Facing Systemic Racism in Our Own Congregation

By: Sr. Jeannie Masterson, CSJ

“Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” These are the opening words of a spiritual sung occasionally in my parish. When my mind stays on the historical person of Jesus, I recognize that given where he was born and lived, and despite the religious images with which I have lived all my life, he was probably dark skinned. And yet, somehow, throughout history, I am part of a culture in which we often refuse to acknowledge that the image of God is ingrained in all of creation, including — perhaps especially — in our brothers and sisters of color.

... Some of us within the Congregation of St. Joseph came to this realization years ago, and began educating ourselves and making changes in our lives and practices. After we became one Congregation in 2007, the effort continued on a wider scale. We have come to realize that racism is much larger and deeper than personal prejudice, and that it pervades the very fabric of our societies in ways white-skinned people are never called upon to question.

Associate Corliss Cox (Carondelet — St. Louis) at the St. Charles Lwanga Center in St. Louis works with teens on spiritual formation and leadership development.White people are often socialized to believe that we are better than people of color, without ever having those words spoken to us. We assume that the privileges afforded to us are “just,” and we accept them as the norm. Because whites have been the dominant group, we have assumed the power to make the “rules” that govern our society, and have, over time, built racist practices into the institutions and systems of our country that offer us privilege, while habitually ignoring the contributions of other peoples and cultures. There are reasons why white people can more easily purchase houses, get an education, find meaningful employment, and avoid legal sentencing. This is a direct result of the belief system upon which our society has been built, which is totally unconscious for most of us.

We Sisters of St. Joseph have enlisted the assistance of two organizations to awaken us to these deep-seated realities: Crossroads and ERRACE (Eliminating Racism & Creating/Celebrating Equity). Both organizations offer training workshops to develop our awareness, both by education and by bringing us together to talk honestly and seriously about our life experiences. It’s hard work, it takes relentless commitment and deep honesty with ourselves to confront our own complicity.

We ask ourselves why we have so few people of color as members of our congregation, when we have ministered among people of color for decades. We question why nearly all of our employees of color are in dietary or housekeeping roles, rarely in management positions. We query one another on when we have ever had a significant conversation with someone of another race, culture, or creed — let alone developed a friendship, or even had them over for dinner.

We wonder aloud why we are uncomfortable when we are in a gathering where we are the minority. We challenge one another’s comments when we appear to make quick judgments as we watch the news or discuss world events, making assumptions about guilt or blame without basis. None of these are easy conversations, either to initiate or to respond. And yet, putting on the mind of Jesus compels us to WAKE UP!

Recent best selling novels and first-run movies have helped call attention to the issue, as well as educate the general populace, including our sisters and associates. The Help, Ten Years a Slave, Hidden Figures, Loving, Small Great Things are a few examples. Hollywood is awakening to the discrimination of its primary choice of white men in its award choices. The dinosaur is dying, but not without serious whacks of its ailing tail in protest. Our complicity within our own congregation cries out for our attention, even as world events call us to a broader scope. Ours isn’t an either/or dichotomy, but a both/and: the more we learn and understand, the greater our responsibility to address the evil of racism.

In the past year alone, our country has witnessed an alarming resurgence of overt racism—the attack in Charlottesville, the ongoing effort of Richard Spencer to spread hate on college campuses, the proliferation of white supremacist groups, to name just a few. The alarm raised in many of us sometimes goes no further than prayer, concerned discussions, and hand-wringing. What action beyond our internal efforts is called for? How do we use our moral integrity to change the atmosphere which allows such bigotry to be expressed with such impunity?

I’m proud that our sisters in West Virginia nursed soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies without distinction, and that our hospital there was the first in the state to hire an African-American nurse — and keep her, even when the white nurses went on strike in protest. I’m proud that our Academy in New Orleans was the first to integrate, even though white flight eventually caused the closure of the school. Yet what have we done recently with equal boldness and foresight? How do we move from lukewarm acceptance to passionate advocacy for equality as sons and daughters of God?

At one of our Spring Assemblies for sisters and associates several years ago, we opened a session with all the slurs we could think of, bombarding our ears and hearts with the hurtful words used against those considered “other.” It was hard to hear, and harder yet to make our lips form the words so often used. It woke us to the bruising that is so constant in some lives, and led us into a reflection on our earliest awareness of “difference.”

