When I was in grade school, the pastor used to come to each classroom for a weekly religion class, and the children were supposed to have questions prepared for him. When I was in eighth grade, a boy raised his hand and asked, “Father, do you have to go to school more to become a priest or a nun?” With due gravitas, Father McCallin responded, “You have to study seven years to become a priest. He then turned to our first-year teacher and asked, “Sister Donna Loretto, how long do sisters need to study?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Father, sisters never stop studying.” The pastor enjoyed her answer as much as did all the girls in the classroom.
I think this story offers a good approach to thinking about the U.S. tradition of celebrating February as Black History Month. In 2019, the U.S. bishops published Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love—A Pastoral Letter Against Racism, in which they pointed out that in recent years we have seen bold expressions of racism by groups as well as by individuals. The sad truth is that one of humanity’s greatest ongoing and most self-destructive weaknesses is ethnocentrism, the assumption that our way is the right way—not just one among many.
My grade school experience reminds me that culture teaches us how to do everything from dressing, eating and sleeping to studying and performing brain surgery. Our first stages of development include learning what our people understand as the right way. The trouble is, many of us think that seven years (a biblical long time) are enough to complete the task. In a symbolic seven years, we can learn the ways of our tribe, which include language, history, customs, etc. In times past, that was often enough.
Now, when some of the human race has seen our tiny planet from the vantage point of space, when one virus has infected millions, and when we can Zoom across the world, we are realizing that we are not a special tribe, but a dispersed and diverse global family. The only way we will dismantle racism and ethnocentrism is by learning about one another, getting to know people whose cultural background is different from our own and appreciating the rich varieties of peoples, cultures, languages and knowledge that God has drawn into life on our planet. As a congregation, God seems to have given us a gift and a task in this through our presence and history in the United States, Japan, Peru and Chile.
What would it be like if all of us, sisters, associates, and friends, celebrated this February and the U.S. celebration of Black History Month as a reminder that there is always more to learn and enjoy from the rich diversity of the Body of Christ? What concrete action will you take to keep learning?