Since Hope Sings was published, I’ve been privileged to correspond with Mr. Randy Gamble, a veteran of civil rights work and racial reconciliation in the Memphis area. We’ve had some wonderful conversations by email and telephone, and God willing, there will be many more to come. I feel that I’ve made a new friend, and I’ve learned a great deal about the history and present state of race relations from Randy’s perspective. Perhaps above all, I’ve been moved by his rich but often painful life experiences as a black Catholic. With Randy’s permission, I share the following excerpt from an email he sent to me on July 4th, Independence Day:
I opened up your book the other day and what stood out for me was Chapter 9 on Sr. Thea Bowman, p. 150, especially her words on “what it means to be black and Catholic.” Reading those words encourages me, but at the same time I feel just like Mrs. Harriett Hazely (quoted on p. 143)—isolation and separation. I have left my parish on several occasions for being “sick and tired of being sick and tired” (Fannie Lou Hamer). There have been many instances of encountering individuals that God has sent to me to return to my parish.
For a time I was doing voluntary work in the neighborhood with the Presbyterian Church, where the minister was a former Catholic from the Bahamas and shared with me his experiences. I was like Jacob wrestling with God in this situation, until I surrendered and Let Go and Let God Have His Way, which wasn’t easy for a retired military person like myself.
My parish of St. Patrick’s had a 3-day celebration for the Paulist Priest leaving the church after being there from 1954 until now. It was both a glad and sad moment for a lot of us parishioners, even knowing that change is something that happens in life all the time. During the celebration I ran into a white woman who is Catholic that wanted to share something with me. She is doing a project on “Black Catholics in Memphis” and wanted to know if I would be interested. I had met her some years back at a March that was organized by a Paulist priest and a Dominican priest, which went from St. Martin De Porres Shrine to the National Civil Rights Museum, to link both Martins (Martin Luther King, Jr. and St. Martin De Porres) together.
She had written a paper on a “lynching” that took place in Memphis in the early 1900’s and wanted to know if I would comment on it, since it was part of her reflection at Memphis Theological Seminary on Dr. James Cone’s book, The Cross and Lynching Tree. What was really painful in reading her reflection was to learn that a part of the body of the African American man was thrown in a building on Beale Street, which is one block from my parish.
Reading your book brings up a lot of memories of challenges and struggles that I haven’t thought about in sometime, but it’s good to remember those moments of God’s grace shining through. At certain moments in my life with the Roman Catholic Church I feel tired and at other times I feel elevated.
Next week sometime I’m meeting with a young white man who is doing a film about the community I live in, since someone gave him my name and stated I would be good to interview for this film. If this is not a “Graced Encounter Across the Color Line” I don’t know what is.
I leave you with a message as I write on July 4th, Independence Day. My independence is the working of the Holy Spirit through healthy relationships with my brothers and sisters that depend above all on the will of the Creator.
I also reflected today upon Frederick Douglass’ address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Editor’s postscript: If you have never read this Frederick Douglass address, or haven’t for a while, it is a powerhouse, a disarming juggernaut of speaking truth to power. As my fellow blogger Rosemary Kearney remarked, “the language alone would make anyone turn in their grave.” And its contemporary resonances – I cannot judge otherwise – are inescapable. My thanks to Randy for pointing me to it, and for his permission to share something here of his hard-bought wisdom and beautiful witness to a life of faith and fellowship across the color line.