I was recently re-reading Bryan Massingale’s book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church and was reminded in that text of Sr. Thea Bowman’s speech to the US Catholic Bishops in 1989. The entire speech can be heard here:
I have watched it before and sometimes shown parts of it to my students, particularly for the power with which she captures the tension for Black Catholics between the experience of the Church as educator and therefore the bringer of not just opportunity but also the Gospel, and the experience of nonetheless feeling “like a motherless child” in a Church that continues to see them as “second and even third class citizens of the Holy City.” She also gives powerful voice to the gifts that Black Catholics bring to the Church.
But listening today I was struck by her call to unity. It rings so deep and true, so essential in the midst of the divisions that seem to be clawing at us.
Today we are called to walk together in a new way toward that Land of Promise. And to celebrate who we are and whose we are. If we as church walk together—don’t let nobody separate you, that’s one thing Black folk can teach you, don’t let folk divide you up…. The Church teaches us that the Church is a family, is a family of families, and the family got to stay together…. If we walk and talk and work and play and stand together in Jesus’ name, we’ll be who we say we are: truly Catholic. And we shall overcome. Overcome the poverty. Overcome the loneliness. Overcome the alienation. And build together a holy city, a New Jerusalem, a city set apart, where they will know we are His because we love one another. [Sr. Thea’s words; my effort at transcription]
We have to fight the forces that would divide us. We have to cling to one another, to know that we belong to Jesus and to one another, to know it in the depths of our being and to trust it. Only in this way will we be able to act out of the love that we have been given rather than the fears that too often drive us. The problems that we face today may seem overwhelming, but if we stand together, we can overcome them.