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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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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.
In 1990 a large hailstorm hit Denver, Colorado. I was working as a homeowner adjuster for the Allstate Insurance company and trying on my adult shoes. I was less than two years removed from living on the campus of Alma College, in Alma, Michigan as a student protected and guided by real adults. Now I was in the work world living on my own and doing my best to fill the shoes that didn’t quite fit.
The day after the storm hit in Colorado I was called in to my manager’s office in Toledo, Ohio and informed that in less than 12 hours I would be flying to Colorado to help manage the damage sustained by our policy holders from the storm. I was making $19,000 a year, being flown by the company across the country and given an additional $100 a day to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for 30 days straight. If I wasn’t a king, I sure felt like prince at least.
I stopped by the bank to get money for my trip and to say goodbye to my teller and girlfriend, Shilease. Two years after this I would convince this teller to marry me. On this day I had to break the news that I would be gone for 30 days. We hadn’t been dating that long at this point, but we had grown close quickly and I already knew she had wife potential. The question was, could I get my life together enough to be considered husband material? When I told Shilease where I was going, she told me her aunt Deborah lived in Denver and told me I should give Deborah a call when I got there. Politely, I assured her I would but had no intention of contacting a stranger.
After being in Colorado for two weeks working 12 hours a day, going back to my lonely hotel room, getting something to eat, and going to bed only to do the same thing again the next day, I missed companionship. I pulled out Deborah’s number and called her. She invited me out to a Juneteenth celebration. I agreed to go even though I had no idea what Juneteenth was or what we were celebrating but it had to be better than siting in my room alone eating fast food in bed.
On our way downtown, I asked Deborah what Juneteenth was because I had never heard of it. She explained it was a celebration commemorating the end of slavery. The celebration would start with a parade in downtown Denver. At the beginning of the parade each year many Black people would walk side by side shackled to each other. As the parade progressed more and more would remove their shackles and by the end of the parade the shackles were replaced by shouting and dancing and singing and celebrating our freedom. What started out as somber, ended in an amazing celebration of who we were as a people and what we came through as a people. The tears and cheers were pain and joy, energizing and exhausting. It was life lived out loud and so beautiful.
Since its inception, Juneteenth has largely been a celebration restricted to the Black community. Some say Juneteenth is the Black community’s fourth of July, our Black Independence Day. Now that this has been made a federal holiday my hope is it will evolve into a celebration we can all take pride in and celebrate.
I wonder what it must have been like to go to bed on the June 18, 1865, in Texas as a slave and wake up on the 19th a free person. On the 19th there was a promise that the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma of slavery was no longer a threat. On the 19th the ability to dream, the opportunity to plan, and the freedom to hope were all new possibilities. Unfortunately, the future would rename slavery and limit the lives of many with new laws and restrictions under Jim Crow, but for a short time hope made the air smell different. Hope made the world’s colors seem brighter. Hope made the sweet southern tea taste sweeter.
Let’s cling to that hope in a time when it seems there is a new mass shooting every eight hours. Let’s grab on to hope like a life preserver keeping us afloat when it seems like partisanship decides the answers to questions that haven’t been asked yet. Let’s cradle hope knowing we aren’t where we should be but that could change with the dawn of a new day.
Clockwise from left: Kevin and his wife Shilease along with sons Zion (left) and Tai (right); Kevin and his siblings Lisa, Paul, Richard, and dog Trixie during Christmas 1968; Kevin and his adoptive parents, Pastor Richard and Judy Hofmann.
“The company has decided to close the Toledo office. You have the option to take the severance package and separate from the company or move to Columbus.” This was how the phone call started. A phone call I was told I should be a part of while I was enjoying summer vacation with my wife and two sons. After 10 years of working for Nationwide Insurance company as a casualty adjuster, my job was gone in two sentences. We had recently purchased a new house and just got our boys settled into a new community so moving to Columbus was not an option.
In September of 2009 I began a new journey. I had started writing my memoir in between handling auto claims that involved injuries. Over the prior two years I would write when the claims were slow or on nights and weekends. Now, without asking, I had a lot of free time to write. A lot of free time!
