Becoming the Church We Say We Are: An interview with Olga Marina Segura

The number one question that every white Catholic has to ask themselves is, “How have I been complicit in white supremacy, and how can I be better?” You need to ask: “How can I center marginalized people? Can I give other people the opportunity to do this work instead of me? As an editor, am I only giving bylines to white people?” People need to ask themselves how they can shift power. This is difficult because it requires sacrifice, but that is what solidarity is. A lot of people will need to realize they need to step aside. It’s not supposed to be easy.

The (bishops’) statements should not be so long or written in language that doesn’t resonate with people. I also want to see every white bishop talk about white privilege. I want to see them grapple with the same topics I was grappling with in the book and talk about racial capitalism and how our health-care institutions grew out of exploitation of Black bodies. People are afraid to do this public work because it’s hard and they are afraid to mess up. It’s okay to mess up.

By John Gehring, March 12, 2021, Commonweal, Racism U.S. Catholicism NonfictionBishops

Demonstrators in Louisville, Kentucky, during the “Black Catholics Unite: Stand For Justice March,” June 6, 2020 (CNS photo/Ruby Thomas, The Record)

Olga Marina Segura, a freelance writer and the opinion editor at National Catholic Reporter, is the author of Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church, released last month from Orbis Books. A former associate editor at America Media, Segura is a co-founder and former co-host of the podcast Jesuitical. She was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and now lives in the Bronx. Commonweal contributing writer John Gehring spoke with Segura about her book and why the Catholic Church still has a long way to go in confronting white supremacy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John Gehring: Why did you want to write this book and who do you hope reads it?

Olga Marina Segura: I went into the writing process with a very specific idea of contextualizing the Black Lives Matter movement for the Church and to gently accompany white Catholics. And then the pandemic happened. People were getting sick around me. People were protesting police brutality. I wasn’t going to make the book easy or comfortable. Black and Brown people are suffering; we are suffering physical violence and spiritual violence every day. The pandemic radicalized me politically and spiritually.

JG: It’s clear reading your book that the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the women who co-founded it, had a deep personal impact on you. Why do you think this movement has been so effective in inspiring and mobilizing people?

OMS: I think it’s social media. This movement was born on Facebook and it used social media tools to teach people how to organize. It embraced social media when people were still trying to figure that out, and at a time when Millennials were coming of age. These women knew how to use these tools and resources, but they had also been organizing for more than fifteen years. They brought their own advocacy experience to the work. Because of the social media tools they used, I felt as if I could be a part of this conversation about the prison-industrial complex and police brutality. They really figured out how to talk to young people.

Church leaders can learn from that and really jump into this work. A lot of bishops want to have an auditing process first, to meet and vote. But when people are being killed by police violence, inequality, and the pandemic, there is no time for incrementalism. You have to meet people where they are.

JG: You urge leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to meet with the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Why would that be important?

OMS: We know that symbols matter in our Church. Pope Francis was just in Iraq asking for forgiveness, and that was extremely powerful. Imagine our faith leaders sitting down with the founders of Black Lives Matter and saying, “We have messed up. Can you teach us?” That would say to me, a Black immigrant Catholic, that you finally care, you are finally listening, finally doing the accompaniment you like to talk about so much. The bishops are a body of mostly white men and to have them in dialogue with the Black women who started this movement would be extremely powerful.

JG: Are there priests or Catholic sisters that you know who are working with or talking with Black Lives Matter activists?

OMS: At the local level there are a lot of sisters and priests doing that work. We saw in 2020 how many faith leaders aligned themselves with the movement. But the bishops need to get involved. We also know how Catholic money and power work. Our bishops can talk to those people who have influence and who need to be swayed. We need to see that trickle down from the top. There are people who would not listen to me, but would listen to Cardinal Dolan and others who have power and influence.

JG: What would you say to bishops and priests who have publicly criticized Black Lives Matter because of the movement’s positions on abortion and sexuality that are not aligned with Catholic teaching? We need to be a Church that rejects the very public displays of whiteness that our Church associates with being Catholic.

OMS: What is hard for me to reconcile with these critics is these are people who have never talked about police brutality or mass incarceration. You can’t just ignore all of the issues the movement is talking about and only criticize. There are people who think Black Lives Matter activists want to destroy the family. One priest even called them “maggots and parasites” last year. They don’t want to sit down and understand the history of the movement. They don’t want to learn from these activists.

