What do you imagine when you hear racial segregation? I think many of us imagine the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe we think about a time when housing segregation was legal. But more than an ugly reality of a bygone era, we know that de-facto segregation is the lived experience for most Americans, especially white Americans.
For white Christians, one of the results of our contemporary segregation is that we have significantly limited the saints who went before us, whose lives are worthy of imitation. There are rosters of names and collections of testimonies we have never heard. While some of us argue over whether it’s appropriate to esteem giants of the faith who also enslaved people, there exists outside our view many Christian women and men whose faithfulness could shape our own discipleship.
I’ve written before about people like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Fred Shuttlesworth and how I’ve come to see the deep connections we share- despite my race; because of our faith. This has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts of the work and ministry of racial justice and reconciliation. It is an amazing thing to find that I belong to a company of saints whose lives, however imperfectly expressed, compel me more fully into the kingdom of God.
But are there any white role models for those of us on this pilgrimage? I think the answer matters for at least two reasons. For one, despite what I said above, in a racialized society, representation matters. In a similar way to people of color who look for their representatives in media, the arts, government, etc., white people are right to search for historical figures who share our race while also resisting its de-forming power. Second, any time we find one of those people we are made aware that the racism and racial terror of previous generations was not inevitable. The immorality was known if widely ignored.
Identifying a few white saints who lived counter to white supremacy in their day can inspire us to do the same in ours. Problem is, they can be hard to find.
I’m coming to the end of the new Dorothy Day biography by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. I first encountered Day in graduate school when The Long Loneliness was assigned reading. I reread that autobiography again last summer along with the newly published memoir by Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. I mention these books to say that, until this most recent biography, I’d never noticed Day’s emphasis on racial equality. Yet it’s a theme that appears again and again throughout her life.
Her biographers tell us of her outrage at Emmet Till’s murder; she made sure her paper publicized it. She traveled south from the Catholic Worker’s headquarters in New York City to stay at the Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia. Led by Clarence Jordan, the farm was an intentionally interracial community located in the Jim Crow south. “During Easter week, Dorothy took a turn as one of the night sentries of the farm… A car sped by in the middle of the night and a shotgun was fired, hitting the vehicle but not [Dorothy].”
The Catholic Worker covered incidents of racial violence around the country as well as pointing out the fact that “most Catholic parishes were making no effort whatsoever to integrate their congregations.” Shining a discomforting spotlight on her own church’s racism was a hallmark of her work. In one incident, one of Day’s writers in Detroit confronted a group of Catholics who were protesting the racial integration of a housing project. The faithful “became enraged, almost to the point of violence, when she informed them that their church did not support segregation. They has certainly never heard their own priests utter a word about integration, nor did they think the Church as they knew it could have any business telling them they had to accept black people as equals.”
There’s more, but these give a sense of Day’s long-term commitment to racial justice. As a Christian. A white Christian. If she could see the inequity and violence of her own day, so could have many others.
I’m adding Dorothy Day to my wall of saints. She’s a reminder of faithful discipleship no matter the cost. No matter the loneliness. But she’s also a warning: The apathy about racial justice that is endemic to white Christianity has never been about a lack of knowledge. Not really. And so, if we’re to follow Saint Dorothy’s example in our own day, our commitment must be as deep and counter to this racist culture as was hers. It’s not a lack of knowledge we’re up against but something more wicked, more… spiritual.
Thank God for the saints who point the way forward.
I’m happy to announce a second round of video conversations with friends from around the country.
Lenore Three Stars and Randy Woodley are deep thinkers and wise leaders and I can’t wait to hear what they’ve been noticing during these tumultuous days. Register here.