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.”