In the heat of Louisiana summer, I could smell the mud. The history of organized sin and violence hangs in the air and landed heavy on my skin. In the heat, I imagined slaves tilling the mud and the particles of sweat and mud filling the air. During the height of slavery, it was not cooler or less humid in South Louisiana.
Invited by a friend to a day of reparation and penance for the sins brought against Black Americans, I found myself this summer day at Whitney Plantation considering my history and the history of race in my region and the United States of America. Whitney Plantation is not a place for modern Americans to hold balls and weddings like most plantations in the south. It is a museum dedicated to educating the public about the history of slavery and its legacies. Whitney Plantation can be found deep in south Louisiana, about 20 minutes from where I grew up.
I remember standing there in the heat of last summer. Now I think, “Should I really be the one writing this blog?” Maybe my purpose in writing this blog, however, is not to speak as an expert for someone else’s experience, but to share with you this process of discernment and prayer I’ve engaged in to understand my call to respond to racial injustice.
Like many others, I feel the challenging call of modern discipleship. So many voices have lifted to remind me that the teachings of Jesus are not just to provide comfort but to challenge and change us as well. Many powerful Black disciples have reminded me of this. One such person is my friend and author and speaker, Fr. Josh Johnson. He reminds me, in an interview about the story of Zacchaeus. In this scripture, Zacchaeus encounters Jesus’ love and yearns to “make right”the sins that he has committed within his community by paying them back four times over (Luke 19:8). Zaccheaus, a man who had taken advantage of his position as a tax collector, was seen and forgiven by Jesus for the sins he had committed. He then returned half of his wealth in reparation for those sins back to the community. Fr. Josh Johnson says that reconciliation should be followed by reparation. I feel the beckoning of a similar conversion in my life as I consider my own discipleship.
Two other voices that are challenging me out of my comfort zone are my two daughters. They bring a new generation of ears and awareness that refuse to accept the injustices done to Black people. LIstening to them, I am undeniably aware that God can and does invite us deeper and deeper into challenging our call to discipleship.
I can hear God animating new voices of young people like my children and others while reminding me of the rich history found in scripture that already explains the nature of this new challenging discipleship.
Sometimes discipleship looks like humility and reparation as it did for Zacchaeus, and sometimes it looks like these modern prophets, like Fr. Josh and my daughters, who challenge us to continue to be transformed (Romans 12:2). In answering my own invitation to be transformed through reconciliation followed by my challenge of reparation, I joined with several other men and women to create a “Building a Bridge” group inspired by Latasha Morrison’s book, Build a Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation. One of the black voices that inspires me is Ms. Tiffany Bartholomew, a fellow South Louisianaian. God is calling me to listen closely to what she shares and let it assist my own reconciliation. She says:
To be a black Catholic disciple today, is to be first and foremost a disciple. By following Jesus’ Great Commission, I am very much a listener to others. I respect and try to empathize with all viewpoints and many times with my interactions with family and friends. I try to encourage others to open their hearts and minds to see other people’s viewpoints on particular issues that we face today in America and the entire world. I am blessed in that I have rarely if ever faced discrimination because of the color of my skin, however I am aware that this happens every day. I do not feel that I am challenged with any limitations in my life because of my skin color however I will continue to live my life choosing JOY and looking for the good in all of my brothers and sisters because most people,I truly believe, are good.
Tiffany’s experience is a valuable experience of a black Catholic discipleship in south Louisiana. I have been a graced recipient of Tiffany’s joy, open heart, and mind.
Mr. Donovan Steib, a man who lives very near to Whitney Plantation too offers great insight in our group. I recently asked Mr. Steib what he felt God was calling him to do as a black disciple in America today. He said that,
God is calling me to stand for social justice in regards to respecting human dignity from cradle to grave. As a black disciple, I am often considered insignificant or less than human due to my skin color that God has given me. My opinions along with speaking objective truth does not matter frequently to most. Like Jesus, who was seen as insignificant in his time, my journey for the human family to be one in Jesus name is rejected frequently. I have been called a socialist for following the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. Sadly, the majority of these people are Roman Catholic Christians who called me such. God is calling me to bring his universal family together. He wants us to see exactly what it means when we say “Our Father………” in his perfect prayer.
Donovan is wise and patient in his words in our group. He challenges me in his own graced presence to remain in uncomfortable conversations. His graced patience with me is a gift knowing that in many ways my family, white and southern, participated in this communal sin of slavery, segregation, and continued remnants of these evils.
As I continue to listen to all of these different voices and take them to prayer, I know my call is to stand with both Tiffany and Donavan as they lift their voices to this call. My call is to listen and remain in the uncomfortable. My challenge is to ask for reparation for the sins of my own historical family and race, especially in South Louisiana, including participating in this group as well as extra prayer, fasting, and tithing.
I know that God was challenging me in this journey to see with greater clarity. I felt myself, through the prompting of Latasha Morrison’s book, praying more including quiet and scripture. I began gathering all of the stirrings of my heart and the voices of others around me. I spent time journaling and listening to God’s call. At times I felt a sting of conscience as I considered some ways in which I have assumed my own privilage as a white person or my families lineage in South Louisiana as I considered our regional slavery history. Clarity rose and is still rising. One of my first actions was to join with a couple of other people in creating this group based around Morrison’s book. I know God will continue to stir and challenge. I am grateful that my discipleship continues to change and challenge me. How is God calling you to challenge your call to discipleship?
Below is a process to help you discern:
- Allow quiet time to become aware that God is with you presently.
- Choose a scripture to give you clarity and bring you towards the voice of God.
2. Gather all of the things
- Listen to the data of your heart. What are your heart’s stirrings?
- Listen to others. What are other stakeholders in your life saying?
- Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Discern and listen as God moves with you through the uncomfortable and challenging pieces.
3. Let new understanding or a decision rise in you.
- Lean into God trusting that clarity will rise.
- State clearly what is the new understanding or direction God is calling you toward.
- Create a plan for the new decision or understanding.
- Here are some scriptures to consider: