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Christine LenahanJune 18, 2024
Gloria Purvis is seen in this 2017 file photo. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

Juneteenth derives its name from June 19, 1865, when the Union Army emancipated the enslaved peoples of Galveston, Tex. One year later, the Black community in Texas gathered to celebrate their freedom, thus beginning an annual commemoration that spread nationwide. In 2021, President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday

For U.S. Catholics, Juneteenth serves as a moment of reflection as the church continues to grapple with the sin of racism that plagues our politics, our nation and our ministry.

In their 1979 pastoral letter on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops named the sin of racism as “more than a disregard for the words of Jesus”—namely, his command to treat others the way you would have them treat you (Mt 7:12)—but as a “denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.” 

Understanding that “the Church cannot remain silent about the racial injustices in society and its own structures,” the U.S.C.C.B. reminded Catholics of their responsibility to their brothers and sisters to put an end to racism in the church. 

More than 40 years later, Black Americans are still denied their human dignity. Especially after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the Catholic Church, like much of the country, has experienced a reckoning on racial justice. 

Gloria Purvis, a public speaker, author and the host of America Media’s “The Gloria Purvis Podcast,” has been at the forefront of this reckoning in the church. In an interview with America, Ms. Purvis said that as Catholics, we have to be able to address past wrongs. “There is not a deep enough leaning into [the question of]: What is a theological response for making repair for the sin of racism? I would like to see more of that from the church, a deep theological response to what repair can be made, should be made.” 

For Ms. Purvis, a proper understanding of the original meaning of “wokeism” is the first step to making these necessary repairs, since the term has been co-opted from the Black community and, according to Ms. Purvis, is used pejoratively and politically. For her, being “woke” is defined in two ways. First, to “be awakened to somebody else’s suffering and be ready to help.” Second, to be “woke” for the Black community, “means ‘stay safe.’ Be aware of your surroundings because it’s not always safe for you.”

There is an explicit Catholic connection to the wokeism of the Black community. In fact, Ms. Purvis sees the two as inextricably connected: “How else can we go to the margins if we’re not awake? You know, how else can we even see those people on the margins…if we’re not even awake, if we’re not even sensitive to anybody else?”

But this Catholic call to wake up still meets resistance from people within the church—clergy and laity alike. “I think, for some reason, people choose to remain ignorant. I admit it’s comfortable to be ignorant because then your conscience is not awakened. You feel no obligation, no empathy.” But central to the Catholic mission is this obligation to recognize the inherent belovedness and holiness of God’s children. 

[The great religious failure: not recognizing a person in need]

Even some “devout Catholics put conditions on the dignity of some people, and that’s completely contrary to what the church teaches,” Ms. Purvis said. Instead, she suggests a conversion of heart on a personal level to strengthen the larger church community because “we can never really have community as long as racism is as prevalent as it is among believers within our church.”

In his apostolic exhortation “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,” Pope John Paul II, wrote, “At the heart of every situation of sin are always to be found sinful people” (No. 16). Understanding racism as a sin, in Ms. Purvis’s view, is another step toward progress because it depoliticizes the term “racism” and instead personalizes it. Ms. Purvis believes this discussion has focused too narrowly on politics: “I think we need to really think about the grave offense that [racism] is against God and his plan for human flourishing.” 

“God’s original plan for the human person is so incredibly freeing and beautiful, and it’s the only way that we can build authentic community,” Ms. Purvis said. “But it is going to take work. It is going to require a purging of our sinfulness, which is in and of itself painful.”

“Sin can outlive those who commit the sin,” Ms. Purvis said when speaking about the legacy of racism in the church. “There is the notion that we shouldn’t engage with our long history in this country, whether it’s 100 years, 50 years, 40 years or four years ago. We need to engage with it, and we need to ask for the Lord’s grace and forgiveness. We need to ask for help expelling this evil from our land and from our hearts and minds and from our church.”

Catholics, she said, cannot be neutral on the issue of racism, nor can they opt for so-called colorblindness. “I reject the notion of ‘colorblind’ wholeheartedly,” said Ms. Purvis. “I mean, why would God have made a garden with so many different flowers? And then we go in the garden and say, ‘Well, we can’t see anything of the beauty of the diversity of the human that God created.’ We’re all races, colors, sizes…. [We should] marvel in the beauty of what God created.”

How then should Catholics continue to work for racial justice—not just in our church but in our society? For Ms. Purvis, the answer lies in engaging in dialogue and listening to the stories of Black Catholics. “I’m hoping that a lot of other American Catholics could lean into that and say: ‘You know, I have something to learn from Black people. I have something to learn from how they have been able to survive intentional hardship inflicted upon their community, from the government, from the military, from business, from every aspect of life, and yet they’re walking and celebrating and still here.’”

Stories of perseverance anchor the Black Catholic experience and “how Black Catholics themselves talk about the issue of racism, recognizing when we see it among our shepherds and our seminaries and our [men and women] religious. We persevere despite that because we know God is real, we believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and we hold dear to that despite our suffering.”

Ms. Purvis looks forward to Juneteenth as a moment of celebration. For the Black community, she said, Juneteenth is a reminder of God’s grace and of the fact that despite past and present trials, Black Catholics “are now thriving in our relationship and belief in God.”

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