A Southern Experience

A sermon by an African American priest this past Sunday, in honor of Black History Month, brought back this memory for me:  June, 2006. 

My husband and I were doing some exploring in the deep South, landing in Jackson, heading for a trade show in New Orleans.  We ended up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on a Saturday night, and found a room for the night.  We looked up Catholic churches in the phone book, for Sunday morning services.  We found 2, with Mass times a half hour apart.  We decided to go to the earlier one, called up and got street directions.  In the morning, we headed out early, to allow for getting lost (as usual), but found the church easily– with 15  minutes to spare.  It was a small, simple wooden church: what one would expect in a part of the country where Catholics are not numerous. 

Inside it was quiet and pretty, with a table set up in the back with rosaries and missals and small statues for sale.  It was still nearly empty, so we found seats, and prayed while waiting for Mass to begin.  People filtered in slowly.  We noticed something. All of the little statues for sale were of black saints, as was much of the artwork, and the people.  In fact, we realized that we were the only white people in the building.  We were greeted cordially by the people in the pews around us, and the celebration of the Mass began.  It felt very comfortable and traditional and friendly.  We enjoyed praying with the community and left with warm feelings towards the congregation and the town.

We got a little lost heading back towards the highway to continue our journey, went around in a bit of a circle, and stumbled upon a second, larger church.  Mass was just letting out. I recognized the name as the church which had the slightly later service.  We were startled to realize that it was only perhaps a 1/4 mile from the church we had attended. 

Everybody pouring out of the doors of this church was white. 

The implication left us stunned.  There were 2 Catholic churches here, practically side by side.  One for white people, one for black people?  Catholic parishes, sanctioned by the local bishop, the archbishop, the archdiocese. Ministered to by ordained priests, who preach the love and brotherhood of Jesus to the congregation. Separately. In 2006.  As part of my church, proclaiming to be The Body of Christ, it makes me both angry and sorrowful to think of it.

I have never forgotten this experience. I am still troubled by it.  I hope I interpreted it wrongly. I know I am naive in many ways, but nothing in my growing up in Los Angeles nor living now in Oregon, prepared me for what I saw.  I expected that the Church would be at the forefront of our struggle towards justice and love for all of our neighbors.  I am ashamed that our church family silently allows this to happen, that it is tolerated and tacitly accepted by some of our own brothers and sisters. I pray that the past 6 years have brought changes in Hattiesburg, but am not all that confident that it has.

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About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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6 Responses to A Southern Experience

  1. SR says:

    Welcome to the south, Reinkat. I do not know if that is how truly it was meant to be, but believe me some of what you saw is on both sides of the fence. I cannot imagine the Church giving into that, but if they did, I can only think it had to be at the request of the people??? I really do not know. Anyways, whatever the “reason” was, it should not of been allowed to happen. Good post and God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      Thanks, SR. I know that the south–any region of the country–has its own ways. I learned in Los Angeles that racism cuts both ways. I remember the Watts Riots. I lived in racially mixed neighborhoods, went to racially mixed schools. I fear that “us vs. them” is an innate part of human nature, and that we will each of us have to deal with that in our own souls. No doubt that in Hattiesburg, it was the preference of the people. But that doesn’t make it right. As you so rightly say, it should not have been allowed to happen. The Church needs to lead us away from our weak and sinful impulses into love and brotherhood in Christ. It was this failure that disheartened me so much, although I am going on suspicions and not on definite fact.

  2. SR says:

    You are so right, the “Church does need to lead us away from our weak and sinful impulses into the love and brotherhood of Christ.” We also have to be willing to let it. I can almost promise you “that willing to let it” was not there. Racism is a horrible hate, but I can say, I raised my kids not to think that way. That is how we stop it. I allowed all “races” in my home when they were kids. They continue to do so with their kids. That is how we stop it, one at a time. Sorry your experience was so bad, but I promise you there are a lot of good things about us, also. God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      Yes, one by one, each of us doing our part. A variation on spreading the Good News and evangelizing–all part of God’s work. And deep down, I know you are absolutely right about the “willing to let it” not being there. That is the missing piece. The piece that we have control of in our own hearts.

  3. Biltrix says:

    I grew up in the South and my family still lives in Forsyth Co., Georgia, notorious for its racism, so I can relate to what you are saying, and I could share some very unedifying stories. Yet, I have also witnessed a lot of change in this regard. Things have gotten a lot better.

    However, I could compare and partially explain the situation of what appears to be segregated churches with the phenomenon of Ethnic churches in the US.

    For instance, once I was in a small town in Pennsylvania (I think it was Bethlehem but I’ve been to a lot of small towns in PA, so I can’t be too sure). At one intersection there were 4 different Catholic Churches: Slovenian, Polish, French, and German. Okay, the languages were different, but when the Churches were built, Mass was still celebrated in Latin.

    Demographics have changed and population has shifted, so they only use 2 of those churches. One is for English speakers, the other for Hispanics.

    Maybe my analogy is not completely accurate — I’m not denying the reality of racism, because I’ve witnessed it. However, most people are familiar with the fact that Mass times and even some parishes cater more and more to different ethnic groups, partially for the following reason.

    Bishops and pastors realize that, in order to keep the faithful from turning to evangelical or other protestant churches, they need to accomodate to the needs and sensitivities of the different ethnic communities. Our world is imperfect in this regard and the Church in its desire “that they all be one” sometimes has to find ways to relate to the real or perceived diversity that exists within its flock.

    As I mentioned, I’ve seen positive change, so I believe we can hope for more of it. Let us pray “that they all be one.”

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you so very much for this comment, for taking time to explain this so clearly and sensibly. I feel so much better about this troublesome experience, as I had been unable to see it in anything but a profoundly negative light. It makes sense and puts it on a continuum towards a better world–a progress towards the Kingdom on earth.

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