Father Cyprian Davis and Racism in America

 “[The country] has yet to solve the question of race; that has been America’s tragic flaw. We have never really come to grips with race. We went through the civil-rights movement, but here we are in 1993 with young people who never knew racial segregation, never knew the civil-rights movement, and all of a sudden on college campuses you have a tremendous amount of racism. There’s still an awful separation between people. It isn’t only against blacks. It involves Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Not that other countries don’t have the same problem. The Church for a long time did not take a stand. It has started to.”

  • U.S. Catholic Magazine quoting Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, pictured in a 2009 photo. (CNS photo/St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology)

Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB was my professor, mentor, and spiritual director. He was a Benedictine monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey whose passion was his monastic vows and his faith in Jesus Christ. He was also a Black Catholic, staunchly proud of his African American heritage. Fr. Cyprian was ordained a priest when Black American priests were few in number.

I fondly remember sitting in his classes and hanging on his every word. He was a storyteller. His voice had gravel in it, his stance was slightly bent over, and his eyes lit up as he recalled stories of the past. He also had a wonderful humor that brought those stories to life in a way that few can. I always imagined that around a campfire he would be king for no one could match his ability to speak of things that happened hundreds and even thousands of years ago as if they were modern day events. He literally put you as a bystander into those stories.

His detailed history of Black Catholicism is the seminal work on how truly diverse our faith is, and how our Catholic faith has never been nor will it ever be a “European” religion. Holding a doctorate in history, he wanted to study the Church Fathers but upon returning to the United States and the country in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement he realized that his contribution to the movement was to highlight the gift that black folks had offered to the Church and the nation. But he was not simply a bookworm. He was a man of action. He marched in Selma across the Edmund Pettis bridge and was one of many who faced down state and local law enforcement in the fight for equal rights. He personally placed himself in the midst of violence against an unjust system to demand he and all people of this country be treated as equals, to have his and others’ dignity recognized.

In addition to being a student, I had the blessing to have him as a spiritual director. There is an intimacy that comes with a spiritual director, a fraternal bond that allows not only the spiritual director to see into the heart of the directee but for the the directee to see deeper than the casual interaction between professor and student. It required me to humbly open myself up to his wisdom and guidance and to listen. I will always remember his voice the day he called me “friend”; I felt unworthy of the honor.

I trusted him and saw a prophet before me on religious, political, and social issues of today, particularly those connected to racism in America. Over the last couple years after I graduated from Saint Meinrad his health began to decline and so it was difficult to keep contact with him before he entered eternity in 2015. I have wondered over the past couple years since the protests in Ferguson, NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis, and elsewhere what he would have had to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenge our nation faces with the racial division that never went away but was only masked over the course of the 5 decades since the Civil Rights Act. I know he would be disheartened by the injustices in our system but not surprised by what is transpiring in our nation. He would also offer hopefulness. This man who faced down the segregationists alongside Dr. King in Selma confronted the violence and knew that things can be better. As he taught about historical and contemporary prejudice and racism in society I never heard bitterness, only a passion to effect change. He challenged us all to examine how we may be contributing to injustice and how we may find our path to helping overcome it. He offered that challenge to dig deeper into resources and histories of America and of the Church. It was Fr. Cyprian’s way of giving voice to the stories often left untold in a culture dominated by a “whites only” voices.

As Catholics the Sacrament of Reconciliation is where we not only confess our sins, but discern how we may grow from our personal shortcomings and place ourselves at the mercy and love of God to help us learn from our sins. In the examination of conscience that we do to prepare for confession we open ourselves up to discern ways in which we may not be living up to the call of the Gospel and that examination helps us to discover things to work on for our own betterment of which we may not even be aware. In the spirit of Fr. Cyprian and his compassionate but challenging expectation for Catholics to address the sin of racism, in my next post we will have a “racial examination of conscience” to help us all become more aware of how we may grow in understanding and compassion for one another.

In the meantime, please consider reading the US Bishops’ document “Brothers and Sisters to US” which can be found online at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at The Witness.


Going Deeper!

Faith communities around the country are praying and acting for racial justice. For ideas, watch this Google hangout on racial justice that highlighted several examples.

Reflecting on the Church’s teaching about immigration

Official logo for the “Share the Journey” campaign, a two-year program that Caritas Internationalis launched Sept. 27.

