Catholic and Evangelical Approaches to Racial Reconciliation



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By Karen Johnson. 

This month I'm building on last month's post on evangelical racial reconciliation to describe some similarities between the efforts of an interracial, evangelical Protestant church and non-profit most active in reconciliation in the 1980s and 1990s, and an interracial Catholic settlement house from the 1940s.  I am using my research on Catholic interracial institutions, specifically Friendship House, an interracial settlement house founded in 1942 in Chicago’s Black Belt, and comparing it to Rock Church, which I attend (my current research is for a conference paper for the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation's National Symposium.  The center seeks to bring together practitioners and scholars, hence my dual focus).

First, in both cases, white people awakened to racial prejudice wanted to address the issue from a religious perspective in part by living in intentional community.  When Glen and Lonni moved into Austin in 1973, they were soon joined by several other couples who sorted themselves out into two apartment buildings and held everything in common.  Only one black person was a part of that fellowship.  In the case of Friendship House, very few black people ever joined the staff, primarily because they did not want to – or could not – take the commitment of voluntary poverty required.  Denied the American dream for so long, middle class black people usually wanted to move up and out of poor neighborhoods.  I see this still today, with few of my black friends at church who are middle-class wanting to live in the Austin neighborhood.

Second, members of both groups adopted a theology of suffering or discomfort.  That Catholics would do this should not surprise us, of course, given their history of embracing bodily suffering.  That white evangelical Christians adopt a theology of discomfort, however, is surprising.  Yet in order to share power in interracial institutions, one cannot always have the church service, for example, run how you prefer it culturally (for a fantastic comedy sketch on this, go here).  At Rock, this is particularly heartening to me because some excellent work on interracial churches suggests that they only survive if the black members cede to white preferences (see Korie Edwards’s The Elusive Dream).  Yet Glen, in particular, found it very beneficial to adjust his cultural expectations and to minister in what he calls a "community of brokenness." 

Third, in both cases, black members of the organizations became upset when the white members wanted to give away free things (like clothing and food) because of its disempowering effect on those who receive the goods (for more contemporary practitioners' perspectives on this, go here and here).

Finally, both organizations drew on the language of Matthew 25's description of the sheep and the goats to support their work.  Both groups identified being Christian with fulfilling the Son of Man's calling in that chapter to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and welcome in the homeless.  In Friendship House's case, they equated African Americans with Jesus, named Jesus "Christ in the Negro," and argued for Christ's actual, incarnational presence among the "least of the these" in American society, those who they saw as most oppressed.  Rock Church and its ministry partner, Circle Urban Ministries, don't make Jesus black in the same way the Catholics did, but they do emphasize the Matthew 25 call, that "whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me."

1 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: May 18, 2013 at 8:38 PM said...

Third, in both cases, black members of the organizations became upset when the white members wanted to give away free things (like clothing and food) because of its disempowering effect on those who receive the goods (for more contemporary practitioners' perspectives on this, go here and here).

Very bold, Karen, and muy appreciated in this quarter. And personal congratulations on your

http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2013/05/congratulations-to-karen-johnson-and.html

!

To your post: Although their poverty rate is 25-30%, there is a certain routine mental image, a prejudice and patronization that poor = black or black = poor. Not just among whites, but among many African Americans as well.

75-80% of African Americans are therefore NOT below the poverty line*. This is good. It would help if whites stopped thinking of blacks [and black folk stopped thinking of each other] as New Jack City rather than the Huxtables. The Huxtables are idealized, sure, but in reality are closer to the norm. I'm thinking that's what the black Catholics were thinking in objecting to indiscriminate charity. In between the stereotyping, patronizing, and infantilizing, well, enough.

For those on the cusp--an idealistic Roman Catholic "Distributism" of GK Chesterton, et al., is not about the community equitably splitting up its stuff. It's about making the community's resources available to all from the highest to the lowest so that they may realize their own potential.

Of course we are obliged to care for those who cannot care for themselves. But the question is not whether the rich have too much, only that the poor have enough.

For the rest of us, equality lies in not an equitable distribution of crops, but of seeds**.
________
*"Both groups identified being Christian with fulfilling the Son of Man's calling in that chapter to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and welcome in the homeless."

Perhaps we should take this part more literally, and not as a metaphor for economic "justice," which is a bottomless political hole.

**That's a metaphor, not a literal argument against "land reform" in the Third World, which obliges a separate set of arguments. America is no longer an agrarian society.


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