Some months ago, in honor of Black Catholic History Month, I was asked to speak to my parish about what it means to me to be black and Catholic. While honored, I must admit I felt a little overwhelmed. The request could not have come at a busier time for me. I had just finished four straight nights performing in my school’s fall production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a play about Tom Robinson, a character who is wrongfully and unjustly accused of a crime simply because he is black.
While there are many differences between our experiences, I could not help but notice that both the character’s experience as a black man in 1935 and my own as a black Catholic today, have a lot to do with being judged by sight. But as Christians, isn’t that exactly the opposite of what we are asked to do? You have heard it said, “Walk by faith and not by sight.” We are called to have faith in God and in the goodness of others.
Yet every day we judge one another by sight. That homeless man on the street? He must be lazy or he would have a job. That woman in the short skirt? She must be…well, you know. And that black man? Guilty!
All of this made me wonder: How do others see and judge me? Two things are obvious: 1) I am a girl; 2) I am black. A third quality that helps to define who I am is less obvious but equally important: 3) I am Catholic. This part of my identity is not immediately visible, so how do I convey it to others?
A song we all know comes to mind: “This Little Light of Mine.” When you hear it, no matter how old you are, you almost always want to join in and sing the tune, which continues, “I’m gonna let it shine.” Every day I have to ask myself, How will I let my light shine in a way that invites others to join in?
For one, I sing! In school, at church and at home, much to my parents’ delight (well, sometimes). I sing God’s praises to let my light shine through music. I also wear a cross every day to remind myself of Jesus’ sacrifice and as a symbol to others that I am a believer. This lets my light shine through what I wear. And, of course, I pray—no matter where I am or who is watching. When I am at home, I pray. When I am in the car, I pray (especially when Mom is driving). When I see someone down on his or her luck, I pray. When I see that woman in the short skirt, I pray. And for the Tom Robinsons of 1935 and the Trayvon Martins of 2013, I pray. It is my hope that my light will shine through my prayers.
I am very fortunate not to have lived in Tom Robinson’s day. And while Trayvon Martin’s tragedy did occur during my lifetime, I am blessed to say that the hate shown toward him is something I have yet to experience. My world is pretty small, between home, school, church, golf, family and friends.
And yet the golf course is another place I find myself in the minority, though it is a sport I have been playing since I was 7, and I have been on my school’s varsity team since seventh grade. I have, so far, found people to be accepting of who I am. But as my world expands and I am one day forced to deal with the hatred of prejudice because of any part of who I am—female, golfer, black or Catholic—I know my faith will help me through when that time comes.
I try always to treat others with respect and compassion. This lets my light shine brightest through my actions. I walk tall and proud as a woman—as a black, Catholic woman—in honor of those before me, like St. Monica, Venerable Henriette DeLille and my mother! This lets my spirit light shine.
So what does it mean to me to be black and Catholic? It means, like it or not, we will almost always be judged by sight; so it is even more important for me to lead by example, to let my little light shine so brightly through music, prayer and my actions that people will always see me for who I am.
I am Vanessa Fulmore. I am a confident young woman. I am blessed to be black and, yes, I am proud to be Catholic.
Vanessa Fulmore will be a high school freshman at the Aquinas Institute of Rochester in the fall. This article is adapted from a talk given at St. Monica Church in Rochester, N.Y.
Lynn Fulmore, Vanessa's mother, reflects on the similarities and differences between her and her daughter's upbringings and faith.