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November 8, 2009

What do African Americans and Hispanics have in common? Bishop Perry offers insight into communities’ similar narratives

By Bishop Joseph Perry


When one examines the human storybook we soon come across narratives of domination and those dominated. Just about every ethnic group can tell a story of agony and struggle with their movement through life. These stories are not so easily read or evaluated. Human nature defies easy analysis.

Another thing we notice is that peoples have come through their sufferings in some heroic and inspiring ways, some groups better than others. Today’s social politics divide people up with use of labels. Some of those labels signal their racial or ethnic heritage, their language, their skin tone — dark, light, white and those in between. The labels are becoming more difficult to manage in common parlance by reason of the variety that exists in the human race.

Personal experience

In all this, there are those among us who feel they belong and those who struggle to feel they belong.

One category often used to describe the latter group is “people of color,” a term that has emerged to distinguish them from the majority population representative of ethnicities of mostly European heritage who are increasingly linked together in a melting pot, save for identifiable ethnic lines traced in their surnames.

Being African American myself I am only too aware of the saga of black peoples during the conquest of the New World and thereafter. I am naturally schooled in the history of blacks struggling for acceptance in the fabric of American democracy, in the Christian church in general and in the Catholic Church in particular.

The stories emanating from this saga were the stuff of adults’ kitchen talk we overheard as youth, the subject matter of school instruction, news headlines, the substance of each day’s politics.

These stories place an indelible mark on black consciousness and seem to surface time and again when people of African descent suffer loss, advantage or feel they are not making progress. No suffering people can forget entirely their past, especially the agonizing features of that past. For good or for worse it haunts us and determines our present and future more than we like. We reach a certain triumph when we can soberly assess that past while moving forward.

Know our stories

Race relations are eased when all kinds of people can come together to share their stories. Each has to first know what their story is in all its glory and all its pain. We might differ on which group has suffered the most, but we all, white, black and brown, have suffered in life. Then, hopefully, understanding emerges that bodes well for a peaceful co-existence.

The story of Latin Americans is a unique story — no less precious for its pathos. What we share together as peoples of African descent and Hispanic descent is that our skin is dark. We are brown and black and shades in between.

We share a story of being an unwelcome encroachment upon others’ space. Ignorance and lack of social contact tend to exacerbate some uninformed notions about us. Some of this, sadly, is found in the church.

We also share the same savior, Jesus Christ, whom we call Lord, who was a member of a despised race, a Jew, living in a land occupied by a foreign power.

The precise theme of our evangelization as Christians is to help people understand that we belong to a global family that excludes no one. It remains a goal the church must continue to preach in hopes that its fundamental reasoning might reshape the social status of those routinely shut out of modern social affairs.

Our recent popes — John Paul II with his evangelizing journeys and now Benedict XVI — remind us that millions of people from developing countries and war-torn and politically fragile countries are seeking to survive through emigration.

Driven by hunger and weighed down by poverty, joblessness and political and religious oppression, these peoples risk their lives to try to provide the basic necessities of life for themselves and their families.

Many do not survive the journey; others are turned away at unfriendly border crossings. Nevertheless, their need is great, they keep coming and keep hoping that someone will recognize their humanity and welcome them.

Political quagmires

Wealthy nations with great resources — at least those countries that control the distribution of food and wealth — find themselves quagmired in politics and outright war such that equal distribution of the world’s goods and a fundamental idea about human and civil rights remain elusive ideas.

Closer to home, fear of political and economic conflict, supposed threats of terrorism and ethnic shifts have challenged America’s historic identity as a nation of immigrants. We have forgotten the sagas of our European ancestors coming to this land of the free and the troubles they experienced seeking to find a home here.

For lack of a coherent immigration policy, federal enforcement agencies have focused on a deportation strategy to pursue thousands of undocumented people who are already in the country hoping to find a legal path to citizenship.

These undocumented are not just peoples originally from the south of this country — Mexico, Central and South America, but Europeans, Slavs, Africans and Asians as well.

While the goals of a national immigration system are reasonable, the means have become an assault on human dignity. Children watch their families torn apart as parents are taken away in handcuffs. Consider the financial exploitation of the undocumented; the unjust, unsafe and unfair labor practices; out-right theft of wages belonging to workers.

Much of this activity results in public anger toward immigrants and toward a political system seemingly unable to handle the problem. Irresponsible and unreflective chatter floats through the channels of the hate-media. These helpless members of the human family — especially the church family — have little or no recourse.

Become ‘one church’

Our Latino brothers and sisters bring with them the Christian faith in our Catholic tradition. This fact alone compels the Catholic Church to take as priority the plight of our fellow Spanish-speaking Catholics who increasingly fill the pews of our churches and come to us first for assistance.

Their predicament reminds the church in America of all that it is not and all that it must become to be more clearly one church, one body in Christ.

Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was laced with messages about tolerance. He must now succeed in convincing the legislators on the federal and state levels to adopt a more inclusive society and hopefully a comprehensive immigration reform that is, in every way, humane.

Inclusivity is indisputably becoming a reality that enriches our lives while some others continue to live in a nightmare of fear and insecurity over the likelihood of the scarcity of jobs, food and housing, where historically ugly conflicts have arisen between peoples and races in this country.

The dream of freedom must expand to every member of the human family. Therefore, those of us who are free to celebrate the gift of family in our churches are compelled, because of our membership in the family of Jesus, to work diligently and to speak out boldly until every member of the human family can share the same joys.