Today we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. Alleluia!
When God became incarnate as man, he chose to live as an ethnic Jew in a region under Roman occupation. Consensus of opinions estimate that Jewish people made up seven to ten percent of the Roman Empire at that time. So, Jesus was a minority who in his ministry subverted the status quo and ministered to the marginalized, unclean, outcasts, and sinners. Because Jesus challenged the religious leaders and his popularity threatened the Roman government, he was crucified, which was a brutal form of the death penalty reserved for slaves, insurrectionists, and rebels.
However, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, the power of sin and death was broken. The ruling political and religious elites did not have the final say. Instead, Jesus Christ reigns triumphant, and he commissions his followers to go to every corner of the world spreading the gospel message. When we abide by Catholic teachings and live a life rooted in faith, charity, and justice, we are building God’s kingdom here on earth.
As we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, we know that advocating for social and racial justice, assisting the poor and unhoused, and aiding the incarcerated, immigrants, and outcasts in society will, at times, be met with opposition and scorn, even from people within our own Church. Yet, Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope and courage that with the power of the Holy Spirit, no injustice is too large to overcome, and we too will succeed in bringing new life to those suffering on the margins. Like Pope John Paul II said, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
In the first reading from Exodus 3 today, Moses is surprised to hear the voice of God speak to him from a burning bush. God tells Moses that he has witnessed the affliction of His people enslaved in Egypt, heard their cries, and He plans to rescue them from oppression. Moses listened to God’s voice and heeded the call to lead God’s people out of slavery.
While today we most likely will not hear God’s voice come from a burning bush, He often still speaks to us in a hidden way and asks us to help those who are oppressed and suffering. How so, you may ask. God can speak to us through the homeless person asking for donations on the street, the sick person with no one to visit them, the refugee with no change of clothes, or the person suffering in our local jails.
In Matthew 25:44, the people answer Jesus, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of the landowner who searches for fruit from the fig tree in his garden. Likewise, God looks to each of us to see how we are bearing fruit for the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus did not say our lives will be measured by how educated we are, how much money we make in our careers, or how many possessions we accumulate. No, the fruit God wants us to bear is measured by how we treat those in our midst who are suffering and the ways we show our love for God and our neighbor. To listen to God’s voice and be a tree that produces much fruit, we must not look the other way when people are in need. Instead, we must hear God’s voice speaking through them and see Jesus in each and every person who is in need.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Simon Peter, James, and John. The fishermen leave everything and follow Jesus. February is Black History Month, which is the time our nation remembers and celebrates the achievements, contributions, and influence of Black Americans in our country. Although an African-American has yet to be canonized, that does not mean there have not been many faithful Black Americans that have heeded Jesus’ calls and followed him. This month, let us remember the six African-Americans who are on the path to sainthood. Being given the titles ‘Servant of God’ and ‘Venerable’ by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints are the first steps to being canonized as saints.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853) was born into slavery in Haiti and brought to New York as an apprentice under a popular hairstylist. He gained his freedom when his slaveholder died and quickly succeeded as one of the country’s first Black entrepreneurs. He used his wealth to support the Church and shelter orphans, refugees, and the homeless. Pierre was instrumental in raising funds for the first Catholic orphanage and began the city’s first school for Black children. He also helped provide funds for the Oblate Sisters of Providences and provided vital funds to erect Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan.
Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (circa 1794-1882) was born to a family of wealth and high social status in Santiago de Cuba. After being provided an excellent education, Mother Mary left Cuba and moved to the United States, eventually settling in Baltimore, Maryland. She opened her home as a free school for Black children. At that time, there were no religious communities that accepted Black men or women. So, Mother Mary, with the permission of her Archbishop, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence and served as its first Mother Superior. Though she faced constant opposition and injustice, Mother Mary served her community and strove to bring Christ to every individual she encountered.
Venerable Henriette Delille (1813-1862) was born a free Creole Black woman in antebellum New Orleans. She is the first U.S. native born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church. Henriette and her sisters helped the poor and taught free Black students during the day. They also secretly educated African-Americans who were enslaved when it was against the law to educate them. They opened one of the country’s first Catholic nursing homes. Along with two lifelong friends, Henriette formed the Sisters of the Holy Family. Though they faced discrimination from other religious people and congregations, Henriette and her religious community overcame numerous obstacles and carried out their mandate to care for the sick, help the poor, and instruct the ignorant.
Venerable Augustus Tolton (1854-1897) was born in Bush Creek, Missouri and enslaved by a Catholic family. In 1862, Augustus and his family escaped slavery and settled in Illinois. Augustus, who was raised Catholic, attended a parish school and dedicated his life to serving God. When he desired to enter seminary, no American seminary would accept him because he was Black. Racism did not deter Augustus, and he studied for the priesthood in Rome where he was later ordained. He learned to speak fluent English, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and African dialects. He was sent back to the United States and became the first openly Black priest in the United States. Fr. Tolton led the development and construction of St. Monica’s Catholic Church as a Black “National Parish Church,” which was completed in 1893. Tolton’s success at ministering to Black Catholics quickly earned him national attention within the Catholic hierarchy. Though he experienced discrimination, Augustus served his community, helped the poor and sick, and won souls for God before he died at the age of 43.