So, I sat and I wrote. Writing helped chase away the fear and uncertainty of being unemployed. I wrote about the unusual way I was raised. I wrote about being born a biracial child, the result of an affair between a white woman and black man. At the insistence of my white mother’s white husband, I was put up for adoption immediately. I wrote about the white family who adopted me at three months old. I wrote about being born in Detroit two weeks after the 1967 riots. I wrote about the smell of burning property still in the air when I took my first breath. I wrote about dreams deferred for a city that was so defined by race. I wrote about what it was like to grow up in a home where I was a minority, in a city where I was part of the majority. I wrote about what it was like to grow up a child of color in a country founded on building wealth on the backs of Americans whose skin matched mine.
When I set out to write the book, my audience was women like my adoptive mother. I was writing to white woman who had adopted children of color… at least that is what I thought. As I wrote more and more, the desire to simply share from my experience as a person of color became greater. The call to speak to a larger audience only got louder and louder. The focus of the book evolved, and I began speaking to white Americans sharing how I translated the world around me as a Black child, teenager, and man.
My biggest issue with race and racism in this country was that often my experience, my perspective as a person of color, was denied, dismissed, or disrespected. My writing was a way to share and simply be heard and understood. But to truly be heard and understood it would mean finding a way to be passionate but not bitter, impactful but not devastating. It meant paying close attention to how I worded things and how I set up stories to share my experience. If written in a specific way, I understood that the book could help bridge the gap between the races that pump through my veins. The challenge was to talk about race in an honest and disarming way.
Six months after the phone call dissolving my job, the book was completed, edited, and published. In March of 2010 my memoir, Growing Up Black in White, took its first breath and I exhaled. My hope was to share about my experience in a way that drew people in instead of pushing them away. My hope was to talk about race and racism in a way that made people want to lean into it instead of run from it. The challenge was to talk about race in an honest yet disarming way. For the most part, it did just that. Through the power of storytelling, a gift I inherited from my adoptive father, the Lutheran minister, I found sharing from a personal and vulnerable place created a unique opportunity to connect, find common ground, and see each other.
Then the coursework began. I began creating, speaking, and learning. I studied things like America’s racial history, the system of racism, engagement, inclusion, belonging, racial identity development, and I looked for personal experiences to drive home the lessons. I went back to insurance after the book was published. I took the position of homeowner adjuster with a smaller mutual company founded by Mennonites in Pennsylvania with an office near Toledo. In between hail losses and water backup claims, I studied online taking Diversity and Inclusion courses through accredited universities including Cornell University and Case Western Reserve. I partnered with my best friend whom I have known for 45 years, and we created a business to train school administrators and staff (K-12 and universities) and organizations in the area of Diversity and Belonging. The racial tension in the country was on the rise again and business was picking up. We worked for two years together working with communities creating space for many who felt unheard then my phone rang again. It was my business partner and best friend. He shared with me that he had been offered a job as CEO of International Samaritans out of Ann Arbor. The job was a perfect fit for him working with communities in Africa and Jamaica who live in extreme poverty. I was excited for him because I understood when your purpose calls you must answer. I went back to doing my life’s work solo and continued to create change.
