This spring The New York Times published several stories about Georgetown University’s history of selling slaves. As a Georgetown alum, I followed those stories and joined family members and Harvest Time friends in processing the impact of learning about this history. In those conversations, I shared my grief that Jesuit priests, the priests who taught me about the faith that does justice, were at the heart of this sale of slaves. I also wondered how Georgetown, and those of us who benefited from a Georgetown education, should respond to this history.
As I reflected on this issue and read what Georgetown was doing in response, I kept feeling as if a piece was missing. One quiet morning early this month, I sat down and penned a letter to the president of the university, offering my perspective. Below is the text of that letter. I want to share it with you because I am aware that many of us in the Harvest Time network are pondering how to best respond to the realities of racism that are present in our history and culture. Here is one way that I am responding.
Dear Dr. DeGioia,
As a Georgetown alum, I have followed with interest and grief the New York Times’ recent stories about Georgetown’s sale of slaves. I have also read your letter to the Georgetown community and your speech about steps the university is taking to face this history and address current realities of racial injustice. I commend you and the university for making such a bold commitment to addressing the persistent legacy of racism.
And as I read about this issue, I keep feeling as if a piece is missing, a piece that I learned from the Jesuits. I offer my perspective now in a spirit of gratitude for my Georgetown education and formation.
In addition to the steps you have outlined to make Georgetown an academic center for studying African American experience and exploring possible reparations, I suggest that Georgetown also develop opportunities to do the inner spiritual work necessary to become conscious of and uproot the sins of racism that live inside the human mind and heart. Without attention to the inner dynamics of racism, I fear our actions will fall short of true reconciliation.
I offer this perspective from the context of my work at Harvest Time, an ecumenical ministry that supports affluent Christians who seek to respond to the Gospel with their resources and lives. Because the people in our network are deeply committed to social justice, we are often led to create relationships and partnerships across differences of race and class. Often issues related to trust and fear arise in such partnerships and/or we find ourselves unintentionally recreating the very dynamics we seek to shift. Because of that, we have taken the time to learn tools that enable us to understand the ways that the culture’s racism is alive in each of us, often unconsciously, and that allow us to find our ways through such issues so we can participate in reconciliation.
My suggestion, then, is that in addition to the steps you are taking to become an academic center for forming a new moral imagination you make an equally bold commitment to become a “center of gravity” for spiritual exercises that open the heart to transformation. I am thinking of the profound wisdom of the Spiritual Exercises and the spiritual practices that invite us to meditate prayerfully on how sin – in this case racism – is present in our lives. I am thinking also of the prayer of lament, which is an essential movement in the heart’s turning more fully to God (I certainly felt a need for this prayer when I read the first article in the New York Times in April); and the practice of forgiveness. I am also thinking of meditations on the scripture stories where Jesus crossed the cultural and economic boundaries of his time and the Christian vision of a community that can embrace the dignity and inner light of each human being. And, of course, I am thinking of practices designed to orient our listening and movement to the magnetic north of divine love. Part of the gift of my Georgetown education was the spiritual formation I received alongside my academic training. On retreat, I came to understand that the faith that does justice flows from an informed mind and a transformed heart.
I believe creating opportunities for this kind of spiritual transformation will strengthen the work you are doing and help form human beings who are capable of living in and creating communities of deep partnership and true reconciliation.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such human beings were Georgetown’s gift to the future?
College of Arts and Sciences, 1992