Social Ministry Day Two: Obama not a 'silver bullet,' Massingale says

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

Barak Obama's political good fortune, including surprising strength among white voters, does not represent a "magic wand or a silver bullet that will put an end to 350 years of racial prejudice and dysfunction," said Fr. Bryan Massingale this morning at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C.

Massingale, a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese, a professor of theology at Marquette University and an African-American, acknowledged in a morning address that "something significant is happening" with the Obama phenomenon.

"In northern Wisconsin, people who have never seen a black person all of a sudden are voting for one," Massingale said.

Nevertheless, Massingale insisted that Obama is "not the messiah whose election will resolve our racial quagmires." His success, Massingale argued, "is saying something, but it's not saying everything."

Massingale is the primary author of a recent document from Catholic Charities USA titled "Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Coimmon Good." His argument this morning was largely devoted to making the case that despite signs of progress, and despite the discomfort often engendered by discussions of race, Catholic social ministers are obligated to confront the "brick wall of racism."

Massingale argued that "white privilege" in America, which he said is a "deliberately constructed and state sanctioned" social reality, continues to shape the lives and opportunities of people of color. Moreover, he said, it not only disadvantages some, but also advantages others -- including, he pointedly said, "people in the room."

To illustrate the point, Massingale told the story of his own father, a trained carpenter with an associate's degree who was never able to practice the trade because of an informal policy of exclusion of African-Americans from the carpenter's union.

"Because of that policy, some other family was able to purchase a home," he said, "and was able to pass on that asset to their heirs, to give them a leg up on life." They benefitted, he said, "from my father's exclusion as a potential competitor for a valued job."

"Some of those families may be in this room," Massingale said. "It's a very concrete social reality."

Massingale suggested that while few social ministers are truly poor, all are in some way implicated in systems of racial prejudice -- despite the fact, he said, that most "do not have a racist bone in their body."

"Faith demands a response of compassion and solidarity, or it is noit faith at all," Massingale said.

Massingale warned that raising issues of racial prejudice and privilege will make some uncomfortable. He pointed, for example, to a blog entry from Marquette after the Catholic Charities USA document appeared that labelled him a "politically conscious race hustler."

That experience, he said, led him to paraphrase one of the beatitudes: "Blessed are you when people speak falsely about you and blog about you," he said.

Nonetheless, Massingale said, the effort is obligatory.

"Poverty and racism and injustice are scandalous and must not be," he said.

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session runs Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.

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