Our Lady of Peace, Our Lady of Peach Parish in Vacherie Louisiana
When one goes to the various Black Madonna Shrines throughout Europe, it is striking to see the adoration of the pilgrims. When I was sitting in Chartres Cathedral in the chapel dedicated to the Black Madonna of the Pillar, I noticed the difference between the people who were paying attention to the rest of the Cathedral and those who came directly towards the Black Madonna. The big difference was mainly the race. Those who were of non European origin came to the Black Madonna first, those who were of European origin tended to come to the shrine if it was on their pathway through the Cathedral.
What I was seeing was a deep resonance from the non European people, as if they were visiting a friend or relative. For those of us who do have European roots, we do not understand the wounds inflicted on our dark skinned brothers and sisters by presenting divinity as Caucasian. In one aspect I can empathize as I was exposed to traditions that forbade females over the age of 18 to preach the Gospel to adults, and have experienced the extreme pain of having the sacraments withheld from me due to my "paperwork," or what I like to call church affiliation. I have always been painfully amused when attending a service when communion was presented, and either the officiating clergy or sternly worded pamphlets requested that those of us who were not (fill in the blanks with a certain Christian sect, protestant or otherwise) were asked to refrain from the salvation offered by the sacrament. I always wondered why anyone thought this was an effective recruiting tool, who in their right mind would want to join something that was so exclusionary and elitist? Did the deed of the Christ only count for certain groups? Was entry into heaven dependent on having the proper identification papers, genitals and racial presentation? I was raised in an ecumenical home, as well as in the Methodist Church, where the "table" was open to all. I was shocked and deeply hurt when I found this was not how things are done in many houses of worship.
There was a lovely segment on Weekend Edition this morning. As I drove out to the canyons to hike, I was deeply moved by what is going on in a small Parish Catholic Church in Vacherie, Louisiana. Vacherie is a small town about 50 miles west of New Orleans, made famous by the various now historic plantations in the area. Often in the path of the Hurricane's of the area, Vacherie is home to Our Lady of Peace Church.
Our Lady of Peach Catholic Church was founded in 1864, and suffered many a devastating hurricane. In the late 40's a building campaign to restore the old Church started, and in 1954 a statue of Our Lady of Peace was donated to the congregation.
In 1959 another structure was completed, but with a purpose and effect in great contrast to the essential impulse of the Christ. A bathroom was constructed, but with two entrances. One set of doors was painted white, and the other was brown. While there was no specific signage, all parishioners knew what the colors meant, and ushers would follow African American congregants to make sure they used the proper rest room.
In 2005 Hurricane Rita almost demolished the building that housed these segregated rooms, and this last October bulldozers were brought in to finish the job. Life long parishioners had always felt left out of the parish by this symbol of racial hatred, and were relieved when it was finally destroyed.
What was and is so unique about this instance is that before and after the destruction of the building, there was a group that formed to talk about racial pain. The service was called, "Healing of Racial Hurts" and preceded the demolition of the building. The resident Priest, Father Michael Miceli said in his prayer during the Mass,
"Let us acknowledge the mistakes, the decisions, the policies, the rules, the evil, the sins we committed that unfairly separated us, especially our African-American brothers and sisters, both living and deceased," He set fire to pieces of the old bathroom building. And from the pulpit, the priest apologized. "Please, forgive us," he said.
Racism is the ultimate expression of materialism. To judge the worth and character of a person by something as arbitrary as the color of their skin is a feature of our current age. It started when the Europeans ventured across lands and oceans, with profound consequences. During the early days of the Spanish occupation of the Americas, the treatment of the Natives was so vicious that many of the clergy spoke out against the oppression. A great council ensued where the humanity of the Natives was argued in a papal court. The resulting document was called Sublimus Dei, released in 1537. This document recognized the soul and humanity of the Natives, and forbade the enslavement of them. It did not however, recognized the humanity of the Africans, and we all know the horrors that ensued up to the Civil War, and the echos America endured in the Segregation of the South.
There are those who complained that the "Healing of Racial Hurts" Mass was unnecessary and served only to stir things up. But there were others who felt a great burden lifted, and finally welcomed in their home church.
We are one in the Christ, we are one in the family of Humanity, as part of the Cosmos that birthed us. The magnificence of creation is that there are so many varied ways that Divinity expresses itself, both in nature and in the human community. Racism breaks this bond, this deep connection. When Divinity is expressed to the exclusion of others, it is a pain greater than any other. I think this is why racial and religious strife is so destructive, wounds so greatly, because it is basically telling the other that they do not exist. To experience this in a sacred place such as a church, even in the bathroom, is the ultimate triumph of evil.
There is much strife in the world these days, between different groups. In some ways, I think it is a sort of working out of the evils of materialism, for our task in this age, particularly on the American continent is to face materialism in a moral way, to transform and spiritualize the material.
In the landmark book Race and the Cosmos, author Dr. Barbara Holmes talks about the heady days of the Civil Rights movement. She speaks about how the African American community thought if they could have legal and economic parity with whites, then all would be well. What she and others have experienced has been the opposite. There is a great grief over the centuries of abuse and oppression of slavery, and a deep feeling of alienation from culture and origins because many families do not know from where their ancestors came. Dr. Holmes then goes on to talk about the cosmic nature of Black, and that we all come from the great galaxy, that our true home is within the vastness of the Universe, with the Divine as parent of us all.
A wonderful tactic of resistance is being used in the Ukraine these days, that of holding mirrors to the police.
What I love about this is that it is the essence of being human. The essence of being a Christian is recognizing the humanity, the Christ in the other. How can we harm and reject the other, when in reality the other is us?
True healing comes from going deep into wounds so they can heal. If you cover up a wound without allowing for the dirt to be cleaned, it will fester and cause great damage. Recognizing another's pain, asking for forgiveness is one of the greatest things we can do to create harmony in our personal and communal relationships.
The scarred, somber dark faces of the Black Madonna's I think are profound reminders that Divinity has many faces. The Black Madonna's are essential to help us acknowledge our diversity, that Divinity is in us all. Let us reach out to one another, in the spirit of the universalism of the Christ. Only then, can we truly have what the Church in Vacherie promotes, deep, lasting, rich and rewarding peace.