How diversity in the classroom makes us better Catholics

Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash

I became a theologian because I relished the epiphanies I experienced studying the Catholic tradition: the “aha!” sensations when a gift from that tradition would rock my theology nerd world. A big part of teaching at two Catholic institutions over the past 15 years has been the joy of creating epiphany experiences for my students.

In the last six years working at La Salle University in Philadelphia, however, I have also found myself to be a student again, one on the receiving end of epiphanic experiences. La Salle has an applicant pool that looks dramatically different from when I was applying to colleges in the early 1990s. Today, it is the rule—not the exception—that there are at least as many students of color in my classrooms as white students. In diverse classrooms, epiphanies do not necessarily come from the Catholic tradition itself but from the people trying to be together while engaging it.

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There was Nasir, a black student who offered the gift of re-centering a course’s authoritative texts away from readings and toward students’ lived experiences. “When it comes to racism,” he said, “I just wish people would believe me.” And so I try to educate around the stories of the people in the room and not just of those in the tradition.

In diverse classrooms, epiphanies do not necessarily come from the Catholic tradition itself but from the people trying to be together while engaging it.

During a community organizing course, Miguel, a Latino student. requested that we make time and space for practices of self-care. Many of the students were not just examining social problems like cash bail or unequal public school funding but rather trying to live—study, work, take care of siblings—in the midst of them. Now I make time for the students to write haikus or practice mindfulness breathing exercises or name and celebrate our wins, no matter how small.

Then there are the epiphanies that disrupt us when the worlds within Generation Z collide. Exchanges among young people reveal chasms of estrangement. White student teachers describe deplorable conditions in the public schools where they are doing their field work, only to discover that a fellow classmate graduated from that school. A white guest speaker from a radical Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia spends five minutes describing the neighborhood—in the presence of a student who tells him she lives there.

Diverse classrooms reveal the truth that the Catholic tradition has often been used in a city like Philadelphia to keep us separate.

In these moments, diverse classrooms reveal the truth that the Catholic tradition has often been used in a city like Philadelphia to keep us separate. We have become strangers to each other, whether through generations of church-assisted segregation in housing and schools and universities or through a mindset that approaches disadvantaged people primarily as people in need.

I also constantly need to remind myself that expecting students of color to teach me and their white peers about the injustices of a racialized society burdens them with yet another responsibility. Students of color deserve more than that. They deserve to see more people who look like them doing the teaching and agitating with them for structural changes that will make straight the crooked paths of higher education.

My epiphanies have taught me that white students also deserve more. They deserve more white educators willing to push them out of their comfort zones, to help them recognize the false boundaries and constructs they have inherited from several generations of racially segregated housing and education.

Last month, Maria, a Latina alumna, came back to campus. In talking about how to prepare for life after La Salle, she quoted a mujerista theologian who had given me one of my first epiphanies as a student. But Maria used her in an entirely new way. I encountered that theologian and her truth, myself and my vocation, and Maria’s wisdom. The next day, I took a breath to reset and headed back into the classroom.

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JR Cosgrove
6 months 2 weeks ago

This is hardly an eye opener. I rarely go to Mass where there are not several in the congregation that are Asian, Black or Hispanic. Nothing new. Jesus came for everyone from every culture. The question is why did He come?

But that is not what this article is about. It is about the collision of different cultures. That has nothing to do with religion. Jesus is relevant in every culture.

arthur mccaffrey
6 months 2 weeks ago

you speak of the white students as if they are somehow handicapped--yet, many of the nonwhite students would love to trade places with them. Prof O'Connell, whiteness is not a handicap, and I do wish people like you would stop writing these diversity tracts as if all whites are to blame for all of society's problems. How have I as a white man contributed to "several generations of racially segregated housing and education."? I though I was working hard just trying to get an education and get ahead in life, and I certainly resent the implicit accusation that I was doing this on someone else's back. Why do people like you think that the only way to bring some people up is to put other people down.? Much of what you write sounds like a not very well disguised form of censorship.

Rick Malloy, S.J.
6 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Cosgrove and Mr. McCaffrey. Dr. O'Connell can defend her arguments in the article, But I think you misstate what she says, misappropriate the implications of her observations, and take offense when none is given. I'm a 63 year old white guy. I know Philly. To say a black guy born in Germantown in 1955, as was I, overall had the same opportunities as I did, is factually incorrect. Just compare median family income among races in this country. Or the gender wage gap. And admit, to be a white man gives unmerited and undeserved advantages. Doesn't mean you don't work hard, or merit what you get in life. But white guys are at least born on 2nd base. You disagree? Then tell me how you feel when a cop car lights up and pulls you over at night? Do you fear for your life? Most black guys I know are afraid in that situation. Are you at least nervous? Or would you feel entitled to argue with the officer and know that the most that could happen is you would only get a ticket? Why are white men so angry and unwilling to admit how good we have it? Spend sometime in Camden, NJ, where I lived for 15 years. Your eyes, and more importantly, your head and heart may be opened to the struggles our brothers and sisters of color live everyday.

