I Repent and Atone With My Feet and Hands
Editorial Note: Throughout September, Bearings magazine will explore the theme of “Cultivating Hope.” This month’s contributors are all people of faith who inhabit different geographic, cultural, and social spaces. They thus offer richly diverse perspectives on the following questions: How are you cultivating hope in today’s current political and cultural climate? What obstacles to hope are you experiencing and witnessing—and how are you responding to or overcoming them?
Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.
Though we share a birthday, I am no Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Still, as my child grows up, there have been ongoing discussions of birthdays, historical figures, the world that changes around her, and how she is changing with it.
Berkeley was the city we brought Kiddo home to for the first time. I nursed her in the seminary lounge among future theologians, ethicists, biblical scholars, priests, ministers, and activists. Her first church and subsequent community circles have always been multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual, and polyglottal.
Walking in the world, I am racially profiled as “ethnically ambiguous.” I can’t even remember how many times people have asked, “What’s your race?”—it happens so frequently that I have stopped counting—but I do know that the last incident happened just two weeks ago. I receive a variety of responses from the world because I pass—and not simply as another race, but as many other races. Race-based compliments about my color or hair have become intolerable, and I have begun confronting people to prevent them from touching my body without an invitation.
Meanwhile Kiddo, who is biracial and multiethnic, also passes, but as “white.” This is our reality, our context, the embodied, racialized experience that shapes much of our everyday life.
So over the second weekend of August—the weekend Americans will remember as Charlottesville—my inner Bonhoeffer rose up.
Social media allowed me to stay hours ahead of broadcast news on Friday, August 11. In anticipation of a planned march by white supremacists, several of my colleagues, together with church folk, activists, and academics from near and far, had gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you were like me, you followed the action in real-time. I woke Spouse up to show him footage of University of Virginia students staging a counter-protest on their campus, surrounded by a massive group of torch-bearers.
White Nationalist, White Supremacist, Identitarian, and White ethno-nationalist militia groups were on full display. The names of the scheduled speakers were familiar. Johnny Monoxide. Based Stickman. Both men are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and both advocate violence in their platforms. They had previously been to Berkeley, and I knew their names and faces.
Lately, groups like Identity Evropa have been on university campuses all over the country as part of their Siege campaign to recruit young future Identitarians. Though not every right-leaning or conservative group holds specific white supremacist ambitions, many of those that were present at Charlottesville do.
The questions for someone like me—simultaneously 3000 miles away and right at the heart of the hate that was on display in Charlottesville—were what to do in response, what to model to my child, and how to prepare my spirit for whatever that would look like.
My decision to nonviolently counter-protest at the August 27 No to Marxism Rally in Berkeley, California didn’t happen all at once. Promotion for the event crossed my social media feeds a few days after Charlottesville, after the death of Heather Heyer, after I had been to Sunday Mass on August 13 and felt underserved by the Church.
I specifically had chosen to go to the parish I thought would speak to the unsettled feelings in my spirit. It didn’t. As I opened my ears, I looked to the icons of Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I then searched for the commemorative chair that is marked by the words “In Memory of Trayvon Martin.” But the pews had been rearranged, and I didn’t see it. Somehow, not finding his name seemed sadly appropriate, given the fact that no one mentioned Heather Heyer’s name that Sunday either.
The following week was marked by push-and-pull tensions between my internalized and externalized senses of self. As local religious leaders were organizing to discuss, discern, and decide upon their chosen forms of nonviolent counter-protest, I once again was confronted with the party-line limitations of my own denomination. I can’t be a religious leader—ovaries and whatnot. While I can train religious leaders, I cannot be one. It thus felt false to attempt to share space on this topic with that particular crowd.
Though I have never felt called to ordination, I do feel called to visible public witness. When clergy wear robes, everyone can see who they are. After all these years doing the work of God by forming leaders, where do I fit in? How can I be a visible public witness?
In the week before the August 27 rally and counter-protest, finding opportunities to discern among fellow Catholics proved more challenging than I care to share. On a daily basis, I encountered throngs of people, but few deep conversation partners. Fortunately, the people I did talk to also felt compelled, by the same force of spirit that guided me, to discern their own individual levels of commitment.
As I contemplated participating in the counter-protest, I pondered some urgent questions. I knew that I might encounter individuals seeking to co-opt the gathering for their own agendas, and that some of them might even embrace the use of violence. How committed to nonviolent resistance would I remain—especially if violence was necessary for my own protection? How much was I willing to put my physical safety at risk for the sake of being visible as a Latinx, public Catholic who lacks clergy privilege? How far would I go to pursue justice and faithful resistance?
It’s worth remembering, too, that the rally and counter-protest were scheduled for a Sunday, which provoked further reflection, given my experience the Sunday after Charlottesville. Heading into the weekend, my mind and heart were full. Where would I go to Sunday Mass? Should I go on Saturday instead? What if the Mass I attended once again turned out to be filled with people who are uncommitted to justice work? What if I found myself surrounded by individuals who refused to stand up to the “No the Marxism Rally,” which was based upon misinformed notions about cultural Marxism? Would such an unsatisfactory “religious” experience really prepare my spirit for the day ahead?
I’ve always felt that, as Catholics, we have botched past opportunities to take action against racialized nationalism. World War II offered an opportunity for the Church to be a light in the darkness, but we failed to act early enough to save non-Christian, non-Catholic, and no few Catholic lives. (Catholics, too, died in concentration camps, though their deaths represented a fraction of the casualties suffered by Jews.) The sin of delayed action can only be forgiven by God—but, as Bonhoeffer insisted, such grace is costly.
I ended up at an Episcopal service on the morning of the counter-protest. There, I received Word and Sacrament that ministered to my whole person. There, I heard a sermon about the strength and steadiness historically shown by midwives during times of political crisis, when body counts are rising—especially amidst the vulnerable and oppressed. There, I was spiritually prepared for all that lay ahead.
Finally, after a week of fraught discernment, I peacefully and nonviolently joined the assembly. On August 27, I marched with others of all stripes, creeds, vocations, and commitments for three reasons.
First, I marched because White ethnostate supremacist and nationalist rhetoric is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Fr. James Martin has stated, “Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify Him!’”
Second, I marched because I felt called to repent and atone for the complicit structural inaction of my denomination, for the generational legacies of division, racism and colorism by and among Latinx-Americans, and for the ways in which I have been complicit in America’s original sin.
Third, I marched because I couldn’t look Kiddo in the eye and say I did nothing. My choice to march—on August 27, in the weeks since, and in days to come—is a choice to follow the Cross above the false idols of political parties, supremacy, and nationalism. We can choose to confront sinful rhetoric. We can work on behalf of all the children who look into our eyes and ask us to create safer, more compassionate environments that promote the kind of hopeful optimism that comes from being loved.