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Reflection on Racism: An Important Message from Fr. James J. Greenfield, OSFS

by Fr. James J. Greenfield, OSFS Jun 2, 2020
message from fr greenfield

Dear University Community,

I write in response to the national evil that burns our hearts and stains our souls: racism.

The evil and sin of racism continue to kill, divide, enrage, disfigure, diminish, and impoverish.  We see this in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and David McAtee, who was killed in a police shooting yesterday in Kentucky; the false arrest of Omar Jimenez; and the wrongful accusation of Christian Cooper.  And, tragically, many of us do not see it when this happens countless times to people of color in our classes, residence halls, departments, churches, zip codes, and communities.

I join with the President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities who reminds us, in the words of Jill Lepore, that “racism is America’s original sin” and “continues to complicate all our attempts to create a truly human civil society.”  I realize that as a white man, I do not know the depth of pain and suffering black people have experienced and still experience daily.  Yet, as the leader of our school, I assert that DeSales University is proud to stand with the black community and all people of color in the peaceful pursuit of racial justice.  Furthermore, we denounce racism in any form and will seek healing when we encounter such evil.

Having just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, two images rivet our attention.  St. Luke paints a vivid scene in the Acts of the Apostles where the disciples were “all in one place together” when a loud noise like a driving wind filled that place and rested on them as tongues of fire.  I am always intrigued by Luke’s description of those disciples as being all together in the same place.  Maybe they were physically together, but I am sure they were not emotionally or spiritually in the same place.  Likewise, we ourselves are having different reactions to the loud noise and fires, rampant across our nation, as we wrestle with the civil unrest we see.  We also heard in John’s Gospel how Jesus breathed on the disciples to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This Pentecost, how can we not hear the desperate words of George Floyd saying, “I cannot breathe?”

We have been self-quarantined for ten weeks by the coronavirus, and many of us now see the pain of the pandemic of racism in a stunning way.  We know that communities of color have been more greatly impacted than white communities due to inadequate access to healthcare, the lack of affordable housing, chronic unemployment, and poverty.

As we re-emerge from our homes, how will we change?  Will our hearts be stretched, souls softened, and hands strengthened to work for societal justice?

I share the words of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu from his book, No Future Without Forgiveness.  He uses a word, ubuntu, that is difficult to translate into English. Referring to the essence of what it is to be human, the word reflects the interdependence and interrelatedness of humanity, sentiments eloquently expressed by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his prophetic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Tutu writes:

A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured and oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are (Tutu, 1999, 31).

The parallel between ubuntu and our Salesian mission impresses me.  Gentleness, a DeSales University core value, impels us to honor others so that they can be who they are and be that well.  Otherwise, humanity suffers, and we could be the cause of it.  The gentleness that can quell racism requires a conversion of heart.  In this moment and up against such insidious and pervasive racism, gentleness could easily be dismissed as mere niceness or sappy kindness.  However, Salesian gentleness calls us to a Gospel-centered justice that seeks to redress the sins of racial injustice and correct systems that perpetuate racism.

Here at DeSales we will take more action by building upon experiential learning in our courses and service trips, promote our new Center for Faith and Justice, and underscore the core value of Salesian gentleness.  Upon our return to campus, we will host training workshops for our police and student life staffs on unconscious bias, and the orientation program for new students will include presentations on racial diversity and sensitivity.  Additionally, LaShara Davis, assistant professor of communication, will serve as the coordinator for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Advancing the work of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, Professor Davis will help the University community deepen and develop its commitment to, among other matters, racial sensitivity.  We thank her for her willingness to serve us, receiving some course relief, while we search for a full-time coordinator.

If we were on campus in the midst of this racial crisis, faculty would be leading lectures and conversations.  Students in residence halls would be listening to each other.  Athletes and artists would share relevant experiences.  And many of us would gather to pray and reflect on our identity as sisters and brothers.  In the days ahead, I hope to arrange zoom discussions for community members to talk with each other about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings around this present moment.

In the spirit of Pentecost, let us be women and men on fire with a passion to end racism.  Let us be a calming, life-giving breath for all those impacted by racism.  Let us engage in the necessary conversion of our hearts to be people of justice and gentleness.  Please pray for the happy repose of the souls of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and David McAtee; their families and friends who mourn their loss; and for peace, justice, and understanding in our nation.


James J Greenfield OSFS

James J. Greenfield, OSFS, ‘84