JG: You write that the goal of your book is “to help Catholics, and all Christians, work toward a Christ-centered, Black liberation.” Can you explain what you mean by that and what would that look like if we achieved it?

OMS: For me, it means becoming a Church that cares about equality for Black and Brown people and all marginalized communities. We know our country has not prioritized marginalized people. We need to be a Church that rejects the very public displays of whiteness that our Church associates with being Catholic, and that centers Catholics of color in order to become the universal Church we think we are. And that means bishops publicly apologizing for the Church’s white supremacy, talking about abolition of police, and meeting with organizers. This is what liberation work means to me.

JG: As you document in the book, the Church has a very long history of entanglement with racism and white supremacy. Until recently, not many people have been talking about this. Why do you think there has been so much silence for so long?

OMS: The reason is that people hold power because of that silence, and our Church has internalized white supremacy. People don’t want to relinquish power. To do actual reckoning you have to ask yourself, “How have I been complicit?” People don’t want to do that. Liberal Catholics also have to ask how they have been complicit. You can’t just say “Black Lives Matter.” We really don’t know how to do this reckoning work. Bishops should be showing us how to grapple with the sin of racism.

JG: You praise Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso for speaking out strongly against white supremacy and kneeling in protest with a Black Lives Matter sign. But you’re critical of most statements the bishops have released, including the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts. What do you think the bishops should be saying that they are not saying?

OMS: The statements should not be so long or written in language that doesn’t resonate with people. I also want to see every white bishop talk about white privilege. I want to see them grapple with the same topics I was grappling with in the book and talk about racial capitalism and how our health-care institutions grew out of exploitation of Black bodies. People are afraid to do this public work because it’s hard and they are afraid to mess up. It’s okay to mess up.

JG: The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t seem to have as many connections with churches or other houses of worship in the way that civil-rights leaders of the past were shaped by and deeply connected to the Black church as an epicenter of resistance. Is that simply a generational reality or are other things going on?

OMS: This is a movement that was born online and uses social media to share its message. So I think it’s generational. It’s also a decentralized movement that doesn’t have one very established leader or headquarters. But there is spirituality and there are religious folks in the movement, especially after Ferguson. There was heavy church participation there, but it’s so decentralized it means people are not necessarily telling these stories. I think religious media needs to take this movement more seriously. When I spoke with Alicia Garza [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter], she welcomed faith leaders getting involved. I can tell you this movement has made me a better Catholic.

JG: What advice do you have for white Catholics who want to be allies of Black Lives Matter and be anti-racists?

OMS: The number one question that every white Catholic has to ask themselves is, “How have I been complicit in white supremacy, and how can I be better?” You need to ask: “How can I center marginalized people? Can I give other people the opportunity to do this work instead of me? As an editor, am I only giving bylines to white people?” People need to ask themselves how they can shift power. This is difficult because it requires sacrifice, but that is what solidarity is. A lot of people will need to realize they need to step aside. It’s not supposed to be easy.

JG: What are some things in the Church that give you hope when it comes to confronting our history and taking steps to end white supremacy?

OMS: The thing that really gives me hope is Black and Brown Catholic women. Amid all this suffering in the past year and as I was trying to write a book, I found a community of Black and Brown Catholic women who remind me why I stay in this Church and what this Church should be. Black women are teaching me Christ-centered liberation.

No matter how many Catholics proclaim that Black lives matter, until Garza, Cullors and Tometi are genuinely centered and amplified in Catholic discourse on the movement, we will never be a church committed to Black lives, one Pope Francis describes as “a renewed Church and a renewed humanity.”

Tags: RacismU.S. CatholicismNonfictionBishops, by John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

**

As a journalist, Segura has covered race and culture, studying and interviewing leaders like Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and mothers of young Black men killed by police, highlighting the role their faith has played in both grief and activism. She’s written about the Catholic faith of activists like Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, whose Catholicism was a place to “gauge how to exist in the world.”

Through her reporting, Segura, 31, an opinion editor at National Catholic Reporter, has realized her faith has given her the language to talk about “why every person mattered” and “why God called us to care for the planet.”

