What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Bishop Edward K. Braxton began his sermon, “Be Perfect Therefore as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect,” at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning service in the Amphitheater by reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem.” His Scripture was Matthew 5:42-48.
“Dear people of God, you know you are not perfect,” he said. “I know that I am not perfect. Jesus knew his listeners were not perfect, but he tells us [to be perfect] in the midst of this racial divide. How are you to do that? You are to love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you. He calls all of us to reflect on our personal lives, see the imperfect and move to perfection to change our bias, prejudice or silent indifference.”
Braxton said Christian churches need to acknowledge that they have a flawed history in bridging the racial divide. Students of history would be shocked, he said, to learn that church people owned human beings and that Christians did not condemn slavery as contrary to the Gospel.
“It would be hard for them to believe that Christian authors wrote books in defense of the slave trade,” Braxton said.
One author wrote, “Negroes were clearly better off in physical chains than being physically free but bound to pagan beliefs.” The author said, “Negroes were, by nature, inferior to white people and would find salvation in servitude to their master.”
Braxton described the stone grave marker of a slave named Sarah. It was unusual to mark the grave of a slave, let alone erect a stone marker. On it, the family had inscribed, “Here lies Sarah [with no last name, Braxton added in an aside], a Negro slave woman from age 13 to 22, who died in childbirth. She was a faithful slave to the housemistress who did what she was asked unselfishly and in complete obedience. She was baptised on her deathbed and given complete freedom.”
“They saw no conflict with slavery, and the words of Jesus of Nazareth, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,’ ” Braxton said.
Mainline seminaries and Catholic orders excluded people of African descent for many years. Braxton shared a story about Bishop Joseph A. Francis, who was a member of the Society of the Divine Word because he could not be a diocesan priest. He served the diocese of Newark, New Jersey, and was once asked (out of 75 million Catholics): “There were only 3 million of African descent. Why so few?” Francis said when you have seen and heard what I have seen and heard, you would not ask why so few but be amazed that there are so many.
“Those students of history should be encouraged because, in recent decades, the church has made efforts to move beyond the flawed legacy,” Braxton said. “They would be amazed at the number of Catholics and Protestants who were active in the Civil Rights Movement.”
He cited the commitment of Catholic schools to provide education to all children. He noted that some bishops had desegregated Catholic schools in their dioceses before Brown v. Board of Education. The churches have also been at the forefront of confronting the sources of poverty and bridging the racial divide.
“Nevertheless, it is a fact that, when Christians hear the Gospel of Matthew [we read today], they hear it in churches where people of color hear it in one church and other people hear it in another,” Braxton said.
In 1979, the Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us, which condemned racism as a sin and heresy.
“However, many American Christians and American Catholics have never heard of it,” Braxton said. “It was not studied, yet its signal teachings show how little has changed. The reality of racism is an evil that endures in society and in church. The reality of racism remains even if external appearances have changed.”
This is unjust, he said, and unworthy of our nation, but many people don’t know what to do. People are still denied access to economic prosperity and live in exacerbated poverty and family instability simply because of their race.
“This belies our civil and religious traditions of the equality and dignity and rights of all brothers and sisters,” Braxton said. “Discrimination in all forms is a serious injustice. It deprives us of the unique contributions our citizens could give. Racial prejudice is a sin we must confess because it blots out the image of God. It violates the fundamental human dignity of some of the children of God and mocks the words of Jesus to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
The bishops wrote prophetically in 1979, he said, and we have made some strides, but we know how far were are from where we should be.
“I know that from my own family experience and my own experiences as a priest and a bishop,” Braxton said. “The issue is as real and urgent today as it was when the letter was penned 36 years ago.”
He continued: “You and I must ponder in our hearts what it means to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. It is not easy to obey [this command]. It is not easy for you, for me, for the Catholic Church, for other American religious traditions, it is not easy for the government. Don’t forget what the young boy sang in my mediation on Monday: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more warning, the first next time.’ Praise be to Jesus Christ.”
Deacon Ed McCarthy presided. Jordan Ellis and Guy Karam, scholarship students with the King’s Daughters and Sons, read the Scripture. Ellis is a student at Texas Women’s University and read in English. Karam is a student at Lebanese Canadian University and read in Arabic. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The choir sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” by Guilio Caccini arranged by James A. Moore. Alexandra Paul and George Toothman were the vocal soloists and Christi Jureller played the violin accompaniment. The full text of Bishop Braxton’s pastoral letter, The Racial Divide in the United States, can be found at http://www.diobelle.org.