Equity and Inclusion


In response to the proposal from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that congregations focus on the dismantling of racism, the Adrian Dominican Sisters began by identifying resources that can assist us in raising our consciousness of white privilege and white supremacy, both personally and systematically.

Since January 2021, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters have collaborated on a project to provide information on prominent Black and Indigenous Catholics who have made significant contributions to the church and society, along with reflection questions and a prayer.

In May of 2022, Kevin D. Hofmann was named the founding Director of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion for the Congregation. With the goal of normalizing conversations about race and culture and discussing what it means to feel included and excluded, Kevin began contributing to this blog in June of 2022 and shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit.

 

Equity and Inclusion Project

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Sister Cora Marie Billings, RSM

Sister Cora Marie Billings, RSM

Sister Cora Marie Billings has dedicated the past six decades of her life to rooting out racism, and she has no plans to slow down. She traces her roots in the church to her great-grandfather, who was a slave for the Jesuits at Georgetown University. He was raised in the Catholic faith and in accord with his wishes, Catholicism was retained through generations of her family. Eventually the family moved to Philadelphia where Sister Cora Marie was born and grew up.

Sister Cora Marie's upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church was at times very challenging due to the treatment she received within her white Catholic school and community as an African American Catholic. Withstanding these obstacles, her faith did not waiver; she responded to her call to religious life and in 1956 she became first African American woman accepted for membership within the Mercy Sisters of Philadelphia.

She had been encouraged to become a woman religious because of the example of two of her aunts who were already members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence of Baltimore, Maryland, a religious order established by, and for, women of African descent to teach enslaved children.

In 1968, Sister Cora Marie became a founding member of the National Black Sisters' Conference, which brought together Black nuns nationwide to assert their voices in the Catholic Church — and to urge it to confront more effectively "the sin of racism."

Serving as the campus minister of Virginia State University, she began working full time in the Diocese of Richmond under Bishop Walter F. Sullivan in the mid-80s. It was Bishop Sullivan who appointed her in 1990 to the pastoral position at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, a predominantly black parish that had lost its priest.

After 61 years, Sister Cora Marie remains active in the Sisters of Mercy’s reconciliation and social justice ministries. "If there is ever a chance for me to impact or help people to see what I feel is justice and the rights of people, then I will do whatever I can," she said. "I will always say 'yes' if I can, if I feel I can effect change."

 

Resources

Articles

First African-American nun to serve as a pastoral coordinator, Sister Cora Marie Billings continues to serve,” by Mark Robinson, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 25, 2017.

Challenging and Healing Racism: Two Black Sisters of Mercy Share Their Stories,” by Catherine Walsh, Features Writer, November 16, 2021. 

Q & A with Sr. Cora Marie Billings on Black Catholicism and her life of 'firsts’,” by Sydney Clark, Global Sisters Report, November 30, 2021.

Nonviolence Critical Concern Community Feature: Sr. Cora Marie Billings,” by Kelsey Steines, Catherine McAuley Center, March 21, 2021.

Videos

An Evening Conversation with Sister Cora Marie Billings, R.S.M.,” Villanova University, February 12, 2019 - A "fireside chat" with Sister Cora Marie Billings, who received her B.A. in Humanities from Villanova in 1967.

Sister Cora Mare Billings - Finding Tomorrow: Experiences in Black Leadership,” Finding Tomorrow Project (FindingRVA), June 15, 2014. Interview directed by Marc Cheatham and Darrian P. Mack.

Sister Cora Marie Billings' reflection for Black Catholic History Month,” Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, November 25, 2019.


Reflection Questions

Cora Marie Billings speaks of her experience of racism in church and society.

1. Have any of your cultural-racial ancestors been the targets of bigotry or discrimination?

2. What forms of institutional racism have you witnessed and/or participated in?

3. What have you done to root out anti-Black, anti-Hispanic/Latino, anti-Asian racism in your interpersonal and institutional experiences?


Prayer

"Shake Us From Our Slumber"
Prayer adapted from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When our eyes do not see the gravity of racial justice, shake us from our slumber and open our eyes, O Lord.

When out of fear we are frozen into inaction, give us a spirit of bravery, O Lord.

When we try our best but say the wrong things, give us a spirit of humility, O Lord.

When the chaos of this dies down, give us a lasting spirit of solidarity, O Lord.

When it becomes easier to point fingers outwards, help us to examine our own hearts, O Lord.

God of truth, in your wisdom, enlighten Us. God of hope in your kindness, heal Us. Creator of All People, in your generosity, guide Us.

Racism breaks your heart; break our hearts for what breaks yours, O Lord.

Ever present God, you called us to be in relationship with one another and promised to dwell wherever two or three are gathered. In our community, we are many different people; we come from many different places, have many different cultures. Open our hearts that we may be bold in finding the riches of inclusion and the treasures of diversity among us.

