One of the most compelling scenes in the Gospels is the miracle that did not “take” the first time: Jesus’s healing of the blind man of Bethsaida. (Mk. 8:23-24) Putting spittle on his eyes, Jesus laid his hands on him and asked, “Do you see anything?” Looking up he replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” Of course Jesus finishes the healing and sends the man on his way. But it is the man’s shadowy, in-between state of partial sight and partial blindness that most intrigues me, and seems an almost perfect metaphor for our human condition.
Slow the story down and stretch it out over the course of a lifetime, generations, and then centuries, and the blind man of Bethsaida, before Jesus finishes the job, becomes a fitting parable for race relations in America. We are all still on the way, each of us stumbling forward in partial blindness, seeing people “looking like trees and walking.” But the face of Christ is there, hidden in light and shadow, calling us forward into our freedom.
I grew up in a white suburban neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and had little contact with any peoples of color until my mid-twenties. Less than three miles from the Catholic parish of my youth there was and still is a thriving African American Catholic church. For almost three decades of my life, I’m sad to say, I hardly knew there was such a thing as black Catholics. There are some four million Catholics of African descent in the United States. I did not know them.
The veil of my ignorance began to be lifted some twenty years ago when my family joined a black Catholic community in Denver—in fact it was a Jesuit parish—and the relationships we formed there transformed my whole way of praying and of being a Christian. How often since then, in black Catholic churches in three different cities, I have felt the Spirit rising, like a dove, and stirring something deep in my heart, as if to say, here are my beloved children on whom my favor rests. Can you see them? Do you know them? Will you share their joys and sorrows?
Conversations about race are not easy, calling for a great deal more intimacy and risk than many of us are accustomed to sharing with strangers, to say nothing of friends, classmates, or even fellow Christians. For those of us privileged to be at Xavier University, we are, I think, uniquely positioned to provide the kinds of open spaces where truthful conversation around race can happen, where roots can be fertilized, and new shoots of interracial encounter and friendship are given room to grow. Of course it takes courage and not a little trust to navigate a topic so freighted with painful history and sometimes traumatic personal and communal memories, but in the context of our shared friendship and trust in God, I believe we can “make a way out of no way.”
Over and over again my students have taught me that the risk of engaging with one another openly and honestly around race relations and issues of racial justice is well worth taking. Our natural curiosity about human difference and deepest desire to see and know each other more clearly, to feel with greater empathy, beyond the stereotypes and habits of self-segregation we still see far too often on campus, is beautiful and a wonder to behold. Moreover, if we cannot manage such conversations here, then where? If not now, then when?
None of us enters the conversation about race a fully developed, completely integrated, whole person. We need to be challenged, but we also need to give each other room to imagine and grow into a future different from we are at this point in our lives. To “care for the whole person,” in Ignatian terms, is to give each other room to struggle and grow together in our capacity for cross-racial friendship, solidarity, justice, and love.
During this Lenten season, let us pray for the grace to care for each other as whole persons, the courage to move beyond our habitual comfort zones, and the determination to be more intentional about building friendships across the color line. If we ask for this grace, Christ, I believe, will grant it without measure, in the liberating and healing Spirit of God, the God of all people, of all colors, who is love.
Christopher Pramuk teaches in the theology department and is the author of Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line (Liturgical, 2013). His four children keep him rooted to the earth, and playing the piano keeps him content and mostly sane. His wife Lauri is a pediatrician known to many Xavier students for her participation in the Interfaith Medical Mission trip in Guatemala.