The miracle of Pentecost shows us the way: A reflection on rising above racism

  • Written by Deacon Carl Chilo
  • Published in NW Stories

“Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”

U.S. Catholic bishops, Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has propelled the topic of racism to the forefront of our national conversation. Many areas of the world are suddenly paying attention and responding to racism in ways never before seen or experienced.

This is hopeful. Still, I remember the words of an entertainer who once remarked that racism has been with us for more than 400 years, and it will be here for the next 400 years.

I prefer a different view. It is easy to become mired in despair, given that racism seems to have metastasized in society as a whole. Racism is everywhere. It manifests in many forms, not just in the labeling of certain groups as criminals and killers. However, even in this frightening and overwhelming context, our faith in Jesus is stronger than the pervasiveness of racism, and it can — and will — carry us to the promised land.   

Among the many obstacles to overcoming racism is a troubling tendency of many people to deny its very existence, preferring instead to live in blissful ignorance of the daily reality experienced by many people.

I am an African-American deacon who grew up as a cradle Catholic in Louisiana. For me — and for many people in our nation — racism is simply a fact of life. I grew up fighting to overcome multiple instances of racism, and I learned to navigate the world with an awareness that this sin is ever-present. I have since served in the military and in law enforcement, yet I continue to experience racism living in an interracial marriage and simply being a Black man in America. Too many of our fellow Catholics have experienced racism and are continually fearful of it.

Through my faith, however, I have learned not to let these experiences define who I am as a father, a husband, a colleague and a member of the Catholic community of faith.

It is finally time for us to have an in-depth conversation about racism. This is hard, as the topic is broad and complex, and provokes strong emotions in people. We should probably avoid engaging via social media, texting or emails, and instead speak to each other in person to allow for real, authentic conversation. We must begin by admitting that racism is fully alive in the world, and that it is a sin. 

Sin is always a spiritual matter. Catholic Christians have led the fight against the sins of abortion, human trafficking, inequities in the immigration system and a multitude of other life and justice issues. We have many examples of dismantling structures that squelch human dignity and replacing them with something new and loving. For example, our collective advocacy against the death penalty led to its abolition by our state Supreme Court. The sin of racism, however, seems to be much harder to eradicate. It is deeply rooted in our nation, given its long history of strategic infusion into our systems.

As leaders of the U.S. bishops’ conference wrote in a May 29 statement: “Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. People of good conscience must never turn a blind eye when citizens are being deprived of their human dignity and even their lives. Indifference is not an option.”

Fortunately for us, we live in a unique region of the country. We have people from all over the world living in our archdiocese. As Director of Multicultural Ministries, I have worked closely with our many Catholic cultural communities, which represent six of the seven continents.

When I was invited to take this position, I was excited about the opportunity to learn about the many cultures that make up the Catholic Church in Western Washington. I have had the opportunity to dialogue with and celebrate the many traditions of over 20 cultural communities with many languages spoken.

I quickly realized that the archdiocese needed an opportunity to bring all of our communities together at an event inclusive of all races, cultures, ages and abilities; our first Celebration of Our Saints Mass was held in 2018. Celebrated in connection with All Saints’ Day, the Mass is an annual opportunity for communities to come together and lift up the particular saints of their cultural and ministerial backgrounds. It’s also a chance to share food and traditions unique to their communities!

I have witnessed so many beautiful moments at these events, but the one that sticks out the most for me was watching our Swahili brothers and sisters dance and sing in a circle around their saint’s table. Moments later, members of our Polish community, adorned with their distinctive hats and garb, jumped in the circle and joined in the dance and song. This was the Gospel. This was the kingdom of heaven unfolding in real time. It was a modern moment of Pentecost where multiple tongues were spoken and understood. Unity in diversity was born, brought about by the movement of the Holy Spirit. This is the prescription for us moving forward. 

As Catholic Christians, we are called to ongoing conversion. We are called to respect the dignity and equality of all people regardless of differences. We need to bring the same fire and determination that we have to end abortion and euthanasia and use it to eradicate the sin of racism.

Conversations about racism are uncomfortable, but necessary. We must continue to lean on prayer to guide our difficult journey and ask the Holy Spirit to take the lead. After all, the sin of racism does not show up only in crime and violence. Sin can be silence. Sin can be indifference. You can look at someone different from yourself and not care about their position because you are not affected by racism in the same way. Only close alignment with the Holy Spirit can move us to actions such as those modeled by those Swahili and Polish Catholics. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the courage to engage in difficult face-to-face conversations.

I suggest those conversations begin in the family, followed closely by the parish family. From there, we must go out and seek close relationships with those who are different. We must lead with our ears and hearts, seeking first to listen and understand before adding our own voice. You cannot empathize with others unless you first come to truly know them — and love them. This is what Jesus continually modeled. There are already groups of people coming together in our archdiocese to forge a Catholic response to racism. I hope that all parishes and schools will join this effort and bring parishioners together to end this sin.  

Let us calm our anger, pray, draw close to the Spirit, reach out, listen to others and converse. Jesus and love are stronger than racism and hate. No one is superior or inferior. Each person — from every race — was created by the same God in God’s image. Every human being.

Deacon Carl Chilo is the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Director of Multicultural Ministries. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Mary, friend and mother to all,
through your Son, God has found a way
to unite himself to every human being,
called to be one people,
sisters and brothers to each other.

We ask for your help in calling on your Son,
seeking forgiveness for the times when
we have failed to love and respect one another.

We ask for your help in obtaining from your Son
the grace we need to overcome the evil of racism
and to build a just society.

We ask for your help in following your Son,
so that prejudice and animosity
will no longer infect our minds or hearts but
will be replaced with a love that respects
the dignity of each person.

Mother of the Church,
the Spirit of your Son Jesus
warms our hearts:
pray for us.

U.S. Catholic bishops, Open Wide Our Hearts, 2018

 Northwest Catholic - September 2020