Then my phone rang again. I’m surprised I was still answering my phone at this point. This time it was the CEO of the insurance company where I worked. He had been made aware of my side job and thought it was important that we talk. I assumed I was going to be told to let the second job go or be fired. Instead, he wanted to know if I would work with the insurance company in the area of Diversity and Inclusion. The George Floyd murder forced the CEO to see a lot of what he was blind to in the past. He now felt called to address racism and inequality and wanted me to lead the charge. I accepted and my role with the company shifted. Now I handled claims in between my special assignment. The plan was that eventually I would move to doing the diversity work full-time and transition out of handling claims. That was the plan, until I saw the post for a position with Adrian Dominican Sisters. I applied and began researching who the Adrian Dominican Sisters (ADS) were and I was floored. There were so many personal connections to ADS and Adrian. One of my brothers graduated from Adrian College. I was recruited by Siena Heights University in high school to run track for them. I worked with Siena Heights University a few years ago with their First Year Experience Program. My father’s first church was in Blissfield where my sister was born. My mother is an Associate with The Sisters of Saint Francis in Tiffin, Ohio. I had worked with the sisters in Tiffin during the pandemic. I created an 8-hour training course for them that we did on Zoom over two days. I greatly enjoyed working with the sisters and was so impressed by their knowledge and desire to learn. I went to a Catholic high school in Detroit, Benedictine. My principal, Sister Jackie, was a Dominican sister. She was one of the biggest influences in my life at that time. This job was a perfect fit and when purpose calls… you answer.
I’m so happy to be here and ready to join so many of you in doing this amazing work. Thank you to all who had a hand in creating this position and bringing me here. I’m so excited to see the work we can do together.
The Healy Family story begins in 1818 when Michael Morris Healy immigrated to the United States from County Roscommon, Ireland. Mr. Healy acquired acreage in Georgia through a government land giveaway and turned his land into a very productive and successful cotton plantation. Like many of his fellow Georgia cotton plantation owners, he also bought 49 enslaved people to work his fields, and among them was Eliza Clark Smith who he took as his common-law wife. Together they raised nine children.
Neither Eliza nor the children could be freed by Michael Healy, so to enable the children to receive the kind of education a prosperous family would want, Michael found schools in the North for his children to attend. The direction of the family changed when by chance, Michael Healy met Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick on board a ship traveling from New York to Boston. The bishop told Mr. Healy of a new school that was opening: the College of Holy Cross, which initially offered elementary school education. In 1844, James, 14, Hugh, 12, Patrick, 10, and Sherwood, 8, went to Massachusetts where they were baptized by the Jesuits of Holy Cross and began their studies. Young Michael Healy followed his brothers to Holy Cross in 1849.
James, Sherwood, and Patrick would become priests and all three of the daughters entered religious life in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The oldest daughter, Martha, would leave the convent and marry a prosperous Irishman in Boston. James became the second Bishop of Portland, Maine; Patrick, a Jesuit, was the second President of Georgetown University, and Sherwood was appointed Professor of Moral Theology and Director of Student Discipline at St. Joseph's Provincial Seminary in Troy, New York. Sherwood's career in the priesthood was cut short by his death in 1875 at the age of 39. Amanda Josephine joined the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph and would also at die at age 39. Eliza followed Martha into the Congregation of Notre Dame and went on to become a superior in the order.
What is so extraordinary is that although some people, including the bishop knew of their origins, the Healys did not widely identify as Black in their lifetimes, but achieved many “first” accomplishments.
"The Healy's [sic]: An Extraordinary Family" on the website Footnotes to Irish History in the Americas (posted April 25, 2012)
James M. O’Toole, Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920. University of Massachusetts Press (August 1, 2002)
"The Healy Family," from the website of the St. Joseph Catholic Church, Largo, Maryland
“James Augustine Healy: The First African American To Be Ordained a Roman Catholic Priest,” Virginia Commonwealth University Social Welfare History Project
"In the beginning, there were Black Catholics," U.S. Catholic article published on October 12, 2021, that details a 1993 interview with Father Cyprian Davis, OSB
"Celebrating the Contributions of Black Catholics" by Michael R. Heinlein on CERC (Catholic Education Resource Center), reprinted from Simply Catholic (February 1, 2022) Reprinted with permission from Simply Catholic.
"The Non-Racist Healy Family," by Larry Peterson on Catholic 365 (March 15, 2019)
"Passing in Boston: The Story of the Healy Family" talk by author and history professor James O'Toole
“BLACK | IRISH - The Saga of the Healy Family in America,” trailer for documentary on the Healy Family by the African American Irish Diaspora Network
“Who Was James Augustine Healy? A Black History Biography” by Shalone Cason, December 3, 2020
“The Life and Biography of Patrick Francis Healy” by the Knowledge Video Channel, March 3, 2022
1. What is of most significance to you in learning about this extraordinary family?
2. The relationship between Michael Morris Healy and Eliza Clark was not the kind of relationship we think of when considering relationships between a slave owners and enslaved women. Was Michael Morris Healy a man ahead of his times in his relationship with Eliza Clark? What are the implications of how they lived for other mixed race couples?
