Community life for the lone person of a different ethnic group

Community life for the lone person of a different ethnic group

By LaReine-Marie Mosely S.N.D.

When speaking of the beginning of Christianity, my favorite theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, reminds his readers with startling simplicity, “It began with an encounter.” He continues,

Some people, Jews, came into contact with Jesus of Nazareth. They were fascinated by him and stayed with him. This encounter and what took place in Jesus’ life and in connection with his death gave their own lives new meaning and significance. They felt that they were reborn, understood and cared for. Their new identity was expressed in a new enthusiasm for the kingdom of God and therefore in a special compassion for others, for their fellow [human beings], in a way that Jesus had already showed them.1

I suspect that many of us could conceptualize our early relationships with the Lord Jesus and with our religious congregations in similar terms. We were fascinated and in love. As we grew in our love of Jesus, our eyes were opened and our love deepened for our community members. Likewise, as we had more and more experiences of belonging in community, our particular way of being with Jesus for others was clarified.

By God’s grace the religious we first encountered from our respective communities mediated the community charism to us, and we were enthralled, or at least intrigued. Women and men religious, motivated by their community vocation directors, are reflecting more and more about ways to encounter people who are open to religious life. We are also trying to better understand the culture of youth so that we can be in relationship with young people and mediate in convincing and attractive ways what it means to be called by God to live the evangelical counsels as members of our respective communities.

In this context, I have been invited to reflect with you upon my experience as an African American woman religious. Next August I will celebrate my 24th anniversary in community. I am the only black woman in my province and one of only two in my congregation’s four North American provinces.

Let me begin my reflections by turning back the clock to one of my favorite decades, the 70s. When I was a junior at my religious community’s all-female high school, I remember having a conversation with one of my girlfriends who happened to be African-American. We were talking about religious life. My friend had shared with me her desire to marry and have seven or eight children, like her own mother had done. While my friend’s mother was a student at the very same high school, she had given serious consideration to religious life, and even met with one of the superiors to express her desire to join the order. The response my friend’s mother got really shocked me. She was told that the community was not ready to accept colored girls. A year and a half after that conversation, ready or not, I came to community. Recently I was talking with one of our sisters who wondered aloud about how a Latina, Asian American or African American woman would fare in our province. Were we ready as a community?

Religious life has been an amazing blessing for me. It is no secret that I have a lot of affection for “my nuns,” as I occasionally refer to them. Few things would give me as much joy as seeing young women from underrepresented populations joining the community I love and living the charism that gives meaning to my every day. It seems to me that religious communities need to always be ready to open their hearts and doors to those gifted to live religious life with us.

Same color, many differences

The African American Catholic experience is not monolithic. Remembering this has been a tremendous grace for me over the years, and I believe this understanding has purchase here. If you have not already noticed, we African American Catholics are as diverse as they come. We hail from urban, suburban and rural parishes all around the U.S. Some of us worship in predominantly black congregations, and others of us might be life members of multicultural or predominantly white parishes. Some African American Catholics trace their ancestry to the South, while others of us have Caribbean roots. I have been a member of parishes in New Rochelle, N.Y.; Toledo, Ohio; Chicago, Ill. and South Bend, Ind. Experiences in those areas alone attest to rich diversity. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that something similar can be said about the Latina American Catholic experience and about the Asian American Catholic experience. Thus, my first point of reflection is: In order to mediate the encounter of underrepresented populations in religious life, it is important to acknowledge the diversity within their respective group. This will create a climate of openness and conversation so that the questioning individual can speak in her own voice as she seeks to determine her fit for religious life and a particular community.

All that being said, there are commonalities that persons from underrepresented populations might experience. While researching my master’s thesis at Xavier University of Louisiana’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies, I came across a racial identity attitudes scale that was based on research on the black identity development process by Cross, Parham, and Helms. (See box below.) The stages that a black person in a racist society might go through are pre-encounter, encounter, immersion-emersion, and internalization. Members of the community’s dominant group might gain greater understanding of minority members by considering these stages, keeping in mind that they are not fixed or absolute.

Stages of racial identity

Although developed to reflect the Black American experience, these stages might also be relevant to people of other minority groups. These stages articulate a general pattern; it’s important to remember that each person’s experience is unique.

Pre-encounter stage In this stage an individual views the world from the vantage point of the dominant culture that affirms whiteness and devalues or questions the significance of blackness. A person in this stage might de-emphasize their blackness and take issue with those African Americans who focus on race as a factor in their life experiences.

Encounter stage In the encounter stage an individual has an eye-opening negative experience that is the direct result of the color of his or her skin. This prompts a reevaluation of racial identity as the person comes to realize the import of being black in the U.S. An African American high school young woman who has been educated in predominantly white schools might notice a change in her relationships with her friends as they move from group social gatherings to dating situations. Race emerges as an important factor and thus raises this young woman’s consciousness.

Immersion-emersion stage The individual transitions into behaviors and situations that accent blackness. Reminders of the pre-encounter stage are set aside in this rather visible change. A young woman in this stage might find herself with a voracious interest in African and African American culture and history. Cognizant of her race’s struggle, she might actively challenge racist views and behaviors.

Internalization stage In this fourth and final stage, the person is able to integrate life experiences and come to a healthy sense of blackness, of racial identity. This stage is characterized by a balance that includes neither the valorization nor demonization of one race over against another.

 

Ethnic or cultural loners in a community may possibly recognize themselves in this pattern. “Each woman,” write the authors of a guide for working with African American women, “must determine how her new consciousness affects the way she perceives and interacts with her new sense of being black. She must do so to the degree that when in situations in which her black perspective is not valued, she has the necessary sustenance to prevail.”2 Like most scales and stages in psychology, theorists today are much more comfortable viewing these racial identity stages in a cyclical rather than linear manner.

I’ve found the racial identity scale useful in my own research, as well as in understanding in my own personal journey. I share this information because I believe that there are parallel studies in psychology for other underrepresented populations, and vocation ministers might find these helpful. Studies on identity attitude scales can be located via search engines online (Google, Yahoo, etc.) or through data bases available on the library Web pages of colleges and universities.

Again, it is essential to remember that some African Americans might not find this psychology helpful or reflective of their experience. However, what may be more essential is that the vocation director be conscious that people from underrepresented populations have a different worldview than the majority.

Racial identity develops in distinct ways

Negotiating my life in a variety of contexts where race is a factor (and that is every context) takes a lot of psychic energy. So, my second point of reflection is: Racial identity may develop in distinct ways for persons who are members of underrepresented populations. Vocation directors and formators would do well to understand this. The lone person from a racial or ethnic group who may be considering religious life should have opportunities with other religious of their racial group. I know that summer school at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies and membership in the National Black Sisters’ Conference, along with other involvements, were formative experiences that helped me to weather the stages of my racial identity.

As always, a loving and accepting community is an absolute must for the person traversing the stages of racial identity. Feelings can be intense, confusing, and particularly exasperating as one reflects upon what it means to belong to a religious community that is racially different from one’s self. I for one do not know welwhere I would be without the love and patience that I have experienced from my religious sisters. As the new member comes to grip with his or her racial identity, this might also be a time when talking out and talking through issues and experiences of the past and present could be really important. I remember my provincial and me having some very charged encounters, but we kept talking. There is tremendous truth to the belief that the new asceticism in our lives together in community (along with the many other opportunities) is perseverance in dialogue.

Some personal experiences

I feel compelled to talk more about our life together in community. If religious communities are going to grow in their readiness to invite new members from underrepresented populations, each and every member must commit to promote the kingdom of God therein. Communities do not become ready overnight after workshops on diversity (though these workshops can be a necessary first step in a long and complicated journey).

Remember, some of the enthusiasm that we first felt in our early encounters with our religious communities flowed from an anticipatory sense of shared mission. This mission that we hoped to share with our potential community is a facet of the kingdom of God. Jesus was the incarnation and embodiment of this kingdom, and we are called to be the same in our own way. The praxis of the kingdom of God was the manner that Jesus lived. Our way of being in the world can be nothing less.

Practically speaking, the Gospel portrays Jesus as welcoming and open to people, especially those who were on the underside of history: the poor, needy, unfree, sinners, the sick and those possessed. When the religious leaders of his day called his actions into question— for example, when Jesus was in the process of healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath— Jesus affirmed his identity in no uncertain terms and followed it up with healing praxis. Would that we might speak with similar boldness and clarity!

The best preparation for welcoming underrepresented populations into community is to create the kingdom of God every day in our local communities where the rubber meets the road. When racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and related forms of exclusion rear their ugly heads, we have been given a personal invitation to assert, in no uncertain terms, who we are and Whose we are. Let me give some examples.

A lovely supper conversation came to a halting end for me when one of our senior sisters, while referring to the unique names that some African Americans give their children, used the term, the “coloreds.” This was a teachable moment, par excellence. I was tired, so I simply finished up and moved on, but I had hoped that after my departure, someone else would have taken the opportunity to inform the sister that her terminology was outdated and offensive, though I suspect that this was not the case. Perhaps I should have spoken up, but the cultural education and transformation of the community is not the responsibility of the sole sister who happens to belong to another racial group.

