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July 25th, 2013

On Race, A Divided Church


President Barack Obama talks about the Trayvon Martin case at the White House. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

President Barack Obama talks about the Trayvon Martin case at the White House. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

I was at a restaurant in the H Street corridor, a so-called up-and-coming neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C., a couple weekends ago. Edison bulbs hung from the ceiling. Diners enjoyed 12- and 14-dollar artisanal drinks. Much of the menu consisted of organic, farm-to-table ingredients. At the bar, a group of three white men were drinking when the local Fox affiliate interrupted the Nationals baseball game. The jury in the George Zimmerman trial had reached a verdict. As it was announced that Zimmerman had been found not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the three white guys erupted into cheers. My friend and I paid our bill and left the restaurant. On the walk back to our car, the contrast between the scene inside the restaurant, a mostly white crowd enjoying fairly expensive meals, to the still transitioning neighborhood, home to mainly low-income minorities, was stark.

Over the past several days, the response to the Zimmerman verdict has included protests in major U.S. cities, countless editorials and blog posts, and even a reflection by President Obama. What, really, have we learned?
Obama didn’t question the jury’s verdict. He didn’t speak to the prosecutor’s decision to charge Zimmerman with murder rather than manslaughter. Instead, he spoke about what it’s like to grow up a black male in the United States. He spoke about the suspicions others have of young black men:

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

A Fox News host called Obama the “race baiter in chief” and others in the social media sphere accused the president of being a racist himself.

Like the President, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart also addressed the race issues of the Zimmerman case from the perspective of an African-American male. He then published a few e-mails he received in reply, most of which accused him of being a racist for bringing up issues of race. He wrote, “Reading these letters is like walking through a sewer with no shoes.”

Jeffrey Weiss wrote on CNN’s Belief Blog that leaders of historically white churches have been oddly silent, perhaps uncomfortable discussing race. Concerning Catholic leaders, he wrote:

There’s been nothing I can find from any Catholic committees this week. Nothing from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the conference president. Nothing from the bishops’ Subcommittee on African American Affairs. Nothing from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, former president of the conference and the first black man to hold the office.

Michael Sean Winters, writing at National Catholic Reporter, also questions the lack of response from Catholic leaders:

It is also fair to point out that the Catholic Church should be taking the lead in answering the President’s call to engage in this conversation about race. Also fair to wonder if that will happen. How many years has it been since a black bishop was named in the U.S.? Seven years? Who among the leaders of our Church is prepared to follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, who desegregated the Catholic schools in the archdiocese of Washington before Brown v. Board of Education and who stood with Dr. King on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial in 1963? A large number of Catholic university presidents last week issued a wonderful letter on immigration reform: Will they take up this issue? Will they reach out to historically black colleges and universities to start this conversation?

A few blocks east from my apartment stands St. Augustine’s, a Catholic parish that describes itself as the “Mother Church of African American Catholics.” A few blocks south stands St. Matthew’s Cathedral, my parish. I’ve attended Mass at both churches. At St. Augustine’s, the energy that the gospel choir exudes is infectious, Mass lasts about two hours, and you leave feeling hopeful and inspired. At St. Matthew’s, easily one of the most beautiful church interiors in the United States, with marble from floor to soaring ceiling, the afternoon choir sings Vatican II-era hymns and the preaching is erudite, thoughtful, and professorial, in a good way. While just blocks away from one another, the two parish communities could just as well be worlds apart.

That Catholics, both our leaders and our laypeople, are uncomfortable talking about race might not be a surprise. While our parishes are more diverse than our Protestant friends, mostly because of the influx of Hispanic Catholics, we’re still fairly segregated in our religious routines. Perhaps there’s some sensitivity talking about these issues because we’re afraid to offend? Perhaps we don’t know enough about one another, and we succumb to fear or ignorance? Or perhaps we’re afraid of what we’ll find if we engage in a serious conversation about race?

Regardless, President Obama is correct. We must confront these painful issues if we are to heal as a nation. He recognized that politicians won’t be able to do this work for us. Rather, he suggested, “It’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.”

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • janet

    The case troubles me because if zimmerman hard not assumed the worst about Martin in the first place, a once-vital young man would still be among us. Zimmerman prejudged Martin, incorrectly, as we now know, then placed himself in a situation from which he thought couldn’t escape without killing? In America? The basis for the prejudgment may never be known. Perhaps it was the color of his hoodie and not his skin that prompted the suspicion. The minimizing of the value of Martin ‘s life is the tragedy. We will have the discussion about prejudice so Martin didn’t die in vain.