We pray in faith.

Amen.

 


view of countryside under evening purple sky

Unlimited Trajectory

By Kevin Hofmann 
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion

Approximately one year and nine months ago, on the night after the presidential election, President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris took the stage to give their acceptance speeches. To be honest, I do not remember a thing they said over the two hours they roamed the stage. What I do remember is seeing a very diverse group of people smiling and celebrating.

Vice President-Elect Harris wore a cream-colored pant suit that broadcasted approachable power. Her smile cast light on this night and after the previous four years, we needed light. She stood on stage with her husband and her children, and they danced and laughed. For the first time in a long while, I could breathe. When I finally exhaled, it gave my eyes permission to drain. I cried because I thought of the little Black girls who, up until this night, were not able to ascend the steps to take their rightful place on a stage of this magnitude. It was not that they were not capable, it was simply the fact that the stairs to this stage had been roped off with yellow caution tape and guarded by Cerberus.

Vice President-Elect Harris addressed this historic day and said, “Ladies, be sure to wear your shoes because there is glass everywhere.” Within 24 hours this quote was on t-shirts, glasses, coffee mugs, and other souvenirs. Long after the t-shirts faded and the coffee mugs are discarded (because the coffee has stained the ceramic), the effects of this promotion continue to echo. The echo will whisper to little girls throughout the world that they have value, and no ceiling will limit their trajectory.

In childhood development, children between the ages of two and six are egocentric thinkers. They experience the world only through their eyes. They lack the ability to see another point of view. The world is limited to what they see and experience. It is during this stage of development where a child may say something like, “Women can’t be doctors,” if they have never seen a female doctor. After the 2020 presidential election, there is a generation of children that will never know a time when there wasn’t a female Vice President. They will see a world of new possibilities.

An interesting question for us to ask is, what would a child during this stage of development say about the Adrian Dominican Sisters? What would they say about leadership and who occupies those positions? What would they say about who can lead Co-workers? What would they say about who is welcome on the Motherhouse campus?

Representation matters and part of my job is to make sure we are promoting, hiring, and acknowledging a wide range of folks because their presence makes us stronger. My hope is to create a community that has lofted ceilings with sky lights that say to the everyone, “Here your trajectory is limitless!”


Inside of an abandoned building, graffiti on the walls, looking through two doorways towards a narrow view of light coming through a window

Mind Games

By Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion

“The trouble is that once people develop an implicit theory,
the confirmation bias kicks in and they stop seeing evidence that doesn’t fit it.”
            - Carol Tavris, Author and Social Psychologist

“Well, so we did the audit as you asked, and we found that 90% of the students that were suspended this past year were Black.”

Ninety percent! My mind was moving quickly, very quickly in many directions, and the group was looking for me to respond. We were sitting in the administration building for the school district trying to bring understanding to a school district that for decades chose to ignore color. We were less than 500 yards away from one of the elementary schools in the district, a building in which children were taught how to properly use different colors of crayons. They were taught that zebras are black and white, bears are brown, frogs are green, but we do not see people in color. Color magically leaps over humans and lands on animals… I suppose. 

This illogical approach to community was now coming home to roost and nest. The school district sits on the edge of a mid-sized city and over the past few decades white flight had caused the district to “tan.”  As white families moved further away from the city, many were replaced with families of color. A district that has historically been 95% white or more had evolved and changed. At this time, about 70% of the student body was white, 20% Black, 7% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. The tanning of a community had begun, and the district failed to assure the teachers, administration, and staff reflected the community. Instead, they chose not to see color. I guess they thought if they ignored it, it would go away and never come back. Wishful thinking for some.

In a perfect school district, the teachers, administration, and staff should reflect the community where they live. In this example, if 20% of the district’s student body is Black, the hope is that those employed by the district match the student body. This district had 300 teachers, faculty, and staff. This meant about 60 employees should be Black. They had two! Their Black representation was less than 3% and a suburban mile from the 20% expected. 

As the district was struggling with this issue, my two sons were feeling the effects of the district’s neglect. It all came to a head for us after years of bias. In the span of three days my boys were both called the “n” word and no one at the school did anything to protect them. When I went to complain, I was rerouted to the Diversity Committee.  I would later find out the Diversity Committee was made up of parents of color who had lodged complaints against the district for some insensitive actions directed towards their children. The Diversity Committee was purgatory: a place complaining folks go to complain but never resolve their issues. We were exiled to a classroom once a month where our concerns never made it past the threshold of the classroom.

When that did not work for my family, I offered to get more involved. I offered to train the district in the area of Diversity and Inclusion for FREE!  

