Racial Harmony series proves that talk is not cheap

By Beth Donze

There is significant therapeutic value in giving people the opportunity to tell their stories and have them heard by those who are willing to listen.

Had I not attended “Made in the Image and Likeness of God,” the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ four-part discussion series based on Archbishop Alfred Hughes’ 2006 pastoral letter on racial harmony, I would never have been made aware of some very recent ways hearts had been crushed and lives upended by lingering racism in our community, and even inside our church.

I would not have known that someone my own age – an African-American man in his early 50s – had felt the sting of racism as a pre-teen at a scouting Mass. The white peers behind him in the Communion line stopped drinking from the chalice after he had taken a sip, even though every child in front of him had partaken.

I would not have known that this man had recently decided to stop washing his car in his mostly white New Orleans neighborhood –  because passersby kept asking him how much he charged. He couldn’t possibly be the homeowner.

I would not have known that race had even undermined this man’s plans to purchase a home after Katrina. He would make solid offers only to have them rejected. It didn’t take much digging to find out that those very houses had subsequently been sold to white families, at a lesser price.

The two hours of Session 1 flew by as the stories rolled out.

The 87-year-old white woman at my discussion table told us that when she was a teenager in New Orleans in the 1940s, white parade-goers would suddenly fall silent when Zulu paraded around Lee Circle on Mardi Gras. Despite such absurd behavior exhibited more than a half-century ago, the woman said she believes race relations are “worse today than they were back then.”

A Filipino-American woman in her early 30s shared how race had worked against her in the workplace. She recalled the time an older white patient ignored her after her repeated attempts to take his blood pressure. Mimicking a heavy Asian accent and within full earshot of this young woman, the man turned to the white nurse in the room to complain: “I can’t understand what she is saying.” Forget the fact that the nurse trying to take the man’s pressure was born and raised in the Midwest and sounded as “American” as anyone in the room.

I admit, I was reluctant to attend a discussion series on race relations. The voices inside me were dismissing it as “just talk.” Also, four consecutive Monday nights for two hours? Overkill, I thought.

Also, I was convinced the only way we could truly recognize that we are all God’s equally beloved children was to do service, shoulder to shoulder, together.

Now I realize we must do all of the above. We must tell our stories and spend time together – at Mass, in “fun fellowship” together and out in the uncomfortable margins, helping our neighbors.

Finally, remember this about the power of stories: Our very faith is built upon it. Jesus unpacked many of his teachings through parables and dared us to see ourselves in them. Very often, priests begin their homilies with an anecdote – a story – so that we might better connect with the teaching.

One woman of color summed up the therapeutic value of telling her stories of racial encounter – and hearing about the experiences of the session’s 40 other participants – this way: “For the first time,” she said, “I am hopeful.”

The anecdotes above were used with the permission of each storyteller. Participants in the “Made in the Image and Likeness of God” discussion series are prohibited from sharing any information that compromises the anonymity of their fellow participants. For information on how to schedule the series at your parish, school or organization, call the Office of Racial Harmony at 861-6272.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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