CINCINNATI, Ohio – Student leaders tackled the intersections of race, faith, and justice during a frank panel discussion at Xavier University.

Dr. Marcus Mescher, the event’s organizer and an assistant professor of Christian ethics at the midwestern Jesuit university, told Crux that “many in attendance remarked that they ‘got more than they bargained for’ by showing up and left feeling more informed and empowered than they expected.”

John Gehring, Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, moderated the Feb. 20 event, characterizing it in his opening remarks as a timely opportunity to “listen to and lift up the voices of young activists” whose stories are not only important, but also “sacred.”

Xavier’s president, Jesuit Father Michael Graham, framed the evening’s discussion by telling the chilling yet little-known story of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

From May 31-June 1, 1921 the African American community of the Oklahoma city was terrorized after a black youth allegedly assaulted a white woman in an elevator – details of the incident are unclear, and the woman didn’t press charges – leading to the destruction of much of Tulsa’s black district. Oklahoma officials at the time said 36 people died in the riots, but some estimate the actual death toll was in the hundreds.

The deadly event has made national headlines in recent weeks, with Tulsa authorities authorizing an April 2020 dig for a possible mass grave connected with the massacre.

Graham invited attendees to reflect on the reality that the Tulsa massacre has been almost entirely absent from standard accounts of U.S. history, asking them to consider if something of such magnitude could be nearly erased, “How many other stories have been erased?” and how many other stories “have we learned not to see?”

“Tonight, we’re collectively learning to see,” said Graham. “We’re opening our eyes to what our brothers and sisters encounter on a daily basis.”

Five undergraduate students followed Graham’s introductory remarks with stories of the diverse experiences that have informed their perspectives on faith and racial justice.

Blair McKee, a senior from St. Louis, Missouri, reflected on how she has gradually found answers to the question, “What does it mean to be a black woman?” Integral to that process were theology courses like “Black Literature and Faith,” through which McKee discovered that “it is important to learn how the divine sees you, rather than letting other humans tell you.”

McKee also highlighted the USCCB’s 1979 pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us, reciting the section that she believes sums up her view on faith and racial justice: “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”

Two other student panelists drew attention to the reality that racial justice extends beyond just black and white.

Anjali Nelson, the daughter of immigrants from India, said that her faith in the Jesus who stood up for the marginalized and was marginalized himself has been a “driver” of her asking questions about racism in both its interpersonal and systemic forms, particularly given her own experiences of racism in the Midwest, where “race issues are usually viewed in black and white terms.”

Nathalie Solorio echoed Nelson’s hopes for a more expansive view of racial justice as she spoke about the intersecting struggles of various marginalized populations. Herself the daughter of two Mexican immigrants, Solorio reminded attendees that “Latinx people aren’t just one mold” and spoke about the importance of the “Jesuit traditions of standing in solidarity and kinship with people” in helping her transition from hearing about injustices to going out to do something about them.

Criminal justice major Cameron Lakes also appealed to experiences of “kinship and solidarity” as he recounted his emerging awareness of the crossover in what men from the Hispanic and black communities face in their daily experiences and expressed his hopes for more “collective action against oppression” from those men. Lakes shared that he plans to use his degree as a forensic analyst to help exonerate wrongly convicted black men in the U.S. prison system.

Rounding out the student panel was Molly Onders, who spoke about growing up with the “privilege of never having to think about race.” She described a process of “unlearning things” about race and service that began in her first-year theology course and continued whenever she put herself in spaces where conversations about racial justice were taking place.

“The faith piece comes in when you recognize that your faith should make you uncomfortable with the way that things are,” Onders explained. She went on to explain how she slowly learned “what it means to be a white ally” by “taking a humility pill” and learning to “sit in uncomfortable situations.” Mescher told Crux that he “appreciated how honestly the students shared from their own experiences, ranging from times they felt othered on campus to the ways they found their voice.”

“Each of the students spoke powerfully about their own formation, the fruit of meaningful conversations in the classroom and broadening experiences and relationships outside of the classroom, especially in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Center for Faith and Justice,” added Mescher.

Xavier’s Ohio campus was the second stop of three for Faith in Public Life’s “Faithful Activism 2020: Catholic Millennials & Justice Tour,” which started the prior week with a dialogue on justice for immigrants at Marymount University in Virginia. The tour concludes with a panel discussion about the future of faithful activism at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania on March 30.

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