Where did it originate? How was it handled? What did we learn? What recollections did we have of early participation in, or resistance against, the personal prejudice that underlies systemic racism? After private reflection and table sharing, we spoke together of the learnings of the morning, wrote a brief note of apology for something specific in our past, and wrote a commitment for our future work. Some of our learnings illustrate these pages. And still, we have only just begun to awaken.

This work calls for a complete transformation of our consciousness, as individuals and as a group. As with any organization, we have been formed in many different settings,Sister Anita Kurowski (Rochester) with Rochester City School students. from the deep South to the mid-west prairies to the mountains to the rural farmlands. Each of us has family history, as well as local cultural history, which have influenced our ways of thinking, to say nothing of the variety of ministries in which each of us has engaged.

In a way, our ministries have put us in the role of “fixers,” or healers, or educators, in which we expect ourselves to “have the answers” to offer to others. We’re accustomed to being in charge, and many of us take charge instinctively. We have challenged ourselves through our Generous Promises to become more collaborative, more inclusive in all of our dealings, both within and outside the congregation. Anti-racism work is but one aspect of the overall challenge we’ve set for ourselves and our future.

What are some of the practical steps individuals or groups of sisters and associates are undertaking? Many are quite simple: committing to frequent conversations of significance with someone whose experience has been different from ours. Listening deeply to another, without judgment, seeking to hear beneath the words. Joining a group, be it a justice-oriented group or a book study group, where the majority of members don’t look like us. Being a participant rather than a leader. Calling forth and affirming the leadership qualities in others. Sharing articles and books for our continuing education. Talking with other congregational members about what we’re learning. Participating in events sponsored by local libraries that put us in touch with others in our neighborhoods who are also in the struggle. Reading African-American authors. Writing letters to the editor, to our lawmakers about disparities in laws and/or their application. Advocating for changes in unjust laws. Being willing to be seen in public with someone obviously different from ourselves, having earnest conversations and enjoying each other’s company. The opportunities are myriad!

In a more structured effort, a group of us is learning a process called “caucusing,” in which willing people of both white and color come together on a regular basis to look deeply into our own hearts at our unconscious assumptions as they get expressed in our daily actions. The group begins with a specific question, such as “How does my internalized racial superiority/oppression get in the way of supportive and accountable relationships in anti-racism work?”

After an initial prayer and reminder of instructions, we separate so that People of White can reflect together on the question from their superiority perspective, and People of Color reflect together from their internalized oppression perspective. After a specified amount of time, the groups come back together and report on their group learnings. These caucusing dialogues open us to awareness of how collaboratively (or not) we tend to make decisions, set directions, live our lives with/without awareness of the implications of our actions on others. Did those affected by our decisions have a say in the decision? Might our decisions have been different should others have been included? There is minimal dialogue, only listening to both perspectives.

Racism is built on unconscious assumptions we have taken as truth. Bringing those to consciousness and examining them for their truth is a big part of our work. Do we truly believe the stereotypes we’ve been fed? How do we confront them lovingly with one another, in order to live with greater clarity and truth? Again, it’s hard work to be this honest, and sometimes quite emotional as we recognize a blindness of which we have been unaware. There is a ton of grace in such times! We need one another to stay awake to the process, and to hold on to our commitment to the vision. It can easily take 30-40 years for any organization to become totally non-racist, so in many senses, we’ve only just begun.

Jeanne Masterson

We are committed to continuing to “keep our minds stayed on Jesus” as our Redeemer is made visible through every aspect of creation, every person whose path crosses ours. We want to be able to claim that we “ARE WOKE” and more able to love every dear neighbor as ourselves. We invite you to pray with us for whatever it takes to become more deeply one in God, and we invite you to join your efforts with ours in whatever courageous steps you feel called to make.

["Becoming Woke", by Sister Jeannie Masterson, CSJ originally appeared in the Spring/Summer, 2018 issue of imagineONE, the publication of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Sister Jeannie is serving a second term on the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph Leadership Team. Earlier, she served in provincial leadership, teaching, high school administration and as a pastoral associate for adult formation. Sister Jeannie was the founding director of Cincinnati’s Jordan Center, which brought health attention to uninsured working people and their families. ]