  • Leslie Baker

    Okay, I’ll put in my two cents. I have had this discussion with my husband only, and here is the point I wish to make. Violent death is the issue at hand. Not race. Any death resulting from violence must, by its nature, involve the dehumanization of the other person, whether it be in battle, in abortion, murder, even in self-defense. Somehow to kill another, no matter how justifiable it may appear on the surface, deep down the one killing must believe, even momentarily, that his life is more valuable than the other persons. And this is not to say that the Catholic Church does not recognize that choice in certain circumstances, may be licit. I think the conversation has got to be more about violence in general, and the willingness of one person to take the life of another for any reason. Is it really worse to kill someone for: their sneakers? their wife? their drugs? their race? their genetic disease? their embryonic state? their terminal state? their annoying habits? Tell me, which one is worse? And why? If we want to have a real “colorblind” conversation in this country, we need to stop singling out race and talk about all the multitudinous ways we dehumanize each other every day. All of us.

  • josmart

    The premise that in the Martin/Zimmerman tragedy Zimmerman’s actions were motivated through race (especially the fallacy that he was so motivated because he is “white) is what makes this article unreadable and seemingly intellectually dishonest. There is absolutely no proof that Zimmerman was racially motivated by way of the facts of the case and Zimmerman’s own personal history. Emotional backlash to the verdict is not evidence to that assertion but it is what is submitted throughout this article.
    However, what is evident is that the reactions are racially motivated. The fact is that there are those that are very unhappy with the verdict, and because of their refusal to accept the jury’s decision, have rationalized that it is always been about race. It’s the classic “Do you beat your wife?,” question. Once it’s out there, it’s almost impossible to come back from it. Once the race baiters put it out there that Zimmerman was racially motivated, no matter how little or absent the evidence to point that way, people started projecting their experiences and motives on Zimmerman, and he became the scapegoat and Martin became less of the true reason why he is the victim.
    It is shameful that those who purport to want to champion for racial equality resort to perpetuating a fabricated racial motivation. We can have a discussion and conversation on race relations without creating a false boogeyman. It’s time to stop the racial motivation of labeling Zimmerman a racist in order to find justice for Martin. Justice does not reside there.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      Of course, the post above never said Zimmerman was racially motivated. Talk about seeing racism where it isn’t. It talked about how people have reacted to the situation, and then about the broader issues. What President Obama and others have said — the experience of being a black man in America — is true regardless of the details concerning Trayvon Martin. But by making it about Zimmerman, you ignore all of that.

      • josmart

        To claim that the premise of this article did not initiate from the false narratives about the Martin/Zimmerman case is obtuse. President Obama did not “just ” talked about broader issues. He linked the case as a symptom of the issues in the middle of emotional responses to the case which I believe was irresponsible and certainly divisive.
        This article is about race issues and a divided church stemming from the Martin/Zimmerman incident. I submitted that the premise is the flaw that renders the rest of the article difficult to take seriously on what that division is truly about.

  • Ginny Hall

    Our multi-cultural, suburban parish DID discuss the topic last weekend, but the discussions I witnessed testify to (in my opinion) why the US Catholic heirarchy has been so quiet. In the Social Justice class I attended on Saturday the attendees came to the conclusion that, based on the facts as revealed in the live coverage, the jury HAD a reasonable doubt, and had no choice to find Zimmerman not guilty, and that the President by commenting had widened the divide rather than healed it. Yet, in Mass the following day, Father (a Hispanic immigrant) lauded the President’s actions and referred to the verdict as “an injustice.” Furthermore, he apologized for not commenting sooner. (He had been halfway across the country on vacation…how could he have commented?) No, I haven’t spoken to Father about his homily, but it was clear that there was a lot of discomfort. Everyone in attendance was VERY still, and trying not to react one way or the other.
    Perhaps, given the divisive nature of the entire handling of the incident, not only by the principals, but also by the media, the Federal government, AND the general public; it is best that Catholics respond on the small group level…with community outreach and charitable giving (more of time and talent than treasure this time), rather than attempting to make a blanket statement, even as low as the parish level.

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