I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will,
and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.
W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black FolkDuring a recent retreat, I was asked to recall my most meaningful experience of church. After strolling through a half-dozen memories, I was surprised by the one that finally stole to the surface. It was the odd one out, like no experience of church I had known before. As I shared the story with my colleagues, it became clear that this singular church moment had planted seeds in me that continue to sprout 15 years later.
The year was 1989. In my mid-20’s, I had just moved to Denver and was feeling adrift in a strange city. I needed a place to belong. I noticed a modest-looking church in the neighborhood, but seeing the people streaming into the parking lot Sunday morning, vibrant and friendly though they appeared, I might have quickly overlooked it. This was an African American church, perhaps as far from the churches of my white, suburban, Irish Catholic upbringing as one can get. Its humble sign, with paint peeling, proclaimed: Mt. Gilead Baptist Church.
I’m not sure what compelled me. The Holy Spirit? Aching loneliness? But it never occurred to me not to go in. One summer night I walked the three blocks from my front door to the church, thinking, Who knows? Maybe they need a piano player.
Behold the Stranger
As a matter of fact, that evening I walked straight into a rehearsal for the men’s choir. There were about 30 African American men of all ages circled about a piano, where an elderly womantheir no-nonsense director, I soon discoveredheld court. As I entered the sanctuary she stopped playing, looked up from her music and waited for me to introduce myself. When I got to the part about hoping to sing and maybe play some piano for you, her countenance broke into a soft smile. Of course, you are most welcome, she said. We can always use a piano player. Amazing grace, indeed, how sweet it sounds. For the next six months I sang (and played a little piano) with the men’s choir of the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church.
Though I did not stay long, the experience at Mt. Gilead planted something deep and beautiful in my religious imagination. Years later my wife and I joined an African American Catholic (and Jesuit) parish in Denver. Our son was born soon after, and the church community has since become to us a second home, and to my little boy, a surrogate family.
When one feels oneself a total strangereven if believing, hoping otherwiseit is a remarkable thing to be welcomed like a brother. It is no small grace to approach a gathering of strangers and, as W. E. B. DuBois writes, They come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. Such graced moments, such human moments, to be sure, occur all the time. But are they not still rare between the races? Why should it seem so remarkable, so out of the ordinary, when whites and blacks share table fellowship and prayer?
A Foretaste of Heaven
In his classic work The Sabbath, the Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel highlights the inseparable connection between our communal prayer in this world and our state of preparedness for the next:
The Sabbath contains more than a morsel of eternity.... Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of him who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.
How prepared shall we be when we are seated at the heavenly banquet table? Will we recognize those sitting next to us? (One can at least expect that the seating arrangement will be no accident!) Will we know their names, stories, dreams? Will we have prayed with them? The imagination stumbles reluctantly onto one more question: After recognizing those sitting with me, will I be required to ask their forgiveness before the feast is served? Sad will be our lot if we arrive in heaven with no prior experience of the beloved community, the multiracial community (and, one might add, the multifaith community).
The questions How do we pray? and With whom do we pray? are closely related to the question For what do we hope? Churches that intentionally welcome the stranger may be said to initiate their members into the appreciation of eternal life. Such communities not only anticipate the heavenly banquet, they actualize it in the present. In my own churchabout 65 percent of African descent, 35 percent white, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americanvisitors are often dumbstruck by the sign of peace, which carries on for about 10 minutes. In those 10 minutes, one could observe that All heaven breaks loose, and it would be only half a joke.
Integrated churches, of course, are no Utopias. Like any community, they remain imperfect, on pilgrimage. Perhaps even more than racially homogeneous churches, they face unique internal challenges that must be addressed continually and in a healthy manner. At times my own parish has struggled with conflicts emerging from differences in racial history and culture. The problems that have been hardest to fix, however, appear to stem as much from personality clashes as from race. Building trust and shared ownership amid the complexity of feelings around race is not easy. But neither is it impossible. As in any community, strong leadership and frequent opportunities for honest dialogue can keep things vibrant and healthy; and the frequent reminder that what we share as Catholics, indeed, with Catholics worldwide, far outweighs our differences.
The alternativethat no serious effort is made by churches to cross the color lineseems hardly worth considering. The fact that, by and large, most American Christians and Catholics appear to accept this alternative appears to my mind as a failure of courage or, worse, of imagination.
To Rise Above the Veil
Few wrote more poignantly than DuBois about the torment and irony of race relations. In the world of ideas and books, DuBois notes, he was free to fraternize with every manner of smiling men and welcoming women. I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. The real world, however, chained him stupidly behind the veil, the veil of race separation and black nothingness. The history of the American Negro, DuBois writes, is the history of the unreconciled longing to rise above the veil.
But are there not a great many whites, too, who long to rise above the veil? Are there not white Catholics, for example, who experience a deeply felt yearning for a taste of the beloved, multiracial community, and who would rather not wait for the afterlife to find it? Are not some of these flocking into nondenominational and Protestant churches, where they see people of many races forging relationships and new ways to pray across the color line, in this life, right now?
Black theologians like James Cone (see his widely acclaimed Martin and Malcolm and America) have written remarkable race critiques of American Christianity spanning the years well before and since the civil rights movement. I am neither a sociologist nor a demographer, and I cannot diagnose the complexities of race attitudes in America. But as a teacher of high school and college students, what I sense over and again in young Christians is a world-weary disappointment with the status quo. Their questions seem to say, Doesn’t it get any better than this?
To be clear, theirs is not a Pollyanish desire for Kumbaya and interracial love-fests. Young white Christians cannot yet be accused, as their parents have been, of speaking shallowly about race reconciliation solely to assuage their own liberal white guilt. The critically thinking (and mostly white) Catholics whom I teach root their hope for unity across diversity not in political correctness nor in a sociologically proven optimism (is there such a thing?), but in a kind of theological cognitive dissonance.
In the first place, most of the young white Catholics I teach accept, at least theoretically, the value of racial diversity and the inherent dignity and equality of all races. This is a notable credit to their parents, many of whom marched in the civil rights movement. But second, against this positive horizon they accuse their parents and their parents’ churches of hypocrisy. In other words, they have known no meaningful experience of integration in their churches, outside the annual nod to Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday. Ironically, theirs is much the same critique leveled (and leveled still) against liberal white Christians by black leaders of the movement.
But it seems that today Christians on every side of the racial divideblacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americanswill have to bear responsibility to the degree that we have resigned ourselves to the contingencies of the so-called real world, rather than a hope-driven vision of God’s world. By and large, Christians have accepted that separate but equal is good enough, and therefore 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains what some call the most segregated hour in America.
Building the Beloved Community
For what do we hope? And how shall our communal life and prayer reflect that hope? I believe that significant numbers of Christians and Catholics of every race would earnestly seek reconciliation and integrated prayer if they had some idea where to beginthat is, with effective leadership. The young in particular, I believe, bear an authentic desire in search of a method. They are in desperate need of models from both the black and the white Christian communities. Their parents could still provide those models, and indeed, some are already striving to do so, building church communities where strangers of every race are made to feel most welcome.
The day is long overdue when any human being, regardless of skin color or creed, might sit down in any Christian church, and the community winces not. When that day comes, when the veil of race separation is destroyed forever, we can sing together, O Happy Day! not only in anticipation of the heavenly banquet, but in joyful celebration of its incarnation, here and now.