The superintendent liked “Free!” I held several meetings with teachers, faculty, and staff to help them see the world from a different angle. Many were very skeptical and, although polite, didn’t really see the need for such training. At the end of one meeting, I assigned homework, hoping this would bring clarity to some things. I asked each school to do a “diversity audit.” I asked them to go back to their schools and record how many children had been suspended over the school year or sent to detention. I asked them to also record the race of the individual as well. Logically, if we have a district that is 20% Black then only 20% of those being disciplined should be Black. Anything over a 20% representation would mean we have some work to do. I was anxious to see how the district faired.  

The meeting began and I asked each school to present their findings. When I asked the high school to report, they responded with 90%. They were suspending and disciplining the Black students 4.5 times what was expected. 90%! As I sat in the meeting wrestling with 90% in the silence, a teacher stood up. “Those numbers are due primarily to the fact that the Black students are consistently late, so they are sent to detention and after being sent to detention three times they are suspended,” the teacher responded confidently. Many nodded in support of his statement. 

He was defending the indefensible and suddenly my thoughts came back to me. “So, are you telling me that there is something about Black students that makes them susceptible to being late, much more so than the white students?” I asked.

“The Black students encourage each other to be late,” another teacher fired back.  I could not believe I was arguing with a group of teachers about objective information that was painting a very clear picture of their district. The numbers were crystal clear, yet the district chose to ignore this picture being painted.

What was going on in the district could have made a great case study for implicit bias. Implicit bias starts as a stereotype, and then our minds search for information that supports the stereotype to reconcile the stereotype in our minds. The two stereotypes that were causing this issue were the stereotypes that Black people are always late and Black children lack discipline. These stereotypes caused some teachers to be hyper vigilant towards one group when it came to noticing when they arrived at class. The Black students stood out more than the white students they walked into class with. The Black students did not have DNA that encoded them to be late more than white students. Simply, the mind likes to be right, so when it finds information to support its beliefs, that information becomes more important, more noticeable. The aligning of stereotypes with supporting information melded into fact.

When combined with the stereotype that Black students lack discipline, this ushers in an unconscious need to correct and discipline students more severely. The research of race and discipline in schools has been very clear. Children of color are disciplined more harshly than white students committing the same offense (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/research-highlights/2022/study-furthers-understanding-of-disparities-in-school-discipline), yet this district was afraid to admit they might be in line with the research.  Instead, they listened politely, pushed back when I got too close, and walked me to the door and never asked me back.

My eldest son graduated from the district, and he would agree this was one of the most difficult times of his life.  Every day there was a possibility that someone would say something offensive to him and he knew the school would not protect him. We transferred our youngest to a more racially diverse school for high school. The school celebrated their differences instead of ignoring them, and it was a great four years for him. His school was safe and he felt protected. 

The most difficult challenge in working with diversity and inclusion is the invisible monster we are fighting.  When I was young, I remember having a tough time sleeping and my mind began to wonder. I began to hear what was not there and see shadows that weren’t. My mind was playing tricks on me.  I was convinced something was in the room with me and would soon come to draw all the life out of me.  As I got older, I learned to control my thoughts before they created a reality that was not there. It was a much better way to deal with my monster – I refused to give him energy to grow.

We all have biases. They will try to paint a reality that isn’t real. Be open to the fact that others may experience life differently… and that’s okay. Be diligent, guard your mind, and don’t let it play tricks on you. 
 


two chairs against a wall, a laptop in one chair

Satellite Office

By Kevin Hofmann
Director, Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion

When Erin, the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Director of Human Resources, called and told me I got the job of Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion, I envisioned myself setting up shop in a cafeteria or public area, anxious to meet all the Sisters. I thought I would set up a post armed with my warm cup of cream and sugar (with a pinch of coffee) listening to the Sisters share where in the world their life’s commitment had taken them. I looked forward to working at a table during lunch to be available to socialize and learn. So much of this job is relationship building and I was excited about that opportunity. So much of this job is listening, sharing, and connecting. Again, I was excited about that ­– coming from the student in me whose report card and parent-teacher conferences always centered around my need to socialize. Many teachers wrote something like, “Kevin needs to spend more time studying and less time socializing.” They were right, but creating relationships was always more important to me than doing well on a history test.

During my first day, Erin explained that the building’s cafeteria was another victim of COVID-19. On my first day, my plan was changed. I love my office – it’s quiet and my window overlooks the circular driveway outside of Weber Retreat and Conference Center. It is a great space, but much removed. Over the first few weeks, I looked for a good place to interact with Sisters and Co-workers. One morning while making my coffee run to Weber Center, I found my spot. The chairs just outside the elevator and to the right of the coffee stand is where I set up shop. Each day I make sure to grab my laptop and station myself in my satellite office. I pound away on my laptop and greet everyone who passes by.

