Memory is a treasury of answers. Often I find there a nugget of truth placed in my experience in the past that helps me address the questions of the present and, if lucky, a path for the future.
Such is the case regarding two burning questions of America’s present season of reckoning: How to resolve the fact of racial injustice; and what are the responsibilities of the individual to the community?
On the first point, I recall a talk I covered for CatholicPhilly.com in December 2018 when Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory spoke at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and laid out the devastating facts of ongoing systemic racism in the United States. He presented the objective facts of economic data not as a history lesson from the century past but to describe the injustice of racism and the broader consequences of it in the heart of Americans right now.
I hadn’t forgotten that talk when I saw this summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd. It seemed to me that the protesters — led by Black Americans and later joined by white Americans and people of color from all economic and cultural backgrounds — were opposing not only racism in policing and criminal justice, but in economic and social inequality; perhaps the latter as the root cause of the former.
That root is selfishness, expressed as, “I want it all, anybody else be damned.”
A system of economic discrimination that sees the “other” — a person of color, for instance — as less possessing of human dignity than me echoes back to humanity’s first question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the Book of Genesis, that is Cain’s reply to God’s question, “Where is your brother?”
The answer applies throughout time and place to here and now. We are our brother’s keeper, and that assertion requires much of us.
Cases of the deadly COVID-19 virus are rising dramatically again this summer even after many Americans learned through the hard springtime that social distancing and wearing face masks could help reduce the spread of the contagion and save lives. Apparently our memories are short.
We didn’t learn the lesson because the commonsense measures haven’t been accepted as the responsibility by all individuals. We haven’t understood our duty to people in our own community, not to mention the vast United States. Maybe we’re just selfish.
The first step toward a healthier community, be that in a family or friend group, in a church large or small or in the political community of town, state and country, is communication. How we communicate with clear facts presented with radical transparency (not holding back an uncomfortable truth that might frighten the children) is the beginning of trust.
With trust in one another we can come to an agreement on the common good — what is best for all of us, which necessarily means sacrifice by me. With a commitment to the common good we build more than community.
We begin to realize communion. That is a higher aspiration than community, which in the current understanding is positive enough, if overused. Communion is a gift that is both given by God as a seed in the hearts of all people and a challenge to our powers of imagination and hard work.
The fruit of communion, should it be nurtured by us and blossom through grace, is the peace and mutual dignity for which we long. Without communion, exercises in “community building” are only going to get us so far. They’re like grass that browns out in the heat, while deep-rooted fruit trees tower above, putting out life-giving food in due season.
The hard work of building communion in our country must begin with transparent, honest collaboration and face-to-face conversation (via Zoom if we must). Not only among leaders but with ordinary people committed to a communion in which everyone contributes ideas and energies to the great work.
It is going to take organization, stamina and courage to build communion.
A glimpse of the kind of emergent vision based on communication can be seen in the virtual “town hall” meeting via Zoom conference last week joined by members of the predominantly Black Catholic St. Martin de Porres Parish in Philadelphia, and mostly white parishioners of St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford, Delaware County.
The conversation was well moderated by their respective pastors, a communication in which participants could see and hear one another as they considered their own experiences. It laid the groundwork for more than community building, but forging a true communion of souls equal in the eyes of God, in the law of the land and — the hardest part — in human hearts.
Perhaps your parish or your diocese could do the same.
Where is your sister and brother? Remember, she and he cry out to you from the ground. Listen, speak of doing what we know is right, then do it. Take strength from grace given through faith. Build the communion “on earth as it is in heaven” with every step, day by day, starting now.
Matthew Gambino is the director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com. A version of this column first appeared on CatholicPhilly.com.