Saved by Grace: Striving for a more racially just and equal church
My great-grandfather and I both have lived lives closely intertwined with religious orders. I have freely given my life to service through the Sisters of Mercy. My great-grandfather, on the other hand, had no choice regarding his service. He worked as a slave, owned by the Society of Jesus.
My great-grandfather served as a driver for the Jesuits at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He would transport them to the convent of the Visitation Sisters, where they would celebrate Mass. Often I am asked how I can remain a Roman Catholic when the church I now serve in had ownership of a member of my family. Although this part of our Catholic history might make some people turn away from the church, this knowledge makes me more determined to stay and to work for greater equality for people in the church and the world today. Change in the church most often comes from within. Standing up to injustice can be difficult, but if I leave the church out of fear or anger, I’m not helping anyone.
Over the years my faith has brought me such great joy, and my belief in God’s goodness has helped me, especially at times when my fellow Christians have let me down. I grew up in West Philadelphia, but from third grade through eighth grade I attended a mostly white school. I often felt welcomed, but there were difficult moments. Once, in third or fourth grade, I was kneeling at the altar rail to receive Communion alongside my classmates. All the girls were lined up together. We were all about the same height and size, but I was the only black student. When it came time for me to receive the Eucharist, the priest skipped me. Now, I don’t know what was in the priest’s mind that day, but I remember thinking, This is the sacrament that is the basis of our religion and our faith, and I’m being denied it. Yet experiences like this motivated me to try to be a force for change.
In the early 1960s, I was sent to teach in a grade school in Levittown, Pa. The school had several thousand students, all of them white. Shortly before I started teaching there, a black family moved into a nearby parish, and a cross was burned in their yard. They moved out of the city. Soon after that, I moved in. I have always tried to embrace other cultures, but other cultures are not always willing to embrace who I am.
Despite the challenges, I was happy to find that I was good at teaching and I loved children. Being a teacher allowed me to help empower people, and to teach people to empower themselves. I feel honored to be able to help people realize the inner gifts that they possess. Everyone has something to offer.
As a black Catholic and as a woman religious, I have often experienced being either “the first” or “the only” in any given situation. So it was especially powerful when I had the opportunity in 1968 to travel to Pittsburgh with the one other black sister in my community at the time. Together we attended the first National Black Sisters’ Conference. The sense of community I discovered at that conference helped to change the way I looked at the world. I had not realized the extent to which many of the systems in our society, and even in our church, perpetuated racism. I had been sent to college, but I learned that other black sisters had not. I learned that instead of being educated, they were given jobs at the switchboards in their communities. These conversations gave me courage and helped me to realize that I had received some benefits and opportunities that not everyone received.
When I came back from the conference, there was a Black Power rally at a nearby church in North Philadelphia. My cousin took me to that, and even though a part of me was scared to go, I found courage and strength from having just spent time among such faithful, black sisters.
My approach to life always has been, just do what needs to be done—and that means taking some risks. In 1969 I became the first African-American sister to teach in the diocesan secondary school system in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. I had to ask myself: What am I going to do to assist the students in a multicultural environment as they face fear, suspicion, cultural ignorance and sometimes even violence? What am I going to do to increase their self-esteem and develop pride in their identities? I counseled students through controversies, and I helped to develop a Black Studies Club, which was not only an opportunity for students to learn about their culture and history, but a tool for sharing their identity.
In 1981 I became the first African-American sister to work as a campus minister at a state university in the Bible Belt. I worked full time at Virginia State University, but I also was involved in ministry at four other predominately black universities. Some people felt that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s answered all the dilemmas of race, but the legislation could not automatically remove fear and hatred from the hearts of individuals.
One evening I was asked to do a presentation about racism for a nearby parish. It meant I had to go to a part of town that was unfamiliar to me. I just knew the Ku Klux Klan was active in the area, and there had been protests and attacks. I do not seek out dangerous situations, but if I know there is a larger good that could come from my involvement, I will take that risk. Knowing that I would have to drive back home after dark, I told my friends that if I did not call them by midnight they should contact the authorities. I just knew I needed to be present at that parish to give witness at that time. Sometimes we just have to overcome fear and fulfill our convictions. Thank God, I made it home safely.
In 1990 I once again had the opportunity to live out my faith in a new way. A predominantly black parish in an inner-city neighborhood of Richmond lost its resident priest. I had attended this parish for years, and the bishop asked me if I would become pastoral coordinator for the parish. After a month of prayer, dialogue and advice, I accepted the leadership position.
I had a double challenge in this situation: I was a woman in the Catholic Church, and I was a black woman leader in the South. The dynamic was interesting, because many of the lay men would do anything I asked, but the women would have more questions or create conflict around my decisions. Prior to my leadership, the parish always had been led by a priest. When I took on the role of pastoral associate, there were times when I would be in meetings and if a white male said something, it would be held as gospel truth, but if a black woman raised the same point, it would be seen as suspect. Sometimes I felt I was being encouraged and supported and seen as a leader, but at other times people would leave a conversation with me and then go and try to find someone else to get the “right” answer.
Through all these challenges, I have tried to let people know that the Catholic Church is for everyone. I have hope in the future, because in my 75 years of life, I have seen how far we have progressed. I try to be patient. I try to put life in perspective. I know that our church and our world are not as they once were and they are not yet where I want them to be. But my hope is things will continue to get better. And I will always fight for that as long as I have energy. I will continue to live with the fulfillment of my convictions, and I will continue to move forward with the faith that God will help me to do what needs to be done.
Cora Marie Billings, R.S.M., is a member of the Anti-racism Transformation Team for the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.
Jesuits and Slaveholding
By Thomas Murphy
Cora Marie Billings writes that her great-grandfather “worked as a slave, owned by the Society of Jesus.” How did this come about?
The Catholics of colonial Maryland became slaveholders as a means of asserting that even though they were shunned by the Protestant majority, they held the same political rights as any other English subjects. The English of the 17th and 18th centuries regarded the right to hold property, whether land or chattel, as a fundamental civil liberty. Neither Catholic laypeople nor members of the clergy questioned this conviction. Indeed, the English Protestant conviction that the profession of the Catholic faith meant forfeiture of all political rights prompted Catholic colonists to assert these rights ever more firmly. Lay benefactors saw gifts of slaves to the Jesuits as supportive of the church’s freedom. Similarly, during the early republic, Catholics celebrated the new Constitution for its guarantee of religious liberty while simply accepting its guarantee of slaveholding.
Internal church politics mattered too. When the Jesuit order was suppressed in 1773, the plantation system of the order in Maryland was seen as a protection for their identity and solidarity. The universal church taught that slavery enjoyed the sanction of Scripture and natural law. In an un-ecumenical era, the Protestant roots of abolitionism repelled many Catholics. Likewise, the other major source of abolitionism, the Enlightenment, was suspect to church authorities after the aggressive secularism of the French Revolution.
A combination of financial crisis and fear of Nativism led the Maryland Jesuits away from slaveholding; attempts to keep Catholic academies like Georgetown free of tuition failed because of continued mismanagement of the plantations. The poverty of the slaves and their continued harsh treatment were exploited by anti-Catholic critics. Lacking the conviction that abolition was an alternative, the Jesuits’ solution to these problems was the mass sale of the slaves to a planter in Louisiana in 1838.
Absolute Catholic condemnation of slaveholding emerged much later. This is a legacy that the Jesuits of the United States and the church as a whole still struggle to assimilate.
Thomas Murphy, S.J., an associate professor of history at Seattle University, is author of Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1717-1838 (Routledge, 2001).