I must admit I’m struggling with names, and I feel horrible about that. Each day I am greeted with hellos personalized with my name. I am trying to learn names and eventually I will know everyone, but right now I search for name tags or badges to make note of names. The other challenge is masks. I never realized how different people look with or without a mask. My mind usually takes a mental picture of a person’s cheeks and eyes and then fills in the blank area of the face covered with a mask. To date, my fabricated and disjointed picture created in my mind has yet to be correct. The good news: I know exactly when the masks will be lifted and the protocols will ease – it’ll be the day after I recognize everyone in a mask. I will have to start over the next day when the removal of masks reveals an employee’s cheek bones, nose, and chin that are no where close to how I assumed they would look.

I ask for grace both now and when the masks are (someday) put away. Until then, stop by and introduce yourself over and over. Sit down, let’s talk and get to know each other.


Samuel Henderson

Irmandade de Boa Morte
(Sisterhood of the Good Death)

by Cheryl Liske, OP

In 2013, at the Con/Vida exhibit Bandits & Heroes, Poets & Saints, organized by Sister Barb Cervenka, OP, and Mame Jackson, I spied a small video screen playing a news reel on the "Sisterhood of the Good Death." I must have watched it through several times.

Who were these women and why had I never heard of them before?

I checked Wikipedia:

The Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death (Irmandade da Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte) is a small but renowned Afro-Catholic religious group in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Founded in the early 19th century as a (Catholic) Church-sponsored beneficent Sisterhood for female African slaves and former slaves.

What I remember from the video was that this was one of the first "sisterhoods" birthed in the New World (early 1800s) and that one of their original and most subversive missions was to pool resources to buy persons out of slavery and hence provide for them the "good death as a free person."

Their three-day celebration of Our Lady of the Good Death (August 13-15) came to have social significance as it allowed slaves to gather, maintain their religiosity in a hostile environment and shape a corporate presence for defending and valuing of individuals. It became, for all of these reasons, an unrivaled means of celebrating life.

However, in 1989 the local bishop forbade the local priest to allow the Sisterhood access to the images of the virgin used in the festival. The Sisterhood did two things. First, to maintain their Catholic religious connection, they sought priests from the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Brazilian National Catholic Church. Second, they hired a lawyer and sued the church – and won. In 1999, with legal victory in hand and with a change in bishops, the local priest welcomed the sisterhood back into the parish church where they remain to this day.

Sister Barb said this:

"… the sisterhoods were Catholic and the women in them were also believers in the African practices. They celebrated for generations in the Catholic Church (until a few clergy got uptight) and they always conclude their celebration with the Mass of the Assumption of Mary. I have many photos of the women with rosaries in their hands. I think we are the ones that keep thinking that you can’t hold two precious things in your mind and heart at one time."

 

Resources

Video

"Our Lady of the Good Death: Afro-Catholicism and the Brazilian Cultural Heritage” - Lecture by anthropologist Stephen Selka, given October 23, 2013 at the College of the Holy Cross. This lecture tells the Sisterhood story, including the 10-year struggle with the institutional Church.

Articles

Intimate Portraits of Boa Morte, Where the 'Sisterhood of the Good Death' Honors Afro-Brazilian Ancestors” by Tarisai Ngangura, September 6, 2018. Beautiful photographs, a bit of the history and the sisterhood today, still involved in justice work.

The Sisterhood of the Good Death – Black female resistance and entrepreneurship in the 19th century,” interpreted by Jess Vieira. An online slide show. 

Sisterhood of the Good Death” – July 16, 2019 post on the blog Nomadic Noni: Connecting Africa + Diaspora

Fighting Poverty, Plagued By Violence: Why 10,000 Black Women in Brazil Marched for Their Rights” by Kiratianan Freelon, posted on the website of American’s Black Holocaust Museum on November 24, 2015.


Reflection Question

Are we of a mindset that Catholic and African are mutually exclusive? Or can we hold two precious things in our minds and hearts at one time?


Prayer

Mary, your daughters of the Irmandade da Boa Morte celebrate the Feast of your Assumption as God’s affirmation of your grace and Earthly life.

Their sisterhood from the earliest days was dedicated to the liberation of the enslaved of their time.

Teach us to liberate our minds from prejudice and fear and show us the glory that is in all humanity lived in the liberation of Christ.

Amen.

 


Kevin and Mike as boys in 1975

Catholic Day Pass

By Kevin Hofmann
Director, Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion

We always just called them “the nuns.” They were two Sisters, two Sisters of Mercy, who were like family members to my best friend’s family. They were a package deal. I never saw one without the other. I had to call my best friend this week and ask him their names because I never knew their individual names. Sister Celeste and Sister Gina Mary were their names.

In 1975 my family and I moved to North Rosedale Park, a nice, beautiful, quiet, and predominantly white neighborhood in Detroit. I was self-conscious and very anxious about being the first Black child on our block. No one else looked like me and in every group, I was unique. As an eight-year-old I wanted to be more like a chameleon, tip toeing through life without being noticed.

