One Cost of Silence is Personal Limitation

By Fr. David Cray, Society of Saint Edmund


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

I had a framed print of this version of Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s poetic reflection on the Nazis’ coming to power in Germany in the 1930s hanging in my office in Selma, Alabama, where I served for eight years as Programs Director of the Edmundite Southern Missions.  I have the same print prominently placed on the wall in my rectory at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Charlotte, Vermont.

Pastor Niemoeller himself was known to deliver the poem in different versions, one of which included the line, “Then they came for the Catholics, etc.”

It reminds me that we have a duty to speak up for others, but also that there is a certain degree of self-interest in cultivating positive relationships with people who are different from ourselves.

In the case of Pastor Niemoeller it included self-preservation.  He himself ended up imprisoned in concentration camps by the Nazis from 1938 to 1945.  We are all in this world to support each other or—to lift it out of the context of the American Revolution — there is the quotation from Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

But reaching out also promotes self-enrichment.  Theologically, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, “Because of its common origin the human race forms a unity, for ‘from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth,’ (Acts 17:16; cf. Tob 8:6),” and “This law of human solidarity and charity, without excluding the rich variety of persons, cultures, and peoples, assures us that all men (sic) are truly brethren (sic).” (Paragraphs 360 and 361)

Our very nature demands that we work at forming one human community.

I was born and grew up in an Irish-American family in an all-white neighborhood in what was at that time a predominantly white section of Boston, Massachusetts.  My public elementary school in Jamaica Plain was all white.  My parish, as far as I can recall, was all white too.  I graduated from Boston Latin School in 1963 in an all-male class of 258 members, only three of whom were African American.  I came to Saint Michael’s, where I was a member of two classes, taking time off between my sophomore and junior years to attend the Novitiate of the Society of Saint Edmund.  My class of 1967 graduated with 218 members, only one being Black, an African from Kenya.  My class of 1968 graduated with 236 members, two of whom were Black and African American.  The director of what we would now call campus ministry was Father Nelson Ziter, SSE, who had served and been deeply involved in the Black community of Selma, Alabama.  He would push copies of the monthly Missions newsletter under the doors of all the rooms in the dorms.  That was about the extent of my exposure to any culture other than the one I had been born into, even in an era when the Civil Rights movement and the Voting Rights movement were prominent in the daily news.  We were remarkably unaware!

However, my life as an Edmundite has led me into several different cultures away from white New England, viz. English-speaking Canada in seminary studies in Toronto; French Canada in parish and diocesan ministries in Quebec; and old England in my first parish assignment in London.

Most important and most rewarding for me was that I discovered African American culture when I was assigned to serve in small-city and rural Alabama (Selma and the surrounding counties) and in inner-city New Orleans, Louisiana.

Arriving in the Edmundite Southern Missions in Selma at the age of forty-four, I was determined to get right into that scene.  This was not hard to do, as the Black community there—as later in New Orleans—was so welcoming and supportive.  With other Edmundites I became involved in the National Black Catholic Congress, traveling to their annual conventions around the country. I took preliminary courses and then pursued a Master of Theology degree in Black Pastoral Theology in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at the historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans.  I would never have known that all that “Black” stuff existed if I hadn’t left my home and my comfort zone!

Having already visited Europe and explored the roots of European American culture, I was led by my involvement in the African American community to visit Africa in search of the roots of African American culture.  First another Edmundite, Father Michael Jacques, and I traveled with a group of mainly African Americans on a trip sponsored by the National Black Catholic Congress to Senegal, The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Benin.  Two years later Father Michael and I traveled together to Kenya and Tanzania to sample some more of the diversity of African societies.  Together with my academic experiences at Xavier, these trips expanded my exposure and opportunity for deeper connections and learning.

Living in Selma helped me to understand more deeply its fame as a political city known for its prominence in the Voting Rights movement of the 1960s.  It was not surprising to me that it was one of the majority Black cities that contributed to the recent victory for Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate special election.

Living in Selma with the Black community also led me to engagement in the political campaigns of James Perkins, Jr., who in 2000 became Selma’s first Black mayor.  During his first campaign, in 1992, on the initiative of UVM’s Professor Huck Gutman and his wife Buff Lindau, SMC’s former Director of Marketing and Communications, I brought Mr. Perkins and his wife to Burlington to meet members of the Progressive Party and learn about running a grass roots campaign.  We all stayed in Nicolle Hall at Saint Michael’s.

