What the Saints Did in the Face of Racism

This weekend a bunch of men (and some women) in polo shirts and khaki pants grabbed their tiki torches and showed their true colors to a world of white people who responded in stunned disbelief while people of color raised an eyebrow at how very shocked we all were. They flew swastikas and screamed hatred without even having the decency to hide behind hoods and masks and while there weren’t many there were far too many. And they were heavily armed, many of them, but unmolested by police, though it doesn’t take much research to see that other protestors aren’t accorded the same rights. And didn’t they go to middle school and read Anne Frank’s diary and don’t they know this wasn’t their land and can’t they see that nothing about what they’re doing is okay???

So we wring our hands and #Charlottesville because what do you say when people who look like you have gone absolutely crazy? Obviously you condemn it. Obviously. But these things keep happening and everybody knows racism is bad and I’m just so tired of it all.

We don’t get to be tired.

Or rather, if you’re tired, you get to push through. You get to nap and get up and keep going. You get to keep fighting this because if you’re reading this you’re likely white and so you have an obligation. We can talk some other time about the use of the word privilege, but right now I just need you to know that your privilege is a currency that you can spend on yourself or on others. If you have the ability to ignore this situation and you do, that is privilege spent on yourself. If you have the ability to ignore this situation and you choose instead to speak, to fight, to donate, to pray until your knees are bruised, that is privilege spent on the marginalized.

That’s what the Saints did.

We’re a 2,000-year-old Church with some Saints who were very much products of their time (not to mention the racist sinners who have often been the face of the Church), but we’ve also got Saints who poured their life’s blood out for the truth that racism is evil. We’ve got Saints who were prophets against slavery and Nazism, Saints who literally gave their lives to protest the filth being spewed by white supremacists in Charlottesville this weekend. So if you’re staring at your phone unsure what to do or say or retweet, maybe their witness will help.

St. Katharine Drexel gave up an enormous fortune and a brilliant future as a socialite to begin a religious order devoted to working with African-American and Native American children. She literally gave up everything–most especially the respect of her peers–in order to fight individual and institutional racism, taking a fourth vow “to be the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races.” And she suffered for it, notably through the opposition of the Klan. Once members of the KKK threatened a white pastor at one of the churches where Drexel’s Sisters worked; the Sisters prayed, a tornado hit the Klan headquarters, and the cowards in white hoods kept their distance from the warriors clad in black.

  • Make a donation to a Cristo Rey school, a system of Jesuit high schools that work with largely minority populations to educate them and prepare them for the work force.
  • If you’re a teacher, consider working at a school that serves underprivileged minority students. If you’re a student, reach out to inner city summer programs and see if you can volunteer. (Try the Missionaries of Charity.)
  • Pray for the conversion of white supremacists (or, barring that, for the necessary acts of God).

St. Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped from her Sudanese village when she was about 7 years old and sold into slavery; she was so traumatized by the events that she forgot her own name and was called “Bakhita,” which means “lucky one,” by the slavers. She was beaten bloody and ritually scarred for years until she was sold to a “kind” Italian family of slave owners. Serving as their little daughter’s lady’s maid, she accompanied the little girl to a convent school, where she heard the Gospel for the first time and determined to be baptized. When the family returned and told her to go with them to Sudan, Bakhita refused. After nearly 15 years of doing everything she was told, she threw a metaphorical fist in the air and resisted, unwilling to leave the Sisters before being baptized. Eventually, the case went to court where a judge ruled that Bakhita (who had the support of the future Pope St. Pius X) had been free from the moment she arrived in Italy, establishing a precedent that not only was the slave trade illegal in Italy but also the possession of slaves. She went on to become a Canossian sister and at the end of her life declared that if she met her captors again she would kiss their feet because without their evil acts she would never have come to know Christ.

  • Contribute to a group that provides legal aid to the underprivileged.
  • Choose to forgive people whose racism has impacted you or those you love.