I became very aware of my surroundings, constantly looking for a safe place to land. I returned to the neighborhood a few years ago and as I drove down the street that I barely recognized now, I could point out what was safe and what wasn’t. I remember the houses that were safe for me as a child of color, and I remember the houses and families that were not safe. I realized I spent a lot of time as a child searching for a safe harbor.

Fortunately, directly across the street from my new house, there was a safe harbor for me. My soon-to-be best friend, Mike Tenbusch (pictured with Kevin above) and his family lived across the street. I knew while in their home I was safe. I was safe from the ignorant comments, safe from the slights, and safe from the noise that often comes with my skin tone.

About once a month, the nuns would come over to Mike’s house for dinner, cards, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I quickly became part of the Tenbusch family and would look forward to the visit from the nuns. It was an honor to be included in the festivities and enjoyed quite a few hands of Crazy Eights or Rummy with them. The nuns were especially patient with me as I struggled to hold the cards in my small hands often losing a few cards under the kitchen table during every hand.

The nuns and the Tenbuschs introduced me to Catholicism. I often would spend the night over at Mike’s on Friday or Saturday. If it was a Saturday, we would stay up late, watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on TV and wake up to go to church at St. Scholastica. It was a large, ornate, church that was very impressive. Father Livi would say the Mass and I would struggle to make sense of his words though his thick Italian accent.

My father was a Lutheran minister, so I was comfortable in church. The Mass was easy to follow because so much was like the Lutheran church services I knew. Several times a year, the Tenbuschs would have a full Mass in their living room. Another close friend of the family, Father Frank Canfield, would say Mass and give communion in front of the fireplace. I enjoyed talking to Father Frank who has this calm metered way of talking. He talks like every word is important. Father Frank had an Obama-like ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. He showed me compassion and gave me positive attention.

But, there was always something uncomfortable about Mass that I did not like. I remember there was a shift in the 1980s, I think. When communion was announced there was new verbiage that came with it. Now the instructions were clear. If you were not Catholic, you were not allowed to take communion. A sacrament that signified community was now exclusive and I was not allowed to participate. As all the Tenbuschs stepped out into the center aisle to take communion, I stayed in the pew looking down. I didn’t want to get the “heathen stares” from those who were allowed to partake. I sat alone in the pew feeling like I had broken every commandment and committed five of the seven deadly sins.

It was uncomfortable because I felt singled out. Jesus himself was looking down on me from the cross in the back of the beautiful alter. I was convinced if any non-Catholic made their way towards the chalice, Jesus would elevate himself off the cross and strike them down at Father Livi’s feet. 

This was a confusing process to me. I remember thinking in my adolescent mind this was unfair. Jesus shared his last supper with Judas, but I couldn’t get a wafer and a sip of wine any longer at St. Scholastica. Judas was on the guest list before me!

It felt like occasionally I was allowed to come in to church. I was able to get the day pass, but my day pass did not include all the thrills. After a few years I stopped going with the family to St. Scholastica. The call to communion made me feel like an outsider. It told me I was not welcome.

I always thought we should always invite everyone to the table. The meal we are offering may be just what that person needs.


airplane landing with a sunset background

Space Invader

By Kevin Hofmann
Director, Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion

13C, 14C 15C, 16C, 17C. 17C was the seat on my ticket. I had requested the aisle seat because I don’t like climbing over people to use the bathroom. I was the first to arrive in my row. 17A was the window seat. 17B the middle seat is reserved for the poor soul who doesn’t like comfort. It seems like you pay to sit at the window. I like the freedom and space of the aisle seat but the payment for the less restrictive seat is that you may have to sacrifice a shoulder, or knee, or foot. The aisle seat is where you are constantly assaulted by passengers walking down the aisle. You must be on the look out for free swinging arms, hips, elbows, or a bag thrown over the shoulder. The most dangerous is a bag carried by a passenger who is paying more attention to seat numbers than the devastation they are causing by clobbering every aisle passenger as they descend the aisle. In between the violence of passengers boarding, I watch each person walking towards me as I silently pray asking God to show mercy and not put anyone next to me. The young woman with the three-year-old is approaching and my prayer becomes more fervent. They pass me by. “Thank you, Jesus,” I whisper.

People come and go, and I continue to thank the Lord. Then a young man with brown skin, a long beard, wearing a Kufi on his head approaches me. He smiles at me with his eyes and the tops of his cheeks. His mouth is covered by a black N-95 mask. He quietly asks, “Is this 17B?” He had purchased the dreaded middle seat. The tight space makes breathing a conscious act. 

My seat mate secures his carry-on above me, and I point my knees towards the aisle so he can sneak by me to get to his middle seat. The only talking we do is with the tops of our cheeks and eyes. He settles in and I go about making myself appear busy, so my new friend doesn’t try to talk to me. I direct my eyes and attention to my phone as he situates himself in his seat and fastens his seat belt.

