Each year, Jesuits are expected to complete an eight-day retreat. This year, I completed a retreat offered by the Jesuit Anti-Racism Sodality (JARS) entitled “The God of Us All: Praying with Black Spirituality.” This retreat offered the participants “an opportunity to spend time in song, prayer, and community to experience the transformative nature of the Spirit moving through two deep traditions: Black Spirituality and Ignatian Spirituality.” These eight-days were a profoundly consoling time for me – I would say one of the most powerful eight day retreats I have ever completed.
Prayer Resources that Illustrate The Black Experience
Each day, we were given prayer resources that illustrated the Black experience. These resources included biographical material for seven witnesses, Toni Morrison, Sr. Thea Bowman, Mamie Till-Mobley & Emmett Till, James Baldwin, Fr. Augustus Tolton, Sr Mary Antona Ebo, F.S.M. and Bryan Stevenson. These witnesses are not in the order we encountered them on the retreat and I list Bryan Stevenson last because it was his witness that has stayed with me over the last month. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, social justice activist, law professor, and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He is the author of several books including “Just Mercy.” The specific witness that moved me particularly and provided my “take home” grace for the retreat was a sermon that Mr. Stevenson delivered at the Washington National Cathedral on the first Sunday in Lent (February 14, 2016). The scripture passages that for this sermon were Micah 6:8 and 2 Cor 12. In this sermon, Mr. Stevenson outlines four things needed to do justice:
1. Get proximate to places of inequality
2. Change Narratives
3. Be Hopeful
4. Commit to doing uncomfortable things
Mr. Stevenson suggests that God calls us to get proximate to places of injustice or places that we have been taught to fear. Our proximity to these places has the potential to change us as we encounter the reality of those places. In my Jesuit formation I have been called to spend various amounts of time being proximate to the poor and to injustice – several months on the a poor neighborhood (now gentrified) in Boston and the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota as a novice; three years in the Bronx in my First Studies; the Anacostia section of Washigngton in my hospital training. Each of these encounters brought me face-to-face with my biases – the biases that were the root of my fear – and the reality of the good and faith-filled people who lived in those places that I would otherwise avoid. I notice that in each of these situations, I was assigned to those places – I did not choose to get proximate on my own. Mr. Stevenson’s challenge to me today is to find the places where God is calling me to get proximate to injustice.
Change the narrative
We can find power and witness when we get proximate to places of injustice, fear, neglect, or abuse and this power and witness allows us to move to the second thing: changing the narrative. My time on the reservation, in the Bronx, and with the poor in DC changed the narrative of fear and insecurity that I had about these places. While there might be much that was challenging and dangerous there, these were also places of love and community. The narratives that began to change for me on the retreat were narratives that I should feel guilt or shame for past beliefs – guilt and shame leave little space or energy for change. Rather, I discovered compassion for myself and others. The second narrative that changed was the narrative that suggested I had to “fix it.” Discovering compassion allowed me to find a proximate place to injustice and violence that allowed other narratives to be spoken – the narratives of those witnesses each day and the experiences of my fellow retreatants.
In his sermon, Stevenson says, “Hope is what will get you to stand up when everyone else tells you to sit down; Hope will get you to speak when others tell you to be quiet.” When I told others I was going on an anti-racism retreat, I received many baffled looks; some expressions of fear. I know this – that having spent eight days listening to witnesses of the reality of racism in our world today left me hopeful. I feel hopeful that a long-look at the truth and a willingness to be changed will lead to change.
Commit to doing things that are uncomfortable
While I feel this hope, the retreat included many uncomfortable moments. These moments of discomfort included witnessing depictions of violence during slavery; the pictures of Emmitt Till and others following their lynchings; the treatment of other faith-filled people as they responded to God’s call but were treated as something less than human, like Fr. Augustus Tolton and Sister Mary Antona Ebo. The challenge that remains for me is where I am being called to be uncomfortable in Portland Maine – where are the places I am called to get proximate? To change narratives? To bring a hope filled presence for change?
I welcome others to join me in reflecting on these four things and the questions they bring up in you. Feel free to contact me at Brian.Conley@portlanddiocese.org or by calling the parish offices (207) 797-7026.
Fr. Brian Conley, S.J.