In August 1955, Carolyn Bryant accused a young, black boy of offending her in her family’s store. Four days later, Emmett Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, his brutal murder a direct result of Bryant’s false claims. His killers were acquitted by the all-white jury.
I recently traveled to Money, Mississippi on a civil rights pilgrimage through the southern United States. Standing by the now-dilapidated Bryant’s Grocery, contemplating Carolyn’s lies and her role in Emmett’s lynching, I was confronted by my own legacy as a white woman—our generations of complicity in racial violence. Pulled in by the unreconciled truth of that place, I believe part of me stayed behind.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus journeys with his family to Jerusalem and also stays behind. They find him days later, sitting among the teachers in the temple, “listening to them and asking questions.” I wonder what truths captivated Jesus to lose track of time, to become so absorbed. Soon after, Jesus will be baptized into his adult ministry. I imagine this first journey to Jerusalem changed him—expanded his heart and confronted him with such a deep honest call, that it would set him on another journey, ultimately leading to the cross.
On the pilgrimage, I continued to encounter people and places that linked past and present, terror and hope, struggle and freedom. I immersed myself in the honesty of those stories. The more I listened and asked questions, the more I understood how deeply vested I am in the dire call for racial justice.
Racism inhibits the full revelation of God—for all of us; it wounds this beautiful Body of Christ. As a U.S. Catholic Church, our approach often seems mired in inadequate theologies. Harmony cannot be at the expense of real reconciliation; justice cannot be born of half-truths; personal conversion is not enough. For white Catholics and our clergy, the work of racial justice cannot be about helping our neighbors. We must be drawn into a solidarity so real, that confronts us with the ways we have broken our covenant with God and calls us to become co-conspirators in God’s promise to all generations. Having been intimately complicit in the wounds of racism, we must be equally complicit in the confession, healing, and transformation of hearts and systems. It must be a call so deeply urgent and personal, that it alters our path, compels us to leave part of ourselves behind, and changes our way home.
Marilyn Nash is the Campus Minister for Social Justice at Seattle University, and is an alumna of Seattle University’s School of Theology. Born in Pennsylvania, she moved to Seattle with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest. She has worked in social services, accompanying communities who were homeless or on the margins. She has a special interest in the body’s relationship to spirituality and worked as a massage therapist for over 10 years. Her passions include Ignatian spirituality and discernment; the intersection of faith and racial justice; accompanying people in making meaning of small moments and big choices; and being an auntie on both coasts.