On another occasion a sister was recounting a trip she took to the South that included a visit to some plantations. While she was describing the scene, she mentioned evidence of some of the trappings of the institution of slavery. What stunned me was her objective allusions to these trappings. I questioned myself: Would a person visiting Nazi death camps mention them with equal objectivity and seeming nonchalance? The slavocracy, with the middle passage that initiated it, was just as horrific as the Shoah, the Gulags, the crimes that our nation committed against the native peoples, and other atrocities that are a part of history’s memory that we would much rather forget or sanitize. Everyone in community is called to be proactive in naming and dealing with our language, attitudes and actions which betray some of our deep seated prejudices against persons who are “other.”

Lest you think that I consider myself a poster child for this prophetic stance, I must admit, there have been more times than I wish to acknowledge when my response has been silence. I tried to believe that my fatigue exonerated me from giving voice to my deeply held beliefs. Also, I have not wanted to get a reputation for being “difficult” in community. I did not want to be the person around whom everyone watches every word—a pain in the neck, rather than a prophet. This is not an excuse for me. It was not an excuse for Jesus.

Let’s put our houses in order

My third point of reflection is simply that perhaps the most important thing that vocation directors and community members can do to assist lone persons from a racial group who are considering religious life, is to get their religious houses in order now!

Data from a gathering I attended offers both hope and challenge to our task of “cleaning house.” In July of 2001 I attended the First National Gathering for Black Catholic Women held in Charlotte, N.C. This event, sponsored by the National Black Sisters’ Conference, lasted three days. Eight hundred fifty of us attended. The Steering Committee requested that the participants be surveyed in an effort to gather data about black Catholic women today. Six hundred forty-two persons completed the survey. The following passages come from the Final Report of the gathering.

Sixty-two percent of the women would encourage their daughters to become vowed religious women or nuns…. Those who would encourage consideration of this vocation would do so because they believe being a nun is a blessing and a special calling. They cite the need for more black religious to act as role models for youth and to minister to the needs of the black parishes and community. Some would choose this vocation for their daughters because of fond memories of the motivational role women religious played in their own development. One would because of the belief that, “When you devote your child to God, you are doubly blessed.” Another believes, “We are in need of women of color to be a sign of hope and love; just like the Blessed Virgin Mary…we need nuns to pass on the faith.”

A few women specifically would not encourage their daughter in this direction. In one case, the woman’s daughter had a bad experience with a priest; another does not think her daughter has the personality for a nun. One said, “I don’t think they would allow her to grow in faith or creativity, being governed by old white women.” Several would want their children to experience motherhood; they feel that religious life is too restrictive. Some feel there is not enough support for a black person to become a black Catholic nun. One said, “The religious congregations have to ‘clean house’ first.” One would not, because, in her words, “I currently feel there is no support. I would not like my daughter’s spirit crushed or her hopes and dreams destroyed.” Another feels that there “is not a lifegiving, nurturing environment for black women in most communities.”3

Religious communities have been given some negative evaluations with respect to the integration of underrepresented populations. This is apparent in the Final Report just cited, and I suspect it would be corroborated by the experience of many religious of color.

In John 1:35 Jesus’ first disciples began following him at John’s behest. The first encounter between Jesus and the disciples was classic. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them,

“What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi,” (which translated means teacher) “Where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

Persons interested in religious life question us similarly. They want to know where we live and how we live and what difference our living in community really makes. It is my hope that we now begin the process of getting our houses in order by speaking the truth in love and transparently mediating our community’s charism. Then, when that wonderful day comes when we turn around and potential members express interest, humbly, we can respond, “Come and see.” Because it all begins with an encounter.

______________________________________

1. Schillebeeckx, Edward. Interim Report on the Books Jesus & Christ. New York: Crossroad, 1981, p. 11.

2. Pack-Brown, Sherlon P., Linda E. Whittington- Clark and Woodrow M. Parker. Images of Me: A Guide to Group Work With African-American Women. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998, p. 27.

3. Bryant, Shirley. National Gathering for Black Catholic Women, Final Report. National Black Sisters’ Conference, http://nbsc68.tripod.com, 2003, pp. 13-14.

Further Reading

Davis, Cyprian. The History of Black Catholics in the United States. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

Theological Studies, “The Catholic Reception of Black Theology.” December 2000, Vol. 61, No. 4.

White, Joseph L. and Thomas A. Parham. The Psychology of Blacks: An African-American Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990, 1984.

LaReine-Marie Mosely, SND, a Sister of Notre Dame, is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is presently researching her dissertation, tentatively entitled, Strategies of Survival as Fragments of Grace: The Surprising Engagement of Womanist Theology and the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx. Prior to this, she taught grade school and high school in Ohio and Illinois for 15 years.

 



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