Servant of God Julia Greeley was born into slavery in Hannibal, Missouri sometime between 1833 and 1848. Freed by Missouri’s Emancipation Act in 1865, Julia then earned her keep by serving white families. Despite her own poverty, Julia spent much of her time collecting food, clothing, and other goods for the poor. One writer called her a “one-person St. Vincent de Paul Society. Julia joined the Catholic Church in 1880 and became an enthusiastic parishioner, daily communicant, and active member of the Secular Franciscan Order in 1901. The Jesuits who ran Sacred Heart Parish in Denver considered Julia the most enthusiastic promoter of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus they had ever seen. Julia died on the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1918.
Servant of God Thea Bowman (1937-1990) was born in Canton, Mississippi to a physician and teacher. She converted to Catholicism as a child while attending Catholic school. At the age of 15, Thea left Mississippi and entered the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin. Sr. Thea taught all grade levels of school and eventually earned her doctorate and became a college professor of English and linguistics. Sr. Thea became a highly acclaimed evangelizer, teacher, writer, and singer who shared the joy of the Gospel and her rich African-American cultural heritage. She directed the Office of Intercultural Affairs for the Diocese of Jackson and was a founding faculty member of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at the only Catholic Historically Black College and University, Xavier University, in New Orleans. After her breast cancer diagnosis, Sr. Thea continued to speak and share the gospel. Less than a year before she passed away in 1990, Thea addressed the U.S. Bishops at their annual meeting and spoke about what it meant to be Black and Catholic, encouraging them to continue to evangelize the African-American community, promote inclusivity and full participation of Black people, and understand the necessity and value of Catholic schools in Black communities.
During the month of February, take time to pray for the canonization causes of the six African-Americans who answered Jesus’ call.
Since it’s been just about been a year since my last blog post, this post is long overdue. (The blog post about my terrible quarantine haircut doesn’t count 🙂 )
So much has happened since the beginning of the Lenten season in 2020, and in some ways, the past year feels like one long and neverending Lent. I recently read the book of Ruth in the Old Testament, and did I ever relate to the start of the biblical story. Naomi is a woman living in a foreign land due to famine in her home land of Judah. After experiencing the death of her husband, both of her two sons also die ten years later. Heartbroken and destitute, Naomi insists that her two daughters-in-law return to their parents while she makes the journey back to Bethlehem to find her way amidst tragedy. While one of the women relents and returns to her parents, the other woman, Ruth, refuses and accompanies Naomi back home.
When Naomi reaches Bethlehem, the town stirs and questions her return. However, Naomi tells them to call her “Mara”, which means “bitter” – not “Naomi”, which means “pleasant” – because the Lord has brought calamity upon her and her house.
Living through 2020, I can’t help but relate to Naomi’s sentiments when I think about what our country has experienced:
the racial reckoning that occurred as a result of the killing of African-Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to the global pandemic; the financial fallout resulting in lost jobs, closed businesses, evictions, hunger, and people finding themselves in desperate situations; the devastating impact of closed schools, isolation, loneliness, and separation; the political turmoil that erupted into the January 6th insurrection.
So much has occurred that I can’t help but feel the Lord has brought calamity upon our collective house, our nation.
And though it’s felt like one long Lent, I believe that observing Lent 2021 is even more important this year. We started the season with having ashes sprinkled on our heads, which symbolize penance, mourning, and mortality. I’m going to use these forty-something days to really let that truth set in. To repent for my sins, to mourn all the death and destruction in our midst, and to acknowledge that my time on earth is finite, so I need to be about my Father’s business while I’m here.
I pray, on a national level, we do the same. In many ways, our country has been brought to its knees. So this Lent, I hope that Americans turn away from racism, xenophobia, and prejudice that has plagued our country since before its inception. That we acknowledge and mourn all those who have died from the pandemic due to a lack of health care infrastructure and the politicization of a deadly virus. And that we understand that our democracy is fragile, and we have to be committed to living out and protecting the principles that we claim our country is founded upon.
Though Lent is hard and long, it always ends the same: with Easter and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Likewise, Naomi’s story doesn’t end in despair. Through God’s providence, Ruth is redeemed by a man named Boaz. He marries Ruth, and takes both her and Naomi into his home. By God’s grace, Ruth has a child who becomes the generational line to King David and ultimately Jesus. Though Naomi went through trying times and hardship, God never left her or forsake her, just like He never leaves or forsakes any of His children.
Scripture and knowledge of God give me confidence that when I am obedient to Him, and when I persevere in faith, my story will be redeemed. Jeremiah 29:11 states, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’” declares the Lord, “’plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” Amidst the uncertainty and trials of the past year, I’ve seen God’s plans unfold in my life. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with faithful people in the Black Catholic community, co-founded Black Catholic Messenger, grown my Youtube Channel, and signed a contract for my third novel, Last Place Seen, which is slated to be released in Winter 2021.
I know it will take time and patience to see our nation redeemed. However, I hope we don’t go “back” to the way things were before the pandemic. I hope we move forward and build a solid infrastructure for our country that includes equal rights, protection, and opportunities for every person regardless of skin color or economic status.
This Lent, I’m going to continue my prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, with the confidence that Easter’s coming.