black American Catholic” in Visions and Vocations:
The words were centered across a billboard over the image of a man’s lifeless body. As I moved away, the words stayed with me: “He died for you.” The church advertisement was an invitation to the region’s Christian majority, to affirm a debt owed with an automatic response of “Amen.” Instead, I found myself thinking, “He lived for us.”
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Indeed, he lived for us before dying! To enter the human experience, as Scripture states, he emptied himself to live among us, with us, and as one of us in the historical Jesus. His humility was shown long before his betrayal and crucifixion. By becoming human, he accepted an invitation to the joys and sorrows, and laughter and tears of life. Within this context, death is inevitable. Accepting the first breath of life is to release the final breath imposed by death. Jesus’ life was about much more than his death.
The marginalized can relate easily to the life of this man Jesus. He was conceived out of wedlock and born into a loving yet economically disadvantaged family in an oppressed land. A faithful Jewish man in the Roman empire, he was embraced and rejected by the chosen people to whom he belonged. He was well acquainted with the whispers and stares of those mired in dualism as he consciously embraced “the other” and the ritually unclean. He was one of a countless number to face a shameful, state-sanctioned execution. His death was not an isolated incident, but rather a part of his life. He loved us enough to live in the tension of this good and messy world.
When I listen to Mass readings of Moses leading his people from bondage to freedom, I hear it as an invitation to remember the bondage of my African ancestors and the continuing struggles of my people simply to have their dignity recognized in theory and in practice. As a child, Jesus learned of this journey from slavery to liberation, and his people’s continuing faith in God. In my own childhood, the song “Let My People Go” resonated as an ancient and modern call that was deeply personal.
As history shows, these struggles persist until a single event appears to become a catalyst for change. Those engaged in the struggle know well the tears and heartache borne along the margins, knowing that at some point God will answer not only our prayers but those of our ancestors whose trauma I cannot begin to grasp. In a single moment, their lives were forever changed as they were kidnapped as people and sent into slavery as cargo. To their posterity, they gifted an undying desire for freedom as affirmed generations later in the lyrics “Before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave. And go home to my Lord and be free.”1
Three generations of my family entered the Catholic Church in the racially segregated Alabama of the 1960s. As my paternal grandparents and aunt entered the Church in Ozark, they were surprised to learn how God was leading my parents to make the same decision for their young family 20 miles away in Dothan. Both towns had many segregated churches of other denominations, but each had only one Catholic parish and they both welcomed us. However, it is important for me to acknowledge that our experience of welcome was not shared by all African-American Catholics. As Bryan Massingale states in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, “Racism, the sinful multi-faceted legacy of enslavement, is in our society and in our Church.”2 Growing up African-American and Catholic in a Protestant region and an intensely racialized society presents its own unique challenges, but entering the Catholic Church momentarily moved us beyond constant segregation.
My siblings and I were raised in a house built by our father and other family members who were brick masons and carpenters. Together, our mother and father, made it a safe and loving home. They attempted to shelter us from what they knew to be inevitable. From experience, I know the doctor’s second and smaller waiting room with no windows and the adjacent examination room reserved for us. I know the child’s curiosity aroused by going to the dentist with a toothache after calling the office only to be turned away upon arrival. I know the revulsion of seeing the unpatriotic flag of secessionists that was proudly waved at cross burnings and lynchings.
Even with regard to the parish, our protective parents would occasionally remind us that we were Black. As a child, I could not grasp what they were trying to tell us. It may have been more apparent had our parish been more diverse. It is easy to embrace a few, but challenging to welcome a significant number. In high school, I became involved with a movement for young Catholics known as “Search for Christian Maturity,” through which I met other African-American Catholics of my age from larger cities. It was a transformative weekend to cross the racial divide by spending time together with each other and with God.
Three decades later, I enrolled in JustFaith, an intensive program on the Church’s social teachings. Through this experience, I gained the vocabulary to speak to the rich social justice tradition that I consider to be the heart of the Gospel, the heart of Christ. JustFaith was a full circle moment for me in that I saw my family’s welcome into the Church as an acceptance of our God-given dignity.
As an adult, the rose-colored glasses of childhood have been removed. While my spiritual journey deepens my faith, experience exposes the institutional Church as another system that often perpetuates the injustices of society. The love of the Divine that we profess is too often negated by social divisions. The Church founded by Jesus Christ was never intended to be a dualistic law and order system dependent upon the dotting of all i’s and the crossing of all t’s. At a young age, we begin to teach children that Christ dwells in the tabernacle and in their hearts. It is not a matter of “either or” but of “both and.” Similar is our belief in one God whom we encounter as three. Again, it is not a matter of “either or” but “both and.” We learn to live in the tension by experiencing the beauty of mystery found in this good and messy world.
For most of my life, I have been involved in some form of ministry within and beyond the walls of the parish. As neither a wife nor a mother, I have learned through decades of experience to move beyond my comfort zone and introversion to find my niche. Even when most gatherings are designed with spouses and parents in mind, the presence, the perspectives of single adults, the divorced, and the widowed of all ages are needed.
The only words I remember from my grandfather’s funeral were spoken by the priest who had welcomed him into the Church a quarter of a century earlier. “He was the freest man I have ever known,” said the priest. Today, I continue to reflect upon how the life of this master brick mason who was orphaned at an early age symbolized freedom to this Irish priest.
As we move along the spiral that is our faith journey, spiritual maturity compels us to act when confronted with suffering generated by the denial of human dignity. Witnessing the suffering of today’s marginalized and poor is an invitation to recall the suffering of Jesus, the man, as he too was subjected to unjust and oppressive systems. The mystery of faith did not begin or end on the cross. Rather, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus are woven into the hearts of his followers, charging them to simply love God and their neighbors. We live because he lives for us.