This is one example of how choosing not to be a bystander, but to “get down” in the community, allowed me to bear witness to positive values and even to play some part in history-making and positive changes.

Getting down in the community in Selma led to a sense of real belonging, to solidarity, and to identification.  I got involved in Black organizations — the NAACP, the board of directors of the “Black” branch of the YMCA (yes, there was one), the Selma Youth Development Center — as well as in One Selma, an interracial group of professionals seeking to promote positive social values in the city.  I was invited to join the Black Businessmen’s Council, and when I raised the possible objections that some other folks might have — that I was neither a businessman, strictly speaking, nor Black—I was told, “We don’t agree with either of those things.”

As an Edmundite and as an individual I stood and spoke with and in solidarity with the community.  While this was personally fulfilling, there were also some social costs to that.  “They” knew my name, for instance, which surprised me the first time I was called on out of the blue to express an opinion from the gallery on some matter before a City Council meeting.  And “they” knew where I lived.  As one white man put it to me, “We hate Yankees, and we hate Catholics, and we hate n-----r lovers, and you are all three.”  That recognition of my commitment to both the Catholic Church and to my Black brothers and sisters in Selma, hostile as it was, was like a badge of honor to me!  I have been told that at least one prominent white citizen expressed true satisfaction to a white member of our missions staff when she learned that after eight years I had been reassigned to New Orleans, saying, “Well, thank God for that!”

The greater costs would have been in remaining silent:

First, the cost of never having gone to Alabama in the first place.  Stick with what you know, you know?

Second, the cost of never having got involved in the causes of the community in which I was living, people who loved me.

There would have been the cost of never having seen for myself, and never having come to appreciate, the full brunt of discrimination against Black people that we white folks also sometimes felt—a little — standing with them, but of which we would have known nothing standing apart from them.

There would have been the cost of never having learned and appropriated some of Black folks’ strengths; the depth and power of their humanity and their determination to survive—with patience and good humor — their forced displacement from Africa, their cultures, and their traditional gods; their centuries of enslavement; generations of Jim Crow; modern-day racism and discrimination.

There would have been the cost of never having experienced the love and absolutely unconditional acceptance with which white folks are welcomed into the Black community, when they want to be welcomed.

There would have been the cost of never having seen the “other face of God” that I found in the Black churches and in Black theology. For me, as a Catholic Christian and as a priest, this may have been the greatest personal and professional gift. In connection with this, I have often quoted Saint Anselm’s saying that theology is “faith seeking understanding”:

Had I kept to myself, ignorant of the challenges that African Americans face daily, I may never have understood how their ancestors, disembarking from the slave ships in America, obviously had very different questions to put to the God whom they first encountered here from those that my Irish grandparents had, and how they got a very different set of answers — a different understanding — a new theology that has been passed down.

A special relationship with God is expressed in Black prayer and preaching, and in the Spirituals. I came to see in a whole new way what it means to say that God is a God of unconditional love and mercy, as well as a God of justice; that God is an Exodus God of liberation, a God of positive, prophetic speech and action for freedom. That God is an “on time” God, and that however bad things may seem at times, God will turn up with just what you need, just when you need it. And above all, that he loves you, he loves you, he loves you!

Now, wasn’t that worth leaving home for? Sometimes we are blessed by being called and sent into new experiences, as I have been. Sometimes we may have to make it happen ourselves, as I still do.

Recently, in another context, I quoted Langston Hughes’ character Aunt Hager in his novel Not Without Laughter. She says, “I’s been sorry fo’ white folks, fo’ I knows something inside must be aggravatin’ de po’ souls.”

As a white man I ask, is it that certain social weaknesses and fears — phobias — are what are aggravating us and pulling some of us white folks down — not strengths at all, but liabilities impeding us from reaching out to “the others” to achieve with them our full potential in the human family? There certainly are terrible costs to the victims of racism, but also there are costs to the victimizers, in limiting and truncating their own humanity.

Not long ago on the weekly public radio show A Way with Words a neologism was proposed as an antonym for xenophobia, homophobia, (or for negrophobia?), etc. The word is “allophilia”, “love for the other”, love for the different one, love for the stranger. This is the positive virtue that serves as the antidote for the all the vices of xenophobia, tribalism, ethnocentrism, racism, classism, etc. And it is a key to less stress and greater happiness.

“By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35), says the Lord. And by this the Lord means, “All y’all, not just some y’all.”

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