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.