It has been in the news a lot lately. First, we learned about a celebrity’s use of the ugly “n” word and her subsequent fall from the public’s grace. Then, when the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced, our country was suddenly at a boiling point over the anger on both sides of the case. The issue underlying these two examples is racism. This makes me anxious because when we are racist in our thoughts, words, or actions toward other people or prejudiced against a certain skin color or nationality, we disappoint God. When we disappoint God, we sin. And that is not good.
As Catholic Christians, we are taught in our Catechism that all men are created in the image and likeness of God and equally endowed with rational souls that give us certain rights because we are created in His likeness. All men are redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ and so enjoy equal rank or dignity. According to God’s design, all men and women regardless of color or nationality are worthy of respect and are of equal standing. Jesus died for all of us. The problem is that many times humans don’t follow God’s design and fail to see the value of every living soul on this earth. So discrimination and prejudice rear their ugly heads, and hatred and anger and contention grow and things get really ugly because people get hurt.
In all of this ugliness, we have to remember to look at what God’s design is because that is where beauty can be found. God tells us to love. We are to love like the good Samaritan who cared for the beaten stranger on the roadside; we are to extend hospitality to the poor, crippled, lame and blind when we throw a banquet and I think it would please the Lord to have people of different skin colors attend too; and, we are to clothe, feed, and visit our sick brothers and sisters in prison no matter what their status, color, or creed is. I admit it is tough because we can be suspicious of the differences between the races and creeds of the peoples of the earth, yet this is what God calls us to do. This is the love that we are called to and what a beautiful world it would be if we all loved like that.
As I pondered the heated arguments about racism I realized I have a beautiful example of people of different races getting along well in my own small, Southern community. For the last eight years, our parish has been served well by missionary priests from Africa and South Vietnam. It may surprise some that we are served by missionary priests here in America, but yes, Africa, where Catholicism is exploding, sends priests to America to serve the Church. These men fill the vacancies we have in our parishes from the lack of vocations in American seminaries. We are a country served by missionaries.
The first African priest who served our parish was from Nigeria. Father Athanasius is a humble quiet man who has a generous and kind heart and only wants to serve others. Before he was sent to America, he had a music ministry in Nigeria that raised money to educate orphaned children. He was our pastor for three years. Honestly, I admit I was concerned about having a black man come into our area to minister and shepherd us. I didn’t know how well he would be accepted. It was a beautiful thing to see how receptive our congregation was to his messages of love and forgiveness and serving God. Our son-in-law was fortunate to have Father A instruct him when he decided to join the Catholic Church. He has since moved to another parish and has won them over as well. It didn’t surprise me, because he took his solid message of God’s love with him and shared it with that church just as he did us.
Currently we have three priests who serve this area of the Delta in eastern Arkansas. Father Benoit is from the Congo, Father Honest is from Tanzania, and Father Martin is formally from South Vietnam. These men continue the work of Father A and continue to teach us lessons that have touched my heart and made my faith grow. They are well educated (all Catholic priests are) and pass that knowledge on to us. They visit the sick and dying and baptize our babies and eat at our tables. They have gotten to know our families and pray for them by name. They laugh with us and celebrate with us and mourn with us as the occasion requires. They minister to us and teach us to strengthen our relationships with our Creator. Their desire is to lead us to heaven to be in the presence of God. We have grown to love these men and appreciate their sacrifice of leaving their homes and their families to serve us. They struggled to learn our language so they could teach us the importance of having faith in God. Learning a language for travel is quite a different thing from learning a language well enough to teach ideas and concepts and doctrines. How many of us would expend that much effort for the sake of another’s soul?
These men quietly go about their work and love and care for us as their flock. We are their sheep and we love them. By witnessing these priests and the love they have for their congregations and the love their congregations have for them, I have had a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like and how our world could look if we all returned to the design God had planned all along. I pray that we will and that we commit to it completely for the sake of all of us.