“We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant, or a refugee, become a threat, take on the status of an enemy. An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs…because of the color of their skin, their language or their social class…because they think differently or even have a different faith….And, without our realizing it, this way of thinking becomes part of the way we live and act…Little by little, our differences turn into symptoms of hostility, threats and violence. How many wounds grow deeper due to this epidemic of animosity and violence, which leaves its mark on the flesh of many of the defenseless, because their voice is weak and silenced by this pathology of indifference!” Pope Francis to the Consistory of Cardinals

Many of us have little to no personal experience of the experiences of marginalized groups mentioned by the Holy Father. Perhaps our only interaction comes through news, movies, music, or social media. I would like to share a few experiences of people whom I care about being marginalized whose “wounds grow deeper due to this epidemic of animosity and violence.”

A friend of mine sent me a text recently after her encounter with a person exclaiming anti-immigrant sentiments. “I was spit on,” she said. “I am too stressed and slightly scared to be outside in public.” Sadly, this was just one of several encounters she had over the course of a few days in the past several weeks. She is a Latina and has regularly been the target of such hate in her hometown of Dubuque. However, as has been reported across the nation, these unprovoked attacks on immigrants have come with more regularity in recent years.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new to America. Irish, German, and Italian Catholics were depicted as violent, apish, uncivilized, dirty, and generally undesirable. Many of the same things said about undocumented and legal immigrants today were said about immigrants of the past.

According to family oral history, I am the descendant of an undocumented immigrant who boarded a cattle ship as a stowaway in Europe and entered the United States in the late 1800s. His name was Christian Schmidt. He rarely spoke about where he came from and how he got here because he was fearful until the day he died, even after becoming a naturalized citizen, that he would be sent back to an uncertain fate. He was here for decades, raised a family, farmed the land, passed on his Catholic faith, and helped to build up his adopted nation. His descendants became school teachers, farmers, social workers, priests, deacons, nurses, soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines— the very fabric of America. Even so, he and many like him were considered a “enemies,” threats to America, all because they came “from a distant country” with “different customs.”

The situation Christian found himself in generations ago is the same millions of migrants find themselves in today. His fears were the same as the fears of immigrants today. His desires and dreams were the same as those of immigrants today. His intrinsic dignity as a child of God, made in the likeness and image of our creator, was the same as that of the immigrants today.

How can we help change the narrative about immigrants, whether here with or without proper documentation? As the Psalmist says: “seek peace and pursue it” (PS 34:15) we ought to recognize that building peace does require action, we must actively pursue peace by turning away from the “pathology of indifference” of which Pope Francis speaks.

Pope Saint John Paul II spoke in particular about undocumented immigrants in 1996 stating we must consider the issue “from the standpoint of Christ, who died to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant ….The first way to help these people is to listen to them in order to become acquainted with their situation, and, whatever their legal status with regard to State law, to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence.”

Christ calls us to seek compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters who present themselves to us as Christ in our midst. Let us join our voices with those of Pope Francis and our bishops to promote a welcoming attitude towards all immigrants, including those without documentation and advocate on their behalf for comprehensive immigration reform that keeps families together, respects the human rights and needs of immigrants, reduces wait times for the immigration process, allows for earned legalization, restores due process for migrants, and allows for the nation to maintain safety for all. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also promotes: “increasing lawful means for migrants to enter, live, and work in the United States, law enforcement will be better able to focus upon those who truly threaten public safety: drug and human traffickers, smugglers, and would‐be terrorists. Any enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional, and humane.”

The recent recession, the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and some devastating acts of terror worldwide have shaped the discussion on immigration and security proposals in our nation. Though these are legitimate concerns on their own it is problematic to point to immigration as the source of these problems. Studies have shown that immigrants, whether here legally or undocumented, are far less likely to commit crimes than natural born citizens of the United States. Communities with higher numbers of immigrants, again regardless of immigration status, are generally more economically stable and successful than areas with lower migrant populations. It is also important for us to recognize that the net immigration from places like Mexico is nearly zero, meaning that the people who come from Mexico each year are nearly equal in number as those returning to Mexico in the same year. Undocumented immigrants also pay tens of billions of dollars’ worth of taxes each year and billions more into the economy with their commercial purchases. Understanding the facts about immigration can help us to promote policies that are not based on fear but on faith, hope, love and justice; making our nation stronger and building a greater culture of encounter and culture of life. Let us stand up in solidarity with the marginalized, opposing “animosity and violence” when we encounter it in speech or action, especially within our own spheres of influence. The immigrant is our brother, our sister, Christ in our midst.