We take off and about half an hour into our flight the arm rest between us is still empty. Instead of assuming we have a right to the arm rest we resolve to no one using it. An hour into the flight I shift my weight in the seat and we bump elbows as they pass over the empty arm rest. We both politely apologize, and my friend speaks up. 

“Please take the arm rest, my friend.” His tone is welcoming, and his eyes are soft and sincere. I thank him and my comfort level immediately gets upgraded to what feels like first class. 

I place my arm on the arm rest and expand my chest taking in a larger volume of oxygen. This simple gesture gives me permission to relax. The invitation into my new friend’s space makes me feel welcome. The invitation tells me this is a safe place. Feeling safe, I turn to him and ask if he is a Detroit Lions fan. It is a safe question because his carry-on luggage had the familiar Lion’s logo on it. We were flying out of Detroit too. 

“Yes, yes I am. You?” He asks politely.

“Yep, they have disappointed me my whole life, but I can’t let them go.” I say with a smile. We bond over the pain of team.

The conversation is easy for the rest of the trip. We talk about the Detroit Pistons and Tigers, our favorite Detroit athletes, American or Lafayette coney dogs, and we talk about how the city has changed. We also talk about Jesus. He shares with me that he and many of his Muslim friends admire Jesus. He speaks very knowledgeably about Jesus and with much respect. I ask him questions about Islam and the Quran and he asks me questions about the Bible. We understand our beliefs are different but the conversation about our beliefs is respectful and curious. He teaches me more than I teach him. His understanding of Christianity is impressive. I learn he is married with two children and lives in Dearborn. We bond over both living in Dearborn at one time in our lives.

The flight ends quicker than it began. As we collect our things and prepare to exit the plane, we say our goodbyes. We shake hand and he pulls me and gives me a welcomed hug. We break COVID protocol, but between Allah and Jesus I think we are covered. 

We walk down the exit ramp together and when we enter the airport, he goes left to catch a connecting flight and I go right to claim my bags. I take a few steps and turn around. “Hey Karem! Thanks for sharing the arm rest.”

“My pleasure, my friend. May God bless you and your family,” Karem says.

“You too,” I yell back.

I was so glad to have met Karem and I know I will probably never see him again, but I will remember him. I will remember the man who was courageous enough to invite me into his space.

Invite someone into your space this week. Welcome into your space someone who thinks or believes different than you. What you will get out of it is more valuable than an empty armrest on a crowded plane. 


close-up of pride flag

Proud

By Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion

When I turned down the long school hallway where the meeting was, I could hear the students before I knew which class they were in. Ahead of me, halfway down the 100-yard hall on the right, was an open classroom door. I could hear music and laughter and activity. The meeting was taking place after school, after most of the students went home to homework, video games, family and social media. We had this wing of the high school to ourselves. As I stepped closer, I could make out conversations that were playful, awkward at times, but familiar. Before I walked through the door I could tell this group was comfortable.

The desks that were once in nice, ordered rows were pushed to the outside of the room and a large open circle was created in the center of the room. In the circle stood 10-15 students dancing and swirling and spinning and existing and exhaling. They were dancing as if no one was watching because I think that is how they felt. In this small classroom, there were no judgmental eyes, no skeptical side glances, no one waiting to pounce. This room and this ground was sacred, and safe and calm.

In this class room, once a week, every Monday, Ms. Mackenzie held space for the LGBTQIA+ group and within seconds of arriving, I knew this meeting was more than a meeting. Over the next 60 minutes the value of this space became more and more valuable. I listened to the students share how important this space was for them. I sat next to Blue, a transgender female student who presented as a natural leader. Blue was her new name and it fit her. She was vibrant. The colors in the shirt she designed came with decibels. The blue highlights in her hair made her memorable – unique but not obnoxious.

She shared with me how she hated Mondays in the past. Typically, she said, the anxiety would begin every Sunday morning and the dread of having to return to school in less than 24 hours grew like a flesh-eating virus. Each hour would consume more and more of her.  

Then Ms. Mackenzie started the group and designated each Monday as their meeting day. Now Blue looked forward to Monday because after school for one hour she could just exist. She didn’t have to worry about the student in the next seat making fun of her or calling her by her deadname (“deadname” is the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning). For 60 minutes she could talk and be heard. Mondays gave her the fuel she needed to get through Tuesday through Friday. Kids are still very mean.

 


 

Dad laid in his casket about 30 feet from me. I stood there in my black suit wondering how this suit shrunk so much since the last funeral. My heart didn’t want to accept the reality that I had gained weight.  

