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Currently I am reading The Church and the Racial Divide: Reflections of an African American Catholic Bishop by Bishop Edward Braxton. He is a recently retired bishop who has served in Church leadership for many decades. Some of his own story as an African American leader in the Church and American society caused me to reflect on this celebration of our country’s independence.
I have heard some people say that they won the birth lottery by being born in this country. I would say that I have always been grateful to have been born and lived in this country throughout my life. Bishop Braxton also expressed gratitude about the opportunities he has had in the Church and beyond, but he is also very honest about the challenges that he and his family have faced in their experience of being Black members in the Catholic community.
For instance, he reflected on how many positive things the Knights of Columbus do in parishes and communities, and how they have been supportive of him in his ministry. He also noted when his father became a Catholic as an adult, he was told that he would not be welcome to join the Knights of Columbus because of his race; he ended up joining another Catholic men’s group but that rejection stayed with his father the rest of his life.
Another example was from his childhood with his siblings. Their Baptist mother sent them to Catholic schools because of the excellent education and moral formation they were known for. When his brother brought a family copy of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as an example of music that was meaningful to them, he was told it was not music of “high quality.” Similarly, when they told their teacher their family enjoyed the music of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong among others, they were told that these were not “great” artists. These and many other experiences have impacted Bishop Braxton, his family, and his ministry.
His reflections have stuck with me as we celebrate this holiday weekend. I reflect on the gift of freedom and how that has given millions of people opportunities to flourish through our country’s history, and yet Bishop Braxton’s experience shows again that those opportunities have not always been afforded to all Americans. We have come far, and still have to continue on the journey to really being the “Land of the Free.”
Catholic Social Teaching teaches the profound truth that all people have God-given dignity simply because they are a person created in God’s image, regardless of their age, race, economic status, and all the other artificial distinctions we place between each other. Let’s pray in thanksgiving for the God-given gifts we have in this country, for the times we have cooperated with God’s grace in loving all of our neighbors, and pray for the courage to recognize where we need to continue to cooperate with God’s grace in our nation and communities.