By Vanessa White, Catholic Theological Union
My journey into becoming a theologian/activist began when I was a young African American woman scholar in the 1980s attending post graduate theology courses at a Historically Black University. During this time I was introduced to writings of Howard Thurman and Thomas Merton, and was challenged by the words and presence of my theology professor, Bede Abrams, OFM, Capuchin, an African American theologian.
On the first day professor Abrams walked into the classroom and made a decidedly lasting impression on his students when he proclaimed in a loud voice “somebody stole all my stuff.” Puzzled, we began looking at one another. A few moments later he repeated in a louder voice, “SOMEBODY STOLE ALL MY STUFF!” Realizing that he was our professor, we began looking for “his stuff.” Ultimately we understood that he was speaking metaphorically. For Abrams, the cultural gifts of African Americans, our sense of creativity, our identity and worth had been ‘stolen’ repeatedly by the dominant culture in power in the United States. This experience of having one’s “stuff stolen” has contributed to African Americans feeling devalued and invisible in society.
This invisibility and the oppressive nature of being black in a white environment pervades various contexts including college campuses, university classrooms, and graduate programs in religious and biblical studies, theology and ministry. It is not only about the naming of buildings, it is about the teaching and learning. In courses and curricula, do syllabi and resources reflect the diversity of the classroom, of the student body, of our global context? Or does the focus of teaching continue to reinforce the visibility of white scholarship and the invisibility of scholarship arising from persons and communities of color? Do teachers and administrators with white privilege place on the shoulders of faculty and students from underrepresented communities the responsibility to resource them in their well-intentioned ignorance? And let’s not talk about race. Too many among my white colleagues in theological education experience dis-ease whenever the subjects of race, racism and white privilege are discussed or alluded to in any context. If race or cultural inequities are discussed we must tread lightly, so that “some of our colleagues” don’t feel uncomfortable, or guilty about being in a position of privilege. How often is it the case that well intentioned colleagues ask for the input and involvement of their colleagues from underrepresented groups, after the program has been developed, or the book is almost completed and there is the realization that the voices were all white (and usually male)? How often are African American, Asian, and Latino /a scholars made invisible or discounted except when our institutions need us to showcase “diversity”?
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Two authors who have nurtured my spiritual resilience as I have navigated the racial minefield are Thomas Merton, the white Catholic Trappist monk, and Howard Thurman, the African American Protestant theologian whose spiritual writings were a source of inspiration for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both prolific authors, Merton and Thurman wrote in prophetic voices about the spiritual life, reconciliation, and social activism during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. While he is primarily known for his writings on contemplation and nonviolence, in his later life, Merton turned his attention to racism and the role of well-intentioned white liberals supporting black rights. In his “Letters to a White Liberal” (in Seeds of Destruction) Merton challenged his fellow white Christian activists, who he claimed can act out of their own self-interests, to consider critically their motives for their involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the depth of their investment. Merton cautioned these White Liberal allies
that your material comforts, your security and your congenial relations with the establishment are much more important to you than your volatile idealism and that when the game gets rough you will be quick to see your own interests menaced by [their] demands. And you will sell [them] down the river for the five hundredth time in order to protect yourself. (Seeds of Destruction, 33).
I return to Merton’s observations as I reflect on the current activism on college campuses and in communities around the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Howard Thurman also calls us to think critically and concretely about what we mean by social activism and its usefulness for whom. Thurman boldly stated: “To speak of love for humanity is meaningless. There is no such thing as humanity. What we call humanity has a name, was born, lives on a street, gets hungry, needs all the particular things we need. As an abstract it has no reality whatsoever. For those who are becoming involved in social, political, theological activism, it is important to remember that Black Lives Matter and immigrant DREAMERS have names, families, stories, real lives; they are people, not causes.
Professor Abrams taught us about these complex realities and the real people whose daily experiences could be likened to having “a foot placed on your neck.”
You can’t get it off, you wait for the person to remove it from your neck and at some point the weight of the foot becomes unbearable and you will do whatever you must to get that foot off, to survive, to be free.
On college and university campuses and in some of our seminaries throughout this country we are beginning to see peoples of various contexts do what is necessary to remove that foot from their necks. They are acting in public and speaking in loud voices so that they are no longer invisible or their perspectives devalued. They have been moved to name for themselves in concrete terms their lived experiences of omission and invisibility. Their protests on campuses and in the streets attest that these communities will no longer allow their “stuff to be stolen” or their necks to be immobilized.
The moves to visibility, the return of peoples’ “stuff,” the release of entrapped necks begins in our classrooms and in our courses, a lesson I learned from Professor Abrams. It begins with the challenge to be attentive to whose voice is not a part of the conversation, whose face is not a part of the movement, whose perspective is lost in the process. As we reflect on this week’s series of essays, who is invisible, whose voice is not being acknowledged or invited to participate? Where are the Latin@ voices, the Asian voices? How was this series of reflections developed and shaped? Who made the decisions and extended the invitations? Who is made invisible in this well-intentioned endeavor? Whose voice and creativity is omitted from this discourse? It is only when we have the courage to face uncomfortable truths that we can be open to making a change.
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Vanessa White is the Assistant Professor of Spirituality and Ministry and the Director of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union. She is also the Past Convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS).
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