Oldenburg, Indiana, the village of spires, awaited my arrival and I was excited to begin religious life. As the pink Cadillac carrying my supportive family journeyed through the farm lands and winding roads of Indiana, my mind and feelings were focused on “What am I doing?” I was a young Black man trying to satisfy a mysterious vocational call. I was scared, and questioned whether I would be accepted or rejected. But I had the assurance of my mother as she said, “Be strong; just don’t lose your identity.”
I previously had encountered rejection, being told by my pastor, “We don’t know what to do with a colored priest.” So, I was not encouraged to pursue my vocation. Nevertheless, I continued asking Jesus, “What do you want me to do?” The answer came when the Franciscans accepted me.
The greetings were friendly as I began to meet my new brothers. My fears of being alone and excluded were put to ease as on the horizon appeared other men of color: Gio, Aloysius, Joachim, Juan Montoya, etc.
In one of his inspirational lectures, Sylvan Becker stated, “Don’t burst all your bubbles at one time.” Mainly, he was speaking about our spiritual growth and challenges we may encounter. Slowly, the bubbles commenced to swell, exposing the reality of racism and clericalism in our midst. Some brothers were not knowledgeable or were blind to the fact that these elements existed, and therefore, accepted them as standard behavior.
Some of us made promises to do all we can to break down those barriers in our fraternities by eradicating racism and clericalism. We have fought the fight, winning and losing some. At this momentous time of transition, we must show leadership, inspiration and example to the Church by being one of the few groups willing to talk about anti-racism techniques within our own structures and to empower those who are oppressed by racism. However, the main focus of anti-racism is not to sensitize, but to break down racist structures. It is not to change hearts, but change structures and processes while hearts change.
Yes, the system has changed. Let us give credit to the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks for being forerunners for equality. Look at us now, brothers. I will no longer say, “I’m just a brother.” I’m a brother to all!
At the final Chapter of St. John the Baptist Province, our last proposal of the province was passed. It reads: “As Franciscans, we are to take immediate Gospel action to confront and condemn the sin of racism. We can eradicate racial injustice through appropriate and ongoing conversion, both internal and external, personal and institutional.”
This proposal comes on the eve of our provincial merger and challenges us to journey with our brothers and sisters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It comes at a time when racism has peaked and cultural awareness is emerging in society, as well as in the Church. May we continue our work to be brothers to all!