My perspective on racial inequality underwent a real transformation last summer, while working at the largest soup kitchen and day shelter in Boston.
Black Americans represent about a quarter of Boston’s population, but at St. Francis Home, they were the majority, with the remainder of those served predominantly hispanic. To be sure, I knew that poverty and race continue to be linked, and on an intellectual level, I was not entirely surprised by the people I found at the St. Francis House. But it did force me to a substantive moral conclusion. The gut-wrenching experience of going to work each day, seeing exactly how the poorest and most marginalized look, left me with no choice but to acknowledge that the United States suffers from ongoing, systemic, and severe racial injustices. No matter how much we wish our society stood on the mountaintop of racial justice, no matter how much we wish we fulfilled our creed of equality, the sad fact is that we have not.
As the events of the past few months have unfolded, this painful reality has become inescapable. From Ferguson to Staten Island to our own Boston College, all of us have been forced to confront the injustices in our midst. The struggles faced by many Americans—and even some of us at BC—cannot simply be ignored. Yet while this conclusion is shared nearly universally at BC, each of us has reacted differently. With emotions running high, misunderstandings and disagreements have naturally emerged, especially over the St. Mary’s die-in. This protest, and the administration’s response, created a sense among some that our community is divided.
In the last week, however, the University has seen signs of real hope and gestures of goodwill. These signs illustrate what I have believed all along: we are not divided. From Rev. William P Leahy, S.J., down, BC is genuinely committed to racial justice. Although we do not always succeed in living up to our commitment, we are united by a sense of responsibility and moved by a mutual desire for truth and equality.
The first sign of our unity came at Mass on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 18. In the presence of hundreds of students and over a dozen of his fellow Jesuits, Leahy acknowledged the pain felt by many students and led prayers for a more just campus and nation. Rev. Michael Davidson, S.J., gave the homily, in which he spoke poignantly of his own experience as a black man, emphasizing how difficult the past few months have been. He rallied all present to fight for justice and to follow Christ’s example of energetic, dynamic love. Leahy was visibly moved by this call to action, and thanked Davidson multiple times before the end of the Mass.
The second sign came on Wednesday, Jan. 21, when the Jesuit Institute and the Provost co-hosted a panel entitled “Race in the USA: Expectations, Hopes and Concerns in 2015.” The panelists, moderated by Fr. James Keenan, spoke with nuance and passion on the extent of current injustices. Dispensing with platitudes and triviality, they addressed the question of race through the unique and rigorous lens of their own disciplines. By doing so, they demonstrated that our University’s commitment to justice does not end in Masses and homilies—it extends to the very core of our academic mission. Davidson’s sermon on the 18th included a sentiment which I think is profoundly relevant as BC moves forward. “We are all a family here,” he said. It’s not a perfect family, and like any living family, we often disagree—sometimes we need to “let off steam.” But at the end of the day, we are defined by our unity, bound to one another inextricably and irrevocably. We can only proceed together. We can only advance in justice if we work as one.
So in the spirit of Davidson’s sermon, and in light of the gestures made by University leadership in the past week, I challenge all who have felt marginalized, all who have felt like BC does not value them or their perspective on race, to take a step of faith. Yes, at times our school’s problems can feel overwhelming—at times, the disconnect between our ideals and actions can feel hypocritical. But at its heart, our university is on the side of justice, and it needs each and every one of us to work together in patience, love, and understanding. If we can do that, we can make tremendous strides toward a more equitable world.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic