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Charleston, Juneteenth

There is something special about a “black” church. I am blessed to occasionally attend Sunday services at a predominantly African American catholic congregation in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. Until recently Highland Park had been a pocket of poverty pretty much since the desegregation in the 1970s, but today it is a popular “house flipping” area for investors and an “up and coming” neighborhood into which millennials are moving as Richmond continues to cater to the “pre- and post-school aged children” generations. As one of the parishioners said, without judgement: “We see a lot more blue eyes these days.”

They see a lot more coming to their church too. I go because I love their lily white pastor and his heartfelt homilies that cut through racial, cultural, and economic differences right to the heart of what unites us – the body and blood of Christ. To say he is beloved by his parishioners is an understatement. I think they would choose him over the Pope. My parents go there because of the welcome they’ve received, the bonds of friendship they’ve formed, and the true sense of community that you can find only in a small church. My kids love the gospel music, and the fellowship after special masses, and the opportunity to showcase their talents with their Richmond Public School peers at the parish’s first spring talent show, innocently unaware of the educational inequities between them four decades after “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional.

I am painfully aware. I work with an organization that volunteers in city elementary and middle schools. I know first hand the dedication of teachers, administrators, and even the superintendent to give their young charges the best possible shot at post-high school opportunity. It is an uphill battle that those of us in the suburbs (white, black, or anything else) cannot fully comprehend. My heart aches at the inequity, and you know I’m no bleeding heart.

Being with my black brothers and sisters united by faith has made me more mindful, courteous, open, humble, and grateful. I can never know what it is like to walk in their shoes, to have experienced being shunned by the white Catholics who used to frequent that church before “white flight.” It was only a generation ago, and many of that church’s members recall stories of being told to sit in the back of the building after their former “black only” church had been disbanded in a show of support for desegregation by the Diocese. The unintended consequence was that hundreds of black catholic families lost their church community. I’m humbled by the grace and welcome I’ve been shown, because it is the exact opposite of the way they had been treated.

Being welcomed into a predominantly black congregation has opened my heart and my eyes to new ways of feeling and seeing. So when nine African American Christians were senselessly gunned down in Charleston, SC in their church at a bible study, I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful people I’ve gotten to know at St. Elizabeth. Because it could have been them. And that is unacceptable.

That the sanctity of any worship space could be so violated is beyond comprehension. That ignorance and hate could be so raw and violent makes my stomach turn.

When I saw the faces of the victims, my heart grieved for them not as strangers but as people I could have known and who would have loved and welcomed me like my friends at St. E’s. They are mothers and fathers who will be missed by parents and grandchildren and their entire community.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this solidarity, even though I will never comprehend what it means to be targeted as a minority race. Solidarity is not saying, “I understand how you feel.” It’s not presuming to be of any help, either, although I would never hold back. Solidarity means being present with. Just being. Being my suburban white middle class self, not out of guilt or duty, but out love. Today I am present through prayer, for the victims and their families, for black churches everywhere who fear incidents like this, and for all people of good will who want to be neighbor to each other.

We have a long way to go. It is human nature to fear what is different. But it is also human nature to find our common humanity in the midst of tragedy, if we choose. Charleston is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people tonight. May God bless them and comfort them and heal them.

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