St. Peter Claver gave his whole life to serve slaves, calling himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.” Born in Spain, he became a Jesuit priest and spent 40 years in Colombia, where he would meet slave ships as they arrived from Africa and plunge into the hold with food, medicine, and the Sacrament of Baptism. He said, “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips,” and in so doing earned himself the right to preach of the gentle, loving Savior common to all men. He preached to Europeans as well, but avoided the hospitality of the slave owners whenever he could, preferring to sleep in the slaves’ quarters instead. He visited hospitals and prisons, making friends for God and securing the enmity of many who profited by the ignorance of their slaves. It’s said that he baptized nearly 300,000 people in his 40 years as a priest.

  • Consider the importance of corporal works of mercy as well as spiritual works. Feed hungry people.
  • Research the ways in which black people today are still suffering from cycles of poverty and incarceration that began with slavery. We are not saying this is your fault. But learning how people have suffered and continue to suffer can make us more compassionate.
  • Educate yourself on how human trafficking happens in this country and around the world. Do something about it.

Blessed Emilian Kovch is one of dozens of Saints killed for their opposition to Nazism. Some were killed simply for being Catholic, but many lost their lives specifically for fighting the racism of the Nazi regime. Fr. Kovch was a husband, a father of 6, and an Eastern Rite Catholic priest. He preached against anti-Semitism, stared down a mob of Nazis, and baptized Jews by the thousands in defiance of Nazi orders forbidding it. He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, from which he wrote his family asking that they not seek his release as the prisoners had need of a priest. After celebrating Sacraments for a year in the camp, he died far from his family but surrounded by his children.

  • Consider marching in just protests (for example, counter-protests against guys with swastikas) and taking a much smaller risk than Bl. Emilian’s.
  • If you’re a priest or deacon, preach against racismSomehow Christians have missed the message that you can’t be a follower of Jesus and a racist–fix that.
  • Use your privilege as currency, speaking up when you don’t have to about issues of race and injustice.

Venerable Henriette Delille could have passed. Her mother called herself white when asked by the census, as did her siblings. But Henriette wanted to show other free women of color that their lives didn’t have to be dictated by the racist system, that they could be black and truly free. While Henriette’s mother wanted her to live as the concubine of a rich white man, as she herself had done and as Henriette’s sister had as well, Henriette chose Christ. She began a religious order of women of color to serve the elderly. Though many Church and state officials opposed a religious order of African-American women, her small group of educated black women eventually became the Sisters of the Holy Family.

  • Talk about issues of race, both with people who are comfortable with the topic and with those who aren’t.
  • Attend Mass at an African-American or Filipino parish or go to the Spanish or Vietnamese or Portuguese Mass at your parish and get to know people who are different from you.

Servant of God Augustus Tolton was the first African-American Catholic priest to acknowledge his African heritage publicly. (The Healy brothers were mixed race and chose to live as white men.) Born a slave in 1854, Tolton and his family escaped to Illinois where he first began to discern a call to the priesthood, despite the racism he endured at the hands of white Catholics. But while his pastor supported his vocation, he was rejected by every American seminary because of his race. For years, Tolton persevered, waiting in hope that he would one day be permitted to serve at the altar. Finally, he was accepted at a seminary in Rome and prepared to serve in the African missions as the American bishops were quite sure that the American Church wasn’t ready for black priests. But Rome saw differently, and Fr. Augustus was sent first to Quincy, IL and then to Chicago where, despite constant struggles with prejudiced clergy and laity, he served his people tirelessly, dying of exhaustion at only 43.

  • Work to be welcoming of international priests serving in your parishes, getting to know them as individuals and encouraging other parishioners not to write them off because they’re “hard to understand.”
  • Learn about the history of racism in the American Catholic Church–and the issues we still deal with today.

