Fasten Your Seatbelts

When my husband and I first applied to become foster parents in 2003, we were asked to check a box to include or exclude races and ethnicities of the foster child. As Bill and I sat together at the dining room table with pages of forms, our two young sons played nearby. We hadn’t needed to check any boxes before the birth of Jacob and Liam. As parents of biological newborns, we knew what race and ethnicity our children would be. But now, as we were considering welcoming another child, we were being asked if we might be open to becoming a multi-racial family. And we checked yes.

Fast forward to 2020. Of the three children we fostered between 2003 and 2011, two — Teenasia and Jamilet – are now our adopted daughters and one — Luchita – returned to her biological grandmother. Teenasia, 18, is African American and Jamilet, 17, is Puerto Rican, with African ancestry. We have a Black Lives Matter sign in our front yard and have participated in a number of the marches and prayer services over the summer.

The global racial justice movement has brought to the attention of all Americans what the Black community has known since the earliest days of slavery — that public hangings, beatings, forced separation of families and other dehumanizing treatment caused deep generational trauma; that being Black today puts a person more at risk for just about everything from higher rates of infant mortality to being killed at the hands of police; that the sin of racism is so insidious and pervasive that it is often unrecognized by the majority culture.

If the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War were America’s first attempt to right the wrongs of its racist underpinnings, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was the second, the movement that has surged since the killing of George Floyd is the third such call for our nation to live out its creed of equality under the flag. And I pray that Catholics everywhere join this third movement.

Catholic social teaching has always been on the side of those whose voices have been silenced; those whose power has been stripped. The strong Catholic teaching of “preferential option for the poor” puts the expression “all lives matter” into proper perspective. Yes, of course all life is sacred, but throughout scripture, the prophets of the Old Testament and actions of Jesus and the disciples in the New Testament show again and again, God siding with the powerless, especially in the face of those exploiting their high positions. The people who must matter most at any given moment are those who are in harm’s way. Jesus, with every teaching, in every miracle, sided with the hurt and the broken. When Jesus instructed his followers on who to invite to their banquets, he didn’t tell them to invite everyone, since everyone mattered; instead, he instructed them to invite those who would least be able to return the invitation — the poor, the lame, the blind. Jesus was always on the lookout for those who were left out.

And today, in the United States, we have a whole category of people who have been historically left out. Four hundred years ago, our Black brothers and sisters were stolen from Africa and enslaved, left out of the newly forming United States. Just 157 years ago, slavery was abolished, but Black Americans were legally prevented from voting, from holding certain jobs, from living in certain places, from attending schools — they were left out as full citizens. Then, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, institutional racism persisted, and now, 56 years later, many from the Black community continue to be left out or actively discriminated against. At the same time, we as a society have grown in our understanding of the toll of generational trauma. Research is confirming what experience has taught us about what happens when an entire racial group is not invited to the banquet, or even to the lunch counter. We, as a nation, have to make up for 400 years of the sin of racism.

And that’s where we, as Catholics, need to be alert to our responsibility. We need to stand with those who have been told that their lives don’t matter, finding the intersection between our own gifts and what is needed to bring about justice. We need to be part of the marches; part of the thought leadership; part of the reform. We need to do more than pray in our pews; we need to leave our own ZIP codes and volunteer. We need to admit our ignorance and listen and learn. We need to ensure every institution of which we are a part — from our churches to our schools to our workplaces to our government – is a place of inclusion and equity. We need to take to heart Jesus’ parable of the vineyard worker who got paid a full day’s wage even though he came at the last hour — understanding that our nation’s history of injustice prevented access to the vineyard. Now is the hour to demonstrate integrity and full pay.

The question posed to our nation at this important moment in history isn’t so different than the question Bill and I faced around the dining room table so many years ago.

Is our country willing to be a multi-cultural family; a multi-racial family? The time has come to finally check the box and say yes.