For the Diversity of Races and Cultures
O God, you created all people in your image.
We thank you for the astonishing variety of races and cultures in this world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us,
until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
From the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Book of Common Prayer
Lena Frances Edwards was born in Washington, D.C., on September 17, 1900. Her father, Thomas W. Edwards, was a dentist and a professor at Howard University. Her mother, Marie Coakley Edwards, was a homemaker.
Lena graduated as valedictorian from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Howard University in three years. She completed her medical training at Howard Medical School in 1924.
In 1926, Lena and her husband, Keith, also a doctor, entered medical practice in Margaret Hague Hospital in Jersey City, New Jersey. Because of her race and her gender, Lena was prevented from being given a residency in obstetrics and gynecology until 1945. When she finally decided to sit for the National Board Examinations, she had to fight to garner the necessary hospital endorsements. Obstacles to her advancement were always in front of her, and with prayer and grit, she always seemed to knock them down.
In addition to her work with patients, Lena began a career speaking on public health and natural childbirth while serving the European immigrant community. In spite of this demanding work, she raised six children who would later serve in the roles of physician, social worker, military officer, and in church ministry.
In 1954, Lena returned to Washington, D.C., and took a position at Howard University teaching obstetrics. In due time she was offered the job as a department chair, but she rejected the offer because of her strong objections to abortion.
In 1960, Lena moved to Hereford, Texas, to help start Our Lady of Guadalupe Maternity Clinic for Mexican migrant women. She served there until 1965 when a heart attack cut her career short. Inspired by the ministry of the Franciscan Friars, Lena, at the age of 60, helped found Our Lady of Guadeloupe Maternity Clinic in Hereford, Texas, a mission serving the Mexican migrant families. Not only did she provide much of the funding for the building of the clinic, she also worked there without pay until her heart attack forced her to move back to Washington. After her heart attack, she went back to Washington and resumed work at the Office of Economic Opportunity and Project Head Start.
While in Jersey City, she had focused on treating the Eastern European immigrants. Now, in the nation’s capital, she turned her attention to working with African-Americans. She became part of the Urban League, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Social Work Advisory Committee, and the Catholic International Council. She also served on boards for unwed mothers and local maternal welfare organizations. In 1970, she was forced to retire because of a weakening heart condition.
Lena was a lifelong Catholic. She became a lay Franciscan in 1947. Her son, Thomas Madison, joined the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in 1953 and was ordained as Father Martin in 1962 as the order's first African American priest.
Lena received a number of awards during her lifetime. In 1955, she was named Medical Woman of the Year by the New Jersey district of the American Medical Women's Association. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. and was awarded an honorary degree from St. Peter's College, New Jersey (1966), and the Poverello Medal as one whose life exemplifies the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi in 1967. This remarkable woman, mother, and physician died on December 3, 1986.
Smith, Deborah (1994). "Edwards, Lena Frances (1900–1986)" in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 387–388.
Article on Dr. Lena Frances Edwards for "Changing the Face of Medicine," an exhibition of the National Library of Medicine.
Video: "Spotlight: Dr. Lena Edwards" by Jersey City TV, February 7, 2022.
Ebony Magazine article, "Lady Doctor to Migrant Workers," February 1962, pages 59-68.
Why is it, do you think, that Lena Frances Edwards is relatively unknown to most Catholics?
How could you bring Lena Frances Edwards to the awareness of your church community?
We are awed by the example of Lena Frances Edwards in her pursuit of a place in our society where she could exercise her gifts of generosity and healing.
We ask for the same gifts of perseverance and care for others as we walk our way in our world today, a world so in need of the physical and spiritual healing that she practiced so earnestly.