And in her recently released book, “Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church,” Segura highlights the urgency for Catholic leadership, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to reject systemic oppression and engage in dialogue with the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. To Segura, who wrote the book amid the disproportionate spread of COVID-19 and the uprising over the police killing of George Floyd, these matters are urgent.

If the Catholic Church doesn’t do more to engage with Black Lives Matter, “the future of our church is at stake,” Segura told Religion News Service.

“Black and brown people do not feel at home in this church, especially young people,” said Segura, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Young people, whom Segura referred to as the Trayvon Martin generation, “think about these things more radically and they want to see a church that reflects that.”

Segura got her start as a professional journalist at America, an esteemed Jesuit magazine, where she immersed herself in learning about Catholic church history, familiarizing herself with papal documents and bishops statements on issues like racism.

In her book, she underscores ” Laudato si’,” the second encyclical of Pope Francis, where he highlighted the risk of “rampant individualism” and detailed how many of society’s problems are “connected with today’s self-centered culture.” She notes that in 2018, the USCCB published its first pastoral letter on racism since 1979, titled “ Open Wide Our Hearts,” where it noted that even after slavery was abolished, many freed Black Americans were forced into “continued servitude in the evolving economies.”

This knowledge helped Segura make a clear comparison between Catholic social teaching and the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement. To Segura, these doctrines carry similarities.

For example, the mission of Black Lives Matter and the pope’s encyclical “focused on social issues and called on us to reject the very individualism that was creating the problems we had to combat. Both challenged a world that was different from the oppressive one I knew,” she wrote.

The “Open Wide Our Heart” letter, Segura wrote, “calls on all Catholics, regardless of race, to work toward the eradication of racism in the United States.”

The way Segura sees it, “Black Lives Matter is not a movement pushing an extremist agenda that contradicts our faith; it is the secular version of our Catholic social teaching.”

However, these statements from the church are limited, she said.

“The only explicit mention of gender in the entire document is used to negate the very existence of transgender women, men, and children around the world,” Segura wrote about the pope’s encyclical.

Unlike the church, the co-founders of Black Lives Matter — Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — “promote a movement that centers the lived experiences of those our church would rather ignore,” Segura details in her book.

As a journalist, Segura has seen how Black Lives Matter co-founders have been maligned for “denigrating religion,” while the movement has been described as “atheist” and “violent.” Segura sets the record straight by featuring the religious upbringings of the movement’s leaders.

While Cullors was raised Jehovah’s Witness, Segura wrote that she moved away from her faith and identifies as “spiritually always seeking.” The work of Tometi, who is Christian, has been influenced by liberation theology, a movement in Christianity, Segura noted.

“These Black female leaders, unlike the predominantly white, all-male bishops who oversee the U.S. Catholic Church, are genuine examples of Christian leadership,” she wrote. “Like Christ, the founders fight for the marginalized, advocate for peace and justice, and work to dismantle oppressive systems.”

In her book, Segura urges the church to stand against white supremacy and to campaign for “defunding and demilitarizing law enforcement.” She envisions a “liberated and resurrected church.” These calls, to many, might seem too hefty. Segura offers practical first steps.

She said the USCCB could conduct a survey on Google Forums or Survey Monkey to ask Black Catholics about topics they would like bishops to address. These suggestions could range from homilies on white privilege to pastoral letters on police brutality.

Also, Segura said, the USCCB can create a website for the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism so Catholics can see the ongoing work of the anti-racism group. And, she added, Pope Francis should call for and attend a gathering in the U.S. to encourage bishops to address the issue of race.

Segura recognizes regular day-to-day Catholics may not place much importance on what the bishops have to say. However, she said, it’s important to challenge bishops with power who have access to Catholics with money.

“If they started to challenge those people who they associate with, that’s where I think we really would start seeing the change,” she said. “They have access to spaces and power that I will never have as an immigrant woman in tis church.”

Segura said she hopes her book helps Catholics, as well as people outside the church, realize “it’s OK to get involved in the struggle for liberation at any point in your faith journey.”

“I hope that people are not afraid … to push our church past where it can really go,” she said.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions. https://ifyc.org/article/why-catholic-journalist-urging-church-engage-black-lives-matter

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