I reached into my inside suit jacket pocket and pulled out the program from Todd’s funeral. That was the last time I wore the suit. I went to grade school with Todd in Detroit. He was the crazy kid with the wild hair and a good heart. I crossed the parlor to throw away Todd’s program. I felt guilty about throwing it away. I felt like I owed it to Todd to keep the program. I refolded it and put it back in my suit.

I looked up to see a young man with a determined walk headed towards me. “Are you Pastor Hofmann’s son?”  

“Yes!” I said proudly.

“Can I talk to you?” he said from behind his long beard and tan work overalls with a white badge that read “AL.”

“Sure,” I said. I was anxious to hear what he had to say.

For the next 10 minutes, Al told me what a positive force my father was on his life. It was great to hear about the impact my father made on this young man. Then Al leaned forward and whispered, “I knew your dad before my transition.” He told me he was born female, but it just never seemed to fit. He struggled with finding his true self and once he did, he was concerned how the church he grew up in would see him. He worried if he would be asked to leave.

Al shared that he set up a meeting with my Dad. They met at my dad’s office and he explained to my father that he made the decision to transition to a man. At this point, Al got teary eyed. He said he wasn’t sure how my Dad, who represented the church, would respond. Al said, without blinking, my Dad replied, “I was wondering when YOU were going to come to that decision.” It was the response Al didn’t expect but it was the response Al needed.

We all deserve a safe place. We all deserve to be seen. We all deserve to be heard.
 


fireworks against the night sky

Independence Day

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?
I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year,
the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
– Frederick Douglass, New York, July 5, 1852

On July 5, 2016, the day after the Fourth of July, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man was selling CDs outside of his local convenient store. Alton would do this on a regular basis to help provide for his family. He would never make enough to make ends meet but at least this extra income would bring the ends close enough to gaze at each other from a distance.

On July 5, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a day after our nation celebrated its birthday, the police were called to the convenient store parking lot where Alton was selling his CDs. There was also a report that he had threatened someone with a gun. The store owner would later advise the incident with the gun involved another customer, not Alton. The store owner knew Alton and had no issue with Alton selling CDs in his parking lot.

Two police officers showed up, they wrestled Alton to the ground for selling CDs. While pinning Alton to the concrete, one police officer pulled his weapon and fired a single shot into Alton’s torso. The pop of the gun wasn’t like the boom of a gun in the movies. Just a single “pop” and Alton stopped struggling. The deadly act of selling CDs ended his life. The police said they thought he was reaching for the gun he had in his pocket.

On July 6, 2016, two days after we celebrated the birth of our nation, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man was pulled over for a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. In the vehicle with Philando was his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter. Diamond broadcasted a portion of the traffic stop live on Facebook with her cell phone.

On July 6, 2016, two days after the barbecues and fireworks commemorating our nation’s birth, a police officer approached Philando’s vehicle and asked for his registration and license. As Philando was reaching for his license he advised the officer he had a firearm and a license to carry the firearm. The officer told Philando not to reach for the gun and Philando and his girlfriend told the officer he wasn’t reaching for his gun. The officer pulled his gun and shot seven rounds into the car hitting Philando five times. Philando died 20 minutes later in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter, still being live streamed on Facebook.

On July 7, 2016, three days after children ran through the streets with ice cream and sparklers celebrating the birth of a new nation, I drove to work listening to the radio and thinking about the two young black men who were killed for selling CDs and carrying a legal and licensed firearm. I thought about the image of seeing Philando slumped over in the car laboring to get air into his leaking chest. I thought about the image of Alton being pressed into the parking lot with the two officers on top of him and hearing the single gunshot. I thought about the possibility of the lives of my two black sons ending in a similar fashion. Consumed with grief, amid mourning the loss of two young black lives as if they were in my family, I reached for the radio to distract me. On the radio was Marvin Gaye singing his 1971 song, “What’s Going On.” The reality of the words slapped me across the face.

Mother, mother,
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here to stay

A few verses down, Marvin continues to sing:

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what’s going on…

These 45-year-old lyrics were so timely and so painful. Forty-five years after he cut this record, we were still dealing with the same senseless targeted violence. Those words smashed the dam in my eyes, and I wept and mourned and grieved.

I pulled up to the small mutual insurance company where I worked; the company that had about 100 employees and I was the only Black employee. I parked my Honda Civic in my usual spot, dried my eyes with my shirt sleeve, checked my face in the rearview mirror and prepared myself to walk into the office. I said a silent prayer, “Lord please don’t let anyone come at me sideways today.”

Eight hours later I returned to my car. I had survived the day. No one said anything and I was devastated. I don’t know which was worse, someone saying something offensive, or no one recognizing this tragic set of events that me and my community knew so well. We had lost two members of our family and not one person at work noticed. 

I drove home in silence afraid of the radio and what other decades-old song might come on and shatter me to pieces.