Give us, too, the strength and courage to be witnesses of your love and mercy as we struggle with all the injustices that still exist in our world today.
We ask this in the name of your son, Jesus.
We have investigated racism in light of outstanding African Americans who were known for their deep faith and commitment to Catholicism. This month we focus and reflect on the horrors of racism regarding our indigenous brothers and sisters. We reflect on Black Elk or Heȟáka Sápa, which is his Lakota (Sioux) name. Black Elk was known as a visionary of the Oglala Lakota tribe, a traditional healer (Medicine Man) and is a candidate for canonization in the Catholic Church.
What took place in the 400 years between Christopher Columbus’ arrival in what became the United States and the birth of Black Elk was horrific. Land grabbing and forced exile by the newly arrived colonists were key to life in the New World. Greed dominated transactions. Treaties were made between the Natives and the colonists and were quickly broken or disregarded. It was commonly thought that only Christian people were fit to inhabit the New World.
Black Elk was born in what is now Wyoming. Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and part of both Dakotas were then known as Lakota Territory. Like his father, Black Elk was a warrior. He participated in both the Battle of Little Big Horn and the massacre at Wounded Knee. After Wounded Knee, his tribe was forced to live on a reservation. The Lakota became impoverished and prisoners on their own land that had been granted them by a treaty.
At age five, Black Elk had the first of two visions. It was revealed to him in his visions that he was destined to become a powerful leader. He believed that he was commanded to save his people and the planet.
Black Elk grew up participating in indigenous religion. His first wife converted to Catholicism; in 1904, shortly after his wife’s death, Black Elk was baptized and raised his children as Catholics. The story of his baptism is told that as a Lakota Medicine Man (healer), Black Elk, along with a local Jesuit missionary, were both called to the tent of a seriously ill young boy. Black Elk, using his drum and tobacco, began to sing, calling on the spirits to heal the boy. In the midst of the tribal ceremony, Father Joseph Lindbender, SJ, arrived. He was horrified of the pagan ways of this ceremony. The sick boy had been baptized. The priest did his healing ritual and invited Black Elk back to Holy Rosary Mission.
Two weeks later Black Elk was baptized Nicholas Black Elk. Nicholas Black Elk continued as a Lakota Medicine Man and as a Catholic Catechist. He was known to use both his pipe and his rosary on a regular basis while praying. He was able to integrate both the Lakota and Catholic religions into his spirituality.
In 2016, Nicolas Black Elk’s grandson, George Look Twice, petitioned a bishop to consider him for canonization.
Black Elk cannonization website
Film on Black Elk
Historia Magazine Article by Alec Marsh, 25 October 2021
Lecture by Greg Salyer, PhD (President of the Philosophical Research Society) for series “Voices of Wisdom from Native Cultures”
Lecture by historian Damian Costello “The Legacy of Nicholas Black Elk.” Costello is also author of the book Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism (Orbis Books)
Knights of Columbus Article
1. What interests you most abut the life of Nicholas Black Elk?
2. Name other noteworthy Indigenous people you are aware of.
3. If you have ever visited a Native American reservation, recall what life was like for our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
Prayer of Nicholas Black Elk
Grandfather, Great Sacred One,
you have been always,
and before you nothing has been.
There is nothing to pray to but you.
The star nations all over the universe are yours,
and yours are the grasses of the earth.
Day in and day out, you are the life of things.
You are older than all need,
older than all pain and prayer.
Grandfather, all over the world
the faces of the living ones are alike.
In tenderness they have come up
out of the ground.
Look upon your children
with children in their arms,
that they may face the winds,
and walk the good road to the day of quiet.
Teach me to walk the soft earth,
a relative to all that live.
Sweeten my heart and fill me with light,
and give me the strength to understand
and the eyes to see.
Help me, for without you I am nothing.
© Diocese of Rapid City. Used with permission.
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Black Catholic Project posts
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Printable bookmark of African Americans on their Way to Sainthood (PDF)
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