By Sister Marietta Russell, MHSH
Our first posting in February—Black History Month—recalled the founding of the Mission Helpers Community in post-Civil War Baltimore, where we held Sunday School classes outside of the church for black children who weren’t welcomed inside.
I’m not quite old enough to have been a part of that bold move, but I was in the South when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. I served in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, from 1958 to 1966. Mission Helpers had been called to set up formal religious education programs for the first time.
Here we were, almost 100 years after the Civil War, and the races did not mix at all. In the religion classes, the white children sat in the front rows. Then there was a separation—a row where the chairs had been removed—and then there were the black children. We couldn’t do things differently because segregation was the law of the land.
In the churches, blacks had to sit in the balconies. If a church had a choir loft up in the balcony, curtains were hung to separate the white choir from the black parishioners.
The Civil Rights Act changed the law, but real change didn’t happen right away, even though the children were ready for it. Watching a group of fifth graders trying to make sense of it all was a beautiful process. We told them that black and white didn’t matter, that real beauty was inside. They understood this and talked about it among themselves.
I left South Carolina in 1966—and things hadn’t changed much. But, when I returned to visit several years later, everything was different; it was like segregation had never happened. The Catholic people welcomed black people into their churches, and that made me feel very good. Everyone was ready to heal. The black people had remained faithful through suffering; they knew they hadn’t been deserted by God.
I think Black History Month is a time for us to look back into our past and see that God was there all along. He has brought us to where we are today and will show us where we are to go tomorrow.