Servant of God Bartolomé de las Casas worked for 50 years to end the enslavement of Native American peoples, advocating to the Spanish crown that they be permitted to rule themselves. Though he had been a slave owner himself, he was struck by the Christmas Eve sermon of Antonio de Montesinos, in which the good friar condemned the leading citizens of Santo Domingo:

You are in mortal sin, and live and die therein by reason of the cruelty and tyranny that you practice on these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labors, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day? And what care do you take that they receive religious instruction and come to know their God and creator, or that they be baptized, hear mass, or observe holidays and Sundays? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? How can you lie in such profound and lethargic slumber? Be sure that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who do not have and do not want the faith of Jesus Christ.

Las Casas, already a priest at the time, said hearing Montesinos was a pivotal point in his life and it sparked him on a course that made him the first great advocate of the rights of native peoples in the New World.

  • Interact with your elected officials in meaningful ways and help them see that there is no ethical or prudential justification for pandering to racists.
  • Have the courage to speak up when people make mildly–or appallingly–racist comments.

There are others, of course, other missionaries who valued the differences of those they served (St. Francis Xavier, much?), other priests who publicly decried racism (like St. Paul), other Sisters who served minorities (St. Theodore Guerin), other Saints of color who endured racism (Kibe). But here you have a start, a witness to the fact that Christians have to take a stand against racism in word and in deed. For many of us, the most we’ll suffer is discomfort. Not concentration camps or lynchings or death threats on social media. That is a privilege. Exercise your privilege by refusing to be silent.


(Here are 50 more suggestions of how to imitate the Saints in seeking to heal our divided nation. Please feel free to recommend more Saints in the comments.)

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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9 Responses to What the Saints Did in the Face of Racism

  1. Nicole Kramer says:

    YES, YES, YES!!! Through the fog of pregnancy brain I couldn’t come up with anything more eloquent to say yesterday than “Racism, no! Hatred, no! Stop it!” Thanks, Meg!

  2. A really beautiful post, Meg. Thank you! I love your suggestions, especially befriending the international priests.

  3. Lianna says:

    Meg, thank you for this post. I am heartened to learn more about some of these saints. Will be calling upon them for intercession. St. Martin de Porres is another saint to fit this list–he was of mixed race and had much difficulty with being accepted. He served all from, slaves to nobles. It truly breaks my heart to see racism alive today, even in the Church! Catholic means universal. We are all one family in Christ, no matter where we were born or the color of our skin. It’s well past time that we acknowledge the sin of racism and fight against it.

  4. Nicole says:

    Wonderful post thank you. I was starting to think all catholics are (somehow) racist. I live in probably one of the most atheistic towns in the world and i attend the only latin mass parish there. It is unbelievable how much racism is present there. I’m a very shy person and so i usually always keep quiet but your post motivated me to speak out more. One guy at my parish told me that he thinks the syrian refugees are only motivated by economic reasons. Once i got scolded by someone in my parish when i told them that i volunteer at a local refugee help project. At the march for life i wanted to join the counter protesters after our pastor told a small group of us that the “wrong” people are having children and there was one guy who was in favor of shooting syrians once they enter european soil.
    I’m so done with catholics at the moment and it is good to hear other voices to remind me gow broad our church is. I even began to hide my non-catholic non-white friends in order to be better accepted in my parish

    A question would anybody who reads this change to a different parish?

  5. Pamela Rieth says:

    Thank you.

  6. Thanks for this post! I shared it on Facebook. Often I don’t share politically inclined posts on Facebook because it results in arguing from my friends on the right and the left (and then I just end up wanting to unfriend everyone). However, I shared this one because unlike so many other blog posts that just *complain* about what’s going on, this one offers practical suggestions for what to *do*.

    Thanks so much!

  7. Monica says:

    I am really glad to see this article, but I am also very tired of the white shaming while the “victims” burn down and destroy everything in their path. Because racism.

  8. Leo Tat says:

    Excellent mentions of the saints who devoted their lives to racial equality. The events of Charlottesville is even coming to be heard over here in the UK. I feel racism comes from ignorance and that in reality, we are just part of one big consciousness having an experience.
    Leo Tat recently posted…What Is Coconut Oil Pulling? Benefits for Teeth & How-To GuideMy Profile

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