For more information on the Church’s teaching and approach to immigration reform go to: www.justiceforimmigrants.org

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at The Witness.


Going Deeper!

Join Pope Francis’ two-year campaign to Share the Journey of migrants and refugees. Visit ShareJourney.org for stories of migrants and refugees, a toolkit for leaders, social media content, and more.

A Response to Charlottesville

Community members in Charlottesville, Va., hold a vigil for Heather Heyer Aug. 16. She was killed Aug. 12 during a white supremacist protest over a plan to remove the statue of a Confederate general from a city park. (CNS photo/Kate Bellows, The Cavalier Daily via Reuters)

In August, Neo-Nazis, fascists, Klansmen, white supremacists, neo-confederates, and other hate groups converged on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, and in their wake left one young woman dead and many others bleeding and critically injured. Their message of hate and acts of violence and terrorism instilled fear in many thousands more. Our Catholic faith and our local church, the Archdiocese of Dubuque condemns such violence and such ideology as it is intrinsically evil. It is sinful and has no place in our world. As Scripture tells us: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” (1 John 3:15)

Since then I have heard comments of shock and disbelief that, here in 2017, this is actually happening. “I thought we were past this.” “This is not who we are.” “I can’t believe this.” I have yet to hear or read any of those same statements from my friends who are black, brown, migrants, Muslim, or from other marginalized groups. That is because they are daily reminded that they are in the demographic minority and they are regularly subjected to this kind of hate and violence. So, I have not heard shock from them. I have heard their sadness, fear, anger, frustration, and hopelessness, but not shock.

How did we get to this point? Many are trying to understand the answers to this question. For people on the receiving end of hatred and violence this is only a continuation of what they have collectively experienced since the very beginning of our country: slavery, the slaughter and transfer of native peoples to reservations, Black Codes, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, Jim Crow, the “Southern Strategy,” segregated housing, mass incarceration,  the myth of the “welfare queen”, an inhumane immigration system, patently false claims of widespread voter fraud by “the other,” and so on. We find symbols and messages in movies, television, newspapers, magazines and on social media that only deepen this pit of prejudice and injustice and spread false narratives about various peoples. All of these things have us swimming in messages that reinforce bias and at the same time keeps us physically apart from sharing community with people who are do not share our same background or experiences.

“And while they were eating, he said, ‘Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely it is not I, Lord?’ ” Matthew 26: 21-22

While we know that Judas is known as the betrayer we also know that all of the other apostles would betray Jesus, save John, by the end of the following day. Those who fell asleep at Gethsemane betrayed Jesus. Peter betrayed Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And the others remained absent from his presence during his passion and crucifixion for fear of what would happen to them.

However, unlike the other apostles, the women and John bore the threats and violence in the difficult task of supporting Jesus in his darkest hour. Are we like the apostles who immediately look to shift blame or free ourselves of any responsibility for the institutions and the culture that we are living? I am not innocent in this regard. We protest, “Surely, it is not I, Lord!”, because we do not hold explicit prejudice towards others but if we are to overcome the racial hatred and violence in our country we must look to the women and John as our example. We often lack the courage and conviction, myself included, to take a moment to reflect introspectively on how we may, even in tiny ways, contribute to the injustice or oppression of others for we are not only responsible for “what I have done” but also “what I have failed to do.”  When our words or actions are challenged related to racial injustice how quickly are we to reply “Surely, it is not I, Lord!” Do we take the hard task to ask ourselves and Christ, “Is it I, Lord? How may I better serve you and your people?”

It is essential that we not only openly reject and denounce racism but actively work to counter it. We must repudiate racist actions and speech, including racially charged “harmless jokes.” We must learn to recognize symbols and messages that reinforce explicit and implicit bias. We must open ourselves to hearing the stories and experiences of those who share a different background than our own. We must listen to the messages of those who have been on the receiving end of oppression and injustice. These conversations are not easy but they are necessary.

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.


Going Deeper!

Find practical resources to address racial and work for racial justice here. Access bishops’ statements, prayer resource, learning materials, and more on the USCCB Racism page.