JR Cosgrove
6 months 1 week ago

Your eyes, and more importantly, your head and heart may be opened to the struggles our brothers and sisters of color live everyday

With all due respect, I think you should read more. Try Thomas Sowell, Jason Riley, Walter Williams,(from Philadelphia) and Heather MacDonald. I agree that blacks have a really tough time in the United States but why? Until there is a willingness to admit the problem and who is at fault, there will be no solution.

JR Cosgrove
6 months 1 week ago

Thomas Sowell - Discrimination and Disparities https://hvr.co/2ugDAAk
Jason Riley - False Black Power? https://hvr.co/2VMhWmF
Walter Williams - Up from the Projects https://amzn.to/2ZYeAfu
Heather MacDonald - The War on Cops https://amzn.to/2JigFNp

Rick Malloy, S.J.
6 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Cosgrove and Mr. McCaffrey. Dr. O'Connell can defend her arguments in the article, But I think you misstate what she says, misappropriate the implications of her observations, and take offense when none is given. I'm a 63 year old white guy. I know Philly. To say a black guy born in Germantown in 1955, as was I, overall had the same opportunities as I did, is factually incorrect. Just compare median family income among races in this country. Or the gender wage gap. And admit, to be a white man gives unmerited and undeserved advantages. Doesn't mean you don't work hard, or merit what you get in life. But white guys are at least born on 2nd base. You disagree? Then tell me how you feel when a cop car lights up and pulls you over at night? Do you fear for your life? Most black guys I know are afraid in that situation. Are you at least nervous? Or would you feel entitled to argue with the officer and know that the most that could happen is you would only get a ticket? Why are white men so angry and unwilling to admit how good we have it? Spend sometime in Camden, NJ, where I lived for 15 years. Your eyes, and more importantly, your head and heart may be opened to the struggles our brothers and sisters of color live everyday.

FRAN ABBOTT
6 months 1 week ago

Bravo, Fr. Malloy!

William Chamberlain
6 months 1 week ago

Wrong. Research shows otherwise. Democrat policies put "people of color ( what a horrible that pits everybody against whites) into social welfare programs that decimated their family structures. Once thriving blue collar enclaves become hell holes. Thank you terrible policies. Thank you sexual revolution. Thank you bad theology. Thank you bad liturgy.

William Chamberlain
6 months 1 week ago

Wrong. Research shows otherwise. Democrat policies put "people of color ( what a horrible that pits everybody against whites) into social welfare programs that decimated their family structures. Once thriving blue collar enclaves become hell holes. Thank you terrible policies. Thank you sexual revolution. Thank you bad theology. Thank you bad liturgy.

Roberta Lavin
6 months 1 week ago

I've been teaching in a university since 2010 after spending 20 years working in highly diverse settings. In each university, my goal has been to increase diversity, but it has always been hard for me to explain exactly why I think it is so essential. You hit the nail on the head.

Jay Zamberlin
6 months 1 week ago

What is (or why relevant?) a "mujerista" theologian, what is that? some sort of double PC nod virtue signal? Does God have a gender? Oh, no, it is not about me (whoever me would be) studying GOD, it's about getting God to be reshaped in MY image. That is my takeaway.

The author is absolutely right, the less guilt ridden, overly protected white people in the classroom, especially with their PC nonsense (and these same northern whites are giving us doctored, PC language in our churches, "wreckovisions" of our perfectly fine church architecture, to the tune of big $$ while talking about "taking care of the poor" -- hiding tabernacles, sand in holy water fonts, burlap banners, guitar crapola music, and teaching the third world about abortion -- erh, sorry, 'health care' - ask ["Catholic" SJW] Melinda Gates about all of that, really population control of the unwashed dark skinned masses) the BETTER.

Please, can we also dispense with this awful term "people of color." God gave ALL of His children color, and they are all different. "People of color" is a phrase to pit whites against the world. Puleeze, just stop. I prefer melanin rich/deficient.

To the person's response about white people (in USA, let's suppose he means) starting on second base, well, ah, sort of, but ALL people in the USA start on third base, according to the rest of the world and why Africans are chomping at the bit to get here and do well once they're here. How can that be? (And btw, this commentator might do well to look at mortality rates among so called privileged white males, how many of them constitute the homeless population, suicide rates and so forth. He should also examine this "Great Society" push by Lyndon Johnson and how those policies decimated the black family structure, creating a generational dependent class, and yes, white people did that, a certain type, the same that call themselves SJW, the same that vote for the party of Jefferson Davis and won't allow for school choice (the real determitive factor in people's socio-economic rise) and fosters the genocide levels of abortions for those same people, you know, POC.

I know, I know, so few people here that read America will recognize themselves in these statements, but just to put out the information to the rare SJW that might be eavesdropping.

I live in a very "mixed" environment, but upon entering the library in So. Cal. neighborhood a few years ago, in the evening, I was struck by how crowded it was, and the people crowding the place, well, about 90%, Asians. These are the people now Harvard wants to disciminate against, because they acheive so highly. Takeaway, this is ALL about culture and where people put their priorities. My black friends kids are glued to BET, discussing Beyonce wardrobe n's#!t. Whites glued to video games n'stuph......u feel me???

William Chamberlain
6 months 1 week ago

An excellent read, Coming Apart: The State of White America, through meticulous research shows that it is misguided social welfare programs that have divided us. Not some bogeyman like white generational bigotry.

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