(The following is a recent homily that Deacon Walter Ayres wrote about racism on the seventh Sunday of Easter.) 

For Christians who accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, there are a few concepts that form the heart of our faith. Two of them are mentioned in today’s readings.

The first is from the letter of John, in which he writes, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.”

The second is from the Gospel, when Jesus prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.”

But today, neither of those statements reflects reality.

As Christians we are divided into numerous denominations – Catholics and Methodists, Presbyterians and Evangelicals, to name just a few.
We also are divided by politics, as is obvious if you try to have a conversation about the last election.

Finally, we are divided by race. More than 50 years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. And, against a backdrop of increased racial tensions, research shows that most Americans are okay with that.

I received a short lesson about some Catholics’ approach to racism following a drive to North Carolina earlier this year where I made an extended visit to my daughter and her family.

While searching the radio dial for a station with good reception, I came across an interview with a white worker at the Amazon facility in Alabama where an effort to unionize the workforce was underway. A white worker was explaining that, while he liked the benefits that were promised by the union, he would never vote for something that would benefit black people.

As shocking as that was to hear, it was nothing compared to the reaction I received from fellow Catholics after I shared the story on social media.
One commenter called me a liar. Another said I should be ashamed of myself for calling the people at the Amazon plant racists – something that I had not done.  

Another person said I should be defrocked for making up such stories.

They are so convinced that racism does not exist that any stories showing its existence must be false.  And the people who share such stories must then be liars.

This was quite different than the reactions I received from people of color. One Black man shared the story of his son, the only Black student in his rotation at a medical school in Chicago. One day, as the group lined up to go into the hospital, a security guard pulled the Black student aside to inform him that the cleaning staff were not allowed to use the front door and that he would have to use the back door. Apparently, the guard did not believe that a Black person could be training to be a doctor.

This led me to recall the words of Father Bryan Massingale, a Black Catholic professor at Fordham University who has written extensively about racism and the Catholic Church. He believes that there are three obstacles to overcome before we can have an honest discussion about race in America.

The first is that we don’t know what we are talking about. Second, we don’t know how to talk about it. And third, we don’t really want to talk about it.

The Church has been silent too long about this important issue. Although the nation’s bishops have spoken out against racism since at least the beginning of the Civil Rights Era, little of their teaching has filtered down into the pews. One reason is that people like me have not been brave enough to face the criticism that we know will come from many of you.

But the time to be concerned with feelings is long gone, and the need to face the reality of racism is unavoidable if we are to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus.

Racism exists and it is a sin. Period.

When the bishops issued their latest pastoral letter on racism, called “Open Wide Your Hearts,” they stated that racism is a perversion of the Lord’s will for men and women, all of whom are made in God’s image. They also called on all priests and deacons to deliver homilies directed to the issue of racism, which is what I am doing today.

Some will note that the Church does not have a stellar record on this issue. For example, in 1452, Pope Nicholas V granted permission to the kings of Spain and Portugal to engage in the slave trade. Prior to the Civil War in America, some bishops even owned slaves.

Not that long ago, people of color in some Catholic churches were relegated to segregated seating and required to receive the Holy Eucharist after white parishioners. And many Church leaders were late to the fight for civil rights.

The bishops have acknowledged these failings and asked forgiveness from all who were harmed by these sins.

Today, the bishops noted in their letter: “Love compels each of us to resist racism courageously. It requires us to reach out generously to the victims of this evil, to assist the conversion needed in those who still harbor racism, and to begin to change policies and structures that allow racism to persist.

Overcoming racism is a demand of justice, but because Christian love transcends justice, the end of racism will mean that our community will bear fruit beyond simply the fair treatment of all.”

We must reject racism in all its forms. We must build up the body of Christ, which is the Church. And we must eliminate all structures that promote racism and deny the humanity of our brothers and sisters.

Only then can we say that we are one with Jesus, just as he and the Father are one. Only then can we say that we love one another as God has loved us.

Deacon Walter Ayres is the director of Catholic Charities’ Commission on Peace and Justice.