Stories captivate us as human beings. They help us understand our roots, share our traditions, pass our faith on to the next generation, and feel a sense of connection and belonging. Stories also have the power to change us and our ways of seeing the world, if we are open to it.
Because stories can help us see something we might otherwise miss, I have found them to be an especially effective tool in the work of racial justice. To this day, our nation and our church remain fairly segregated, so it is easy for us to go through life without really understanding how people of other backgrounds and ethnicities live. This is a particular challenge in a place like my diocese, Green Bay, WI, where nearly 90% of the people are white. Stories can help us overcome this challenge and move us towards a culture of encounter.
A few years ago, I attended a photo exhibit, called the Color-Brave exhibit, that featured portraits of people of color from my own community alongside stories of their experiences living in an area where they make up only 10% of the population. The stories were captivating. I alternated between reading the stories and examining the beautiful portraits, and I felt as though I was having a conversation with each person I encountered. After the exhibit, I found my mind lingering on these stories. The participants in the art exhibit had shared something powerful and eye-opening. Through their stories, I became more aware of my own blind spots and my need to engage with people of backgrounds different than my own. I also began to wonder: what blind spots do I have about the experiences of people of color within the church?
It was this question that led me to take action. The bishops of the United States had recently approved the publication of Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, their latest pastoral letter against racism. In their own words, the bishops wrote this letter because “despite many promising strides made in our country, racism still infects our nation.” As the Living Justice Advocate for the Diocese of Green Bay, I began to think about how to share the message of Open Wide Our Hearts with people in our diocese.
After much reflection and prayer, we created The Open Wide Our Hearts Photo Exhibit. Modeled after the Color-Brave exhibit, the project features people of color from Catholic churches and schools alongside narrative accounts of their experiences within those spaces. As the leader of the project, I had the privilege of interviewing each of the participants, and to this day, I am still impacted by the stories they shared. I heard stories of discrimination and prejudice, stories of resilience and triumph, stories of pride and belonging. More than anything, I heard stories of faith from people who simply wanted to come to church to worship God and be accepted as fully as anyone else. Is that so much to ask?
One of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity, the belief that we are one human family with more in common than what divides us. The existence of racial discrimination and injustice in our world and our church is evidence that we have not fully embraced the principle of solidarity. Pope Francis made this invitation to deeper solidarity the theme of his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. In it, he says that opening ourselves to encountering others and being transformed by that encounter is the key to building solidarity: “Implanted deep within us is the call to transcend ourselves through an encounter with others”(no. 11). Stories like those in our photo exhibit can help us build this culture of encounter and encourage active and authentic engagement throughout our communities.
The hard work of recognizing past failures, addressing the systems that uphold those failures, and seeking healing together with and for those who have experienced racism firsthand is something in which we each have a responsibility to partake. We all must commit to listening to the stories of others and to encountering our brothers and sisters, especially those who are different from us. In doing so, we allow God to open our hearts to the transformative power of stories. Perhaps as we do, we will be more able to fully live as the people of God.
1. Visit the Open Wide Our Hearts photo exhibit and read the stories of the participants.
2. After going through the exhibit, go to the Take Action page on the website and commit to taking one step to promote racial justice.
Peter Weiss is the Living Justice Advocate for the Diocese of Green Bay. He lives in Green Bay with his wife and their seven children.