Four years after Alton and Philando took their last breath, many of us watched in horror as Officer Chauvin knelt of the neck of George Floyd. As the crowd pleaded for the officer to get off George’s neck, I will never forget the exact second the soul of this man left his body. In that second George went from pleading for his life to… nothing. 

During the trial, I scheduled a meeting with the CEO of the same small mutual insurance company where I still worked. I asked if the company was going to make a statement about the George Floyd murder. I was told the company wanted to make a statement but didn’t know what to say. So, they choose to remain silent. I left that meeting and as I got back in my car I heard Dr. King whisper, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

Six years later, after Alton and Philando took their last breath, a 18-year-old white male walked into a grocery store in Buffalo. He had researched the demographics of the area and settled on this store because it had the highest concentration of Black people. Like a hunter, he looked for the most fertile place to kill his prey. He traveled three hours to stalk, hunt, and kill. In under a minute, he would change the lives of 13 families forever, then be escorted out of the store as if his only crime was shoplifting a Snickers bar.

I still hear Marvin.

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way 
To bring some lovin’ here today

My skin is tougher now. My emotions have calluses from the constant rubbing out of Black lives over the last six years. I didn’t weep on the way to work after Buffalo. I didn’t pray when I pulled into my new parking spot at my new job with the Adrian Dominican Sisters, but I wondered if I would hear the silence of my new friends.

By 10:00 a.m. there was statement issued by leadership denouncing white supremacy and the heinous act that occurred in Buffalo. Later in the day, two Sisters from leadership stopped by my office and asked how I was doing, and we talked about what happened and those simple acts of kindness were like balm to my calloused emotions. I felt seen and understood – I no longer must mourn and grieve alone. 

Independence Day came early this year.

By Kevin Hofmann
Director, Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion


Samuel Henderson

Samuel Henderson

Samuel Henderson was born into slavery in the early days of the 19th century. His life as a Catholic probably began in Memphis shortly after the Civil War.

Nothing of Samuel’s early life is known, but after his arrival in Memphis as a freed slave he began a ministry with a small Baptist community. Down the road from this church was Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church (usually called St. Peter’s). Samuel would often go to St. Peter’s and listen to the sermons preached by the Dominican priests and then go back to his own church and preach the Gospel to his community.

Eventually, Samuel and his wife converted to Catholicism and joined St. Peter’s, a predominantly Irish parish, as a member and handyman. His work for the people of this church lasted for 30 years, endearing himself and his family to the Dominicans who ministered there and to the Irish population who worshipped there.

This period of Memphis life was one of the most difficult in the city’s history. For years in the 1870s, yellow fever spread through the city and more than 7,000 citizens died from the disease. Life in Memphis was a struggle for all who lived there.

Huge numbers of the white population, mostly wealthy and Protestant, fled Memphis until federal troops blockaded the exits from the city. Most parts of the government, including the police, collapsed. Schools became hospitals and later morgues. Most of those who remained in Memphis were the poor; many of them were former enslaved people, Jewish people, or Irish immigrants.

Samuel became the protector of the Dominicans as they responded to the needs of the sick and the dying. He escorted them through the streets of Memphis, lighting their way with his lamp. This took unusual courage since he was a Black man and a Catholic in a city known for its racism and anti-Catholic bigotry. He also went into the homes of the dying, knowing that he could easily be struck with disease. He cared for the Dominican priests, often being the one to robe them as they were prepared for burial.

Samuel lived another 30 years as a faithful member of St. Peter’s parish and died in 1907. The only known photo of Henderson is found in St. Peter’s. He is remembered today by the name that appears on his monument in the "Negro Section" of Calvary Cemetery, "St. Peter’s Sam."

 

Resources

Most of this material is taken from an article in the Black Catholic Messenger which is based on work done by Morris Butcher and published on March 9, 2022.

 

Reflection Questions

What opportunities in my life, both past and current, call me to go beyond my comfort zone and respond to the needs of others?

How have I responded in the past? 

What added strength do I need to face future calls?


Prayer

Good and gracious God,

Now and then in our lives we come in contact with some truly giving persons who reflect so clearly your graciousness and goodness. Samuel Henderson was one of these true followers of your Son.

Help us to imitate his willingness to give and not count the cost, to stand in the midst of danger and not retreat, to see in the faces of those who suffer, your reflection and grace.

Help us learn through his life what it means to be truly a follower of your Son.

We ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus.

Amen.

 


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Printable bookmark of African Americans on their Way to Sainthood (PDF)

U.S. Black Catholic History Links

Black Catholic History page by Seattle University

Timeline from the National Black Catholic Congress

Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP, discusses Black Catholics in America with Dr. Paul Lakeland for Fairfield University's "Voices of Others" video series

News report on one of the oldest Black Catholic parishes in the U.S., St. Elizabeth Catholic Church (formerly St. Monica) in Chicago, Illinois