MAXWELL: To serve, the church must first heal its own racism

1/14/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In his 1926 book, Healing Ourselves: The First Task of the Church in America, Elmer T. Clark warned Christian missionaries that they have no right to lecture other peoples around the world about bigotry until they first rid themselves of racism. Bigoted Christians, moreover, had no moral standing to save the heathen soul in faraway lands, Clark wrote.

The chapter titled “Helping the Negro Uphill” is striking for its candor about the plight of the “Negro” and the direct role the church played in bringing misery to an entire group of people.

“In thinking of the Negro, let us remember that he did not come to us of his own free will and accord,” writes Clark, then-publicity secretary of the Centenary Commission of the Methodist Episcopal Church-South. “If there is a problem with unpleasant features, no iota of the blame for it can be laid at his door. He did not seek us. On the contrary, we sought him. And all the distress he has caused us is not comparable to the manifold miseries we have laid upon him. For what people has suffered as the American Negro has suffered?”

Even though a deceptive brand of new right-wing politics and naive libertarianism has changed Americans’ opinion about the enduring effect of racism on its victims, the reality of this evil is another matter altogether.

Beneath today’s subtle manners and benign acts, racism and perceptions of racism are like dormant volcanoes that erupt in our faces when we least expect it.

Given today’s anti-black chic, the growing popularity of denying the existence of racism and the ever-growing concentration of wealth into fewer hands, dispossessed groups need their rights espoused and protected more than ever.

In this light, I applaud the recent action of Cardinal William H. Keeler, head of the 500,000 Catholics in the statewide Archdiocese of Baltimore.

In December, according to the New York Times, Keeler dismissed the claptrap that racism is a thing of the past and acknowledged the pervasive ugliness of racism in American culture and institutions. As he began his sermon at Baltimore’s mostly white Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Keeler pointed to the rear balconies in the ornate sanctuary. There, he said, black Catholics had been segregated from white Catholics for decades.

“We gather this evening mindful of an evil,” the cardinal said, urging worshipers to remember that racism is “a spiritual malady that has gnawed at the moral fiber of our nation, our community and our church from the early days of colonial America.”

Keeler’s words have come at a critical time for Baltimore, when middle-class white Catholics are abandoning the church’s 19 inner-city parochial schools for those in suburban parishes. The result is that these inner-city schools have been populated by 4,000 poor, minority children who are not Catholic.

Knowing that race is influencing much of the white flight, Keeler is using the crisis as an opportunity to confront the race issue directly. He apparently knows that the poverty in inner-city Baltimore, as poverty is in the rest of the nation’s urban centers, is tied to race. And instead of using the sermon as mere penance, Keeler committed the church to action.

“We will not abandon our city,” he said, as reported by the Times. “We will keep our schools open. We will serve the poor and the children of the poor.”

Many black parishioners who heard the sermon and who know Keeler praised the cardinal’s efforts. During a telephone interview, Nancy Linzy, 42, said that she wants her two children to attend Catholic school because of the system’s ability to generate social capital.

“As a parent, a black parent, I feel like I am a real part of the school community,” Linzy said. “I don’t mean to put down the public school my children used to attend, but I feel that my children are treated more like people in the Catholic school. We’re not even Catholic, but the teachers treat my children warmly. And they are learning. Cardinal Keeler is a savior for keeping the schools open for our kids.”

Baltimore’s black leaders laud Keeler’s decision because it comes when other church officials have recommended shutting down the schools. “The Catholics moved out, but we’re serving whole neighborhoods now,” Keeler told the Times. “We have an obligation to help these kids get out of the prisons they’re in _ intellectual prisons.”

True to his word, Keeler has started soliciting $1.5-million a year from businesses. The money is being used to pay a third of each student’s $2,900 annual tuition. According to the New York Times, families pledge to pay the balance.

Although some black parishioners remain skeptical of Keeler’s commitment to serve Baltimore’s minority schoolchildren, they say that they will keep an open mind and pray that his many white Catholic detractors, those who moved to the suburbs, will not try to derail his efforts prematurely.

Whatever the outcome, Keeler, like Elmer T. Clark did so many years ago, knows that the church can serve others only after it heals itself _ by confronting its own race problems and acting decisively.