Building a "beloved community" – a term popularized by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – requires faith, the courage to "rediscover the humanity of others," and a willingness to live out Church teaching, said experts at a panel discussion on racism.
The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University hosted a June 14 webinar on "Building the Beloved Community: Addressing Racial Injustice and Finding Ways Forward," hosted by the institute's associate director, Kimberly Mazyck.
Panelists included Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, professor of theology and director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans; Marcia Chatelain, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America" and, as of fall 2023, professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Father Stephen Thorne, chair of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Commission on Racial Healing and a former consultant for the National Black Catholic Congress and the Sub-Committee on African American Catholics for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Gabby Trejo, executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together in Sacramento, California.
The webinar, attended by some 800 participants, came three years after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who died in 2020 under Minneapolis police restraint, and just days before annual Juneteenth celebrations, which commemorate the June 19, 1865, freeing of African American slaves in Texas more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
As a pastor and civil rights activist, Rev. King emphasized the call to foster "the beloved community," a term coined by philosopher and theologian Josiah Royce, in which reconciliation, nonviolence, inclusion, justice and compassion governed society.
For Father Thorne, that community begins with a traditional African greeting that "simply says 'we see you.'"
"The 'we' is because I bring all of myself, who I am as part of my legacy," he said. "And I literally see you, not just physically, but as God sees you. … If we could simply see each other as children of God, see each other as fellow humans, that's where the beloved community comes into our midst."
Both Chatelain and Trejo emphasized the freedom from fear that is necessary for such a society.
"Fear is animating racial violence; fear is directing people to vote for demagogues," said Chatelain. "Fear allows fascism to reconstitute itself."
In the community envisioned by Rev. King, "we no longer are afraid of being hungry because we see people feed each other, (and) we are not afraid of dying alone because we see companionship," she said. "We are not afraid of our neighbor, because we see the ways our neighbors contribute to our well-being."
Trejo said such freedom must include "folks being able to afford having children, sustaining their families, having a safe place to live."
However, she added, "in order to get there, there also has to be reconciliation, (which) … requires an acknowledgment of wrongdoing," something "we are still continuing to fight for."
Bellow viewed the beloved community as "a paradigm" and "a model for our collectively living as we pray to do in the Lord's Prayer, that thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Building a beloved community is "also a response to Jesus' great commandment that we love God with all that we are – all our strength, all our mind, our body, our soul – and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves," she added.
Bellow said she has seen progress in ending racism in that "those on the margins are beginning to speak out, and to involve themselves in self-study and (come) to new self-understandings that challenge dominant cultural stereotypes," while "(adding) their particular narratives to U.S. history."
Juneteenth itself is an example, she said.
"For many, July 4 was the big holiday in the summer for those who live in the U.S.," said Bellow. "But now with Juneteenth, we have another narrative … that helps us to understand our story as citizens of the United States."
By reflecting on Juneteenth, which marks the delayed news of freedom to slaves, "we can sit and list all the ways we fall short" of realizing equality, Bellow said. "And to have the courage to contemplate … what God is calling each one of us to (that) makes us stand forward and speak out."
Economic disparities, high incarceration rates and immigration issues continue to disproportionately impact persons of color in the U.S., said Chatelaine and Trejo.
Through education – described by Father Thorne as a means of "disrupting systems of oppression" that prevent human flourishing – younger generations "become more compassionate and … less likely to marginalize," Chatelaine said.
Racism also can be eradicated by "building deep, deep relationships" where individuals and communities can "stretch each other like a rubber band, but not break" to ensure growth and healing, said Trejo.
For Catholics, the work of racial healing "is done because of our faith in God, and our Catholic social teaching," said Father Thorne. "Racial healing is a mandate, and as American Catholics, we have work to do. … This is not something that is political. It is not a Democratic or Republican thing; it's a Jesus thing."
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina