Newly released “Green Book” and “Open Wide Our Hearts” place U.S. Racism Front and Center

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

“You have formed us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” —St. Augustine | Confessions 1.1

What do Universal Pictures and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have in common? Both rolled out a major production on racism and U.S. race relations in November: “Green Book” and Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, respectively. Producers describe the movie as follows:

When Tony Lip (Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger as well as unexpected humanity and humor—they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.

In the beginning of their pastoral letter, the bishops write why the production of Open Wide Our Hearts was necessary today:

Racism comes in many forms. It can be seen in deliberate, sinful acts. In recent times, we have seen bold expressions of racism by groups as well as individuals. The re-appearance of symbols of hatred, such as nooses and swastikas in public spaces, is a tragic indicator of rising racial and ethnic animus. All too often, Hispanics and African Americans, for example, face discrimination in hiring, housing, educational opportunities, and incarceration. Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices, and African Americans, for suspected criminal activity. There is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries. Extreme nationalist ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Finally, too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.

After viewing the former this afternoon, I understand why many see it as a 2019 Oscar candidate; it already has vaulted to one of my favorite Christmas movies. If you are looking for an informative interview/review try “ ‘Green Book’ Is About Race – And Also Friendship, Class And Masculinity” (National Public Radio, November 23, 2018).

Hollywood producers and the teaching offices of our faith traditions can continue to publish, preach, and teach to offset racism and prejudice in our history and current society, but whether the silver screen or the pulpit is more formative in our world view, the message must filter beyond the walls of movie theatres and our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. As one commentator noted about “Green Book”: don’t fool yourself to think that you are not a racist simply because you paid to see this movie.

In a similar vein, I reminded a friend who accompanied me to the movie that the election of the first U.S. president of color did not denote the end of racism in our country. We might also ask ourselves questions such as:

  • “Are our schools accurately portraying American Jim Crow of the 20th century?”
  • “What unfair stereotypes do we hold in regard to masculinity and lower ethnic class Americans?”
  • “Do we unjustly pigeonhole men and women who are artistically inclined?”

The movie has an extremely powerful closing scene. After racing back to New York City from Birmingham to be home for Christmas (while being delayed by a police pull-over, a flat tire, and a northeastern snowstorm), Dr. Shirley crashes Tony’s family’s Italian Christmas feast. Several generations of rough-and-tumble lower-class Italian Americans welcome the elegantly polished African-American pianist into their home for a Christmas celebration. Bread is broken, food is shared, stereotypes are destroyed, and bridges are built. By the end of the movie, Tony had finished his two month gig as Dr. Shirley’s driver and bodyguard, but the two historical figures on which the movie is based remained friends until both died in 2013.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

Addressing U.S. Hate Crimes and All Souls Liturgy

Pictured: Hand-carved wooden statues of Norbertine saints and blesseds are on display in the St. Norbert Abbey dining room. Commissioned between 2011 and 2015 by Abbot Gary Neville, O. Praem., these custom works were designed and created by Josef Albl and sons of ALBL Oberammergau woodcarvers in Germany.

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

The week of October 21, 2018, was a tragic week in our country; a pall hung over our nation. We were reminded once again of the extent of hatred in the United States, expressed by not only mentally ill or lone ranger individuals, but also people in political power.

At the expense of missing an event, what do the murders of two shoppers in a Louisville Kroger grocery store, 14 intended recipients of mail bombs, the slaughter of 11 Jewish congregants, and the daily tirade and threats of punishment against several thousand Honduran asylum seekers have in common? They illustrate the worst of our nature. And all during a week in which the ashes of Matthew Shepherd, whose bloody 1998 murder helped give rise to hate laws in our country, were laid to rest in the National Cathedral.

As I struggled to make sense of these hateful utterances and actions, we sang Bernadette Farrell’s “Christ, Be Our Light” as an entrance song at Sunday Mass at St. Norbert Abbey. A portion of the lyrics include the following:

Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
Light for the world to see.

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts,
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today.

Longing for peace, our world is troubled.
Longing for hope, many despair.
Your word alone has power to save us.
Make us your living voice.

As I continued to pray and reflect on the events, I read Deuteronomy 6:2-6, which was shared in many Christian churches on Sunday, November 4. The reading capsulizes Jewish law by directing the Jewish people to love the Lord, their God, with all of their heart, mind, and soul. What a beautiful tribute to the first of the Abrahamic faiths; may every Jew, Christian, and Moslem honor the grieving Jewish community in Pittsburgh. We stand united with you in tradition and prayer.

I continued to wonder what else I could do to process my feelings surrounding these hateful crimes by my own countrymen. A friend from Washington, D.C., Kate Tromble, pastoral associate for social justice, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, e-blasted a listing of D.C.-area vigils and the name and address of the rabbi of the Jewish congregation victimized by the October 20 hate crime:

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers
Tree of Life (Or L’Simcha) Synagogue
5898 Wilkins Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

I thanked Kate for the information and promptly wrote to the rabbi, expressing my prayerful support as an Eastern Rite Lebanese-American in Wisconsin.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, rabbi-in-residence at Avodah, authored “The victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre are martyrs” in the October 28 Washington Post. She also was featured in WBUR’s “On Point on October 29. Her column and interview are well worth your time. As the rabbi and other “On Point” speakers pointed out, one response to these hate crimes, and the pro-gun culture that helps perpetuate them, is to express yourself at the polls this November 6 and afterwards.

Her comment about martyrs also reminded me that the Catholic Church celebrated All Soul’s Day (“The Commemoration of all of the Faithful Departed”) on November 2. We memorialized the lives of all those in our community who died in the last 12 months. The First Reading speaks of the souls of the just being in the hands of God (Wisdom 3:1-9). I wonder how many preachers connected this Catholic feast to the martyrdom of the Louisville shoppers, murdered Pittsburghers who celebrated the Jewish Sabbath on October 27, and Latin American asylum-seekers dying in the desert and U.S. detention centers?

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

Walking the Talk

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

Three recent Sundays reminded us of Jesus’ (and Christianity’s) special place for children.

On October 7, 2018, we were reminded that Jesus said to his disciples:

“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them. (Mark 10:14b-18)

One week earlier, the Gospel reminded us:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. (Mark 9:42)

And, on September 23, we heard:

Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9:36-37)

The valuing and protection of children is paramount; we have a long way to go. We continue to rile from the many news stories about the sexual abuse of children, children’s impairment on the U.S. border (“A Record 13,300 Migrant Children Are Being Detained by the Trump Administration”; “Trump’s new plan to detain immigrant families indefinitely, explained”), and religious leaders reminding us of the importance of maintaining adequate nutrition programs for children in the U.S. Farm Bill.

Amidst these various serious challenges facing our children, my friend Mary was posting to me about the need for her ministry, Love Life, to find a new distribution site on the east side of Green Bay. After about 10 years, Love Life—which provides free diapers, formula, and other infant products to needy families—was asked to find a new location. After several months of research and negotiations, Love Life Leaders were welcomed at Central Church, a short distance from its former home.

May God bless Love Life’s volunteers and supporters and Central Church for walking the talk for our children. It is heartwarming to realize that kids’ fortunes are being protected in one small way during an otherwise trying time for children’s rights.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

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