Black History Event Calls For Mutual Respect
Published: February 24, 2005
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory gives a talk Feb. 11 entitled “Seeking Beyond Borders,” which covered the issues of race and cultural diversity, both in the church and society. (Photo by Michael Alexander)
ATLANTA—In an event that celebrated Black History Month, people from every race and nationality gathered at Sacred Heart Church to hear Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory give a message of empowerment and acceptance.
The Mass, held Feb. 11, was originally a parish event, but became an archdiocesan function when the invited guest was named archbishop of Atlanta.
“This evening was planned over a year ago. The gracious invitation for me to speak tonight was extended to me while I was still bishop of Belleville (Ill.), so I was able to save you plane fare,” Archbishop Gregory said with a laugh.
Music for the Mass was provided by the Archbishop Lyke Memorial Mass Choir, and nine priests concelebrated the Mass, including honored guest, Father George Clements, founder of One Church One Child and other similar programs, who spoke at the event last year.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory spoke of the significance of Black History Month.
“The lesson of studying our history–Black History–is that we find much of our meaning–our personal meaning–in the degree to which we come to understand our place, not only in the joy, but also in the suffering,” he said. “And we have a duty to understand this–to understand that we will continue to be a beacon–and that our light will shine not only when we achieve justice, but also when it is taken away from us–some of us, or all of us—because then the times become critical–then our witness becomes critical–and then is when our Faith becomes most important.”
But it was his talk following the Mass, the one he prepared before he took the reins as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which spoke to the hearts of many congregants.
Standing behind a simple music stand in the middle of the sanctuary, Archbishop Gregory used his gift for words and expression to promote a message of racial acceptance for all people.
Though America is a country that holds an ideal of racial and economic tolerance, the country as a whole has a long way to go in truly celebrating the merit of its cultural diversity, the archbishop said. Race is an awkward subject, the archbishop admitted, but one that affects nearly every facet of American life.
“We are a nation comprised of people from every human racial group. Lamentably, we find that ours is not yet a story of unity and mutual respect as frequently as it is a cacophony of interests and claims, of accusation and stereotype, of bigoted declaration and hostile retort. We have a long way to go before we truly reflect the ‘E pluribus unum’ that our currency, which remains the envy of the world, proudly proclaims,” Archbishop Gregory said.
However, ours is a country of immigrants, he reminded the congregation.
“Whether our ancestral homeland was on the great African continent or one of the many nations of Europe or the myriad Asian communities, or one of the nations of Latin or South America—except for the Native Americans—all are hyphenated Americans now,” he said “Racial and ethnic reverence and respect are not simply a gracious hope; they are the only means that this nation will ever possibly achieve its own political ideals.”
Though tolerance is often preached, tolerance alone is not enough, Archbishop Gregory said.
“Tolerance of others does not seek to build a society. We must strive for more than simply a laissez faire way of surviving,” he said. “Our national future is dependent upon the establishment and fostering of a human respect for diversity—because that is the reality and the way that we are! And our cosmopolitan community is no different—our diversity is both a blessing and a challenge.”
As a newcomer to Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory knows that he can either be part of the problem or part of the solution, he said. And the only way to go forward is to let go of the past and learn from it.
“Yet, too many people choose to limit their tomorrows because they choose not to release their yesterdays. The issue of race will never be reconciled as long as people believe that yesterday has already completely determined both today and tomorrow,” he said. “And that fact is equally challenging for all Americans.”
“History can be an even-handed commentator,” he continued. “There are as many helpful insights in our history as there are harmful obstacles. We ought to approach history with enough humility to admit that no one of us can grasp it all.”
The first step of valuing cultural diversity, the archbishop said, is to give due reverence to each other’s history, and to study that history with an open mind.
“I strongly endorse cross-cultural educational opportunities,” he said. “They allow young people to look into the vast storehouse of history and discover that every group of people has its heroes and heroines, has its triumphs and tragedies, and has its scandals and beauty. Cultural history will give every group something in which to take pride as well as things that need to be healed.”
Racism can only survive if there is ignorance, the archbishop said, and that is why cross-cultural education is essential.
“No group of people can claim an exemption from this process of coming to appreciate and to value and to learn about other cultures,” he said. “African-Americans must learn about the traditions of Hispanic and Asian and Native American peoples. We African-Americans must also re-learn much about the European cultures that are the personal treasures of so many of our fellow citizens.”
We must learn to accept our differences and learn from them, he said.
“There are things about which peoples of different races will differ—is that so surprising? We all have different human experiences,” he said. “And if we are humble enough to admit that my personal experience is not the sum of human wisdom, then we might also be willing to listen to another’s experience realizing that it, too, is limited in its insight.”
The archbishop spoke from a personal level in conclusion.
“In fact, the more I learn about the richness of other cultures, the better my own appreciation (is) for my personal gifts, talents, heritage and culture,” he said. “Those things that are most valuable about a culture are not lost when placed on the delicate balance of mutual respect and admiration for the treasures of other peoples. So may it come about in our tomorrow that our unity becomes a new creation from the treasures of our yesterdays.”
Following the Mass, the congregation gathered in the parish hall for a reception where Archbishop Gregory tirelessly greeted parishioners.
Sister Nora Ryan, OP, said she is “very pleased with our archbishop” and came to the event to gather with others from her parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Atlanta.
“I think (Archbishop Gregory) is going to be a very healing factor when it comes to races coming together, which is the inevitable way to peace,” she said.
Father Roberto Orellano, parochial vicar at St. Pius X Church in Conyers and a native of El Salvador, said that the Mass was “very diverse, very cultural.”
“There were many colors there, many races, and it is always good to have the opportunity to come together to celebrate the diversity of the church,” he said.
Helen Smith, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, said that she came to the Mass to hear the archbishop speak and that it was interesting to “hear his perspective.” Smith sends her 8-year-old son to a “racially diverse” public school and hopes that it will affect his life as an adult.
“I think racism is something that is taught,” she said. “In the atmosphere that he is in, it’s expected that everyone is unique. Hopefully by the time he is an adult, he will still be open-minded.”
Father Edward Branch, chaplain at the Atlanta University Center, was especially excited by the archbishop’s talk.
“I think it was the first time that the issue of race and class has been dealt with by the hierarchy of this archdiocese,” he said.
Not only was the archbishop’s topic and call to action “right on time,” Father Branch said, but it was something to which all could relate.
“Most people, and I know I’m sometimes guilty of this, when they give talks for Black History Month, they are talking to black people, or what they perceive as a black audience and some eavesdroppers,” he said. “But (Archbishop Gregory) really universalized the conversation, just as Martin Luther King Jr. would have done. It’s everyone’s problem, everyone’s investment, everyone’s solution.”