“I Was a Stranger”
Judith Sutera, OSB
Editor's note: Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica write a weekly column titled "View from the Mount" in our hometown newspaper, the Atchison Globe. This column appeared in the Oct. 15, 2016, edition of the Globe.
For the past two weeks, our columns have related to the issue of racism and privilege which the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has encouraged us to address. In a conversation with one of our sisters who has expertise in communication, I asked her how we get this to the personal and not just theoretical level. She said that we cannot address issues unless we’re willing to listen to the pain of others. In last week’s column, Sister Barbara Mayer identified some qualities of “white privilege” and her own growing understanding of it.
I am going to take a big risk here and offer something even more personal. My parents were Sicilian immigrants. Since Sicily is an island in the Mediterranean, my genetic makeup is Middle Eastern, North African, Greek, along with some coastal Spanish and Italian. When growing up in the 1950's, my mother would tell me about the day the Ku Klux Klan chased my uncle. Although it happened decades earlier, I was not to go near that hill and I lived with the fear that some people would despise me just by looking at me.
No child should have to fear the KKK. I lived in a very mixed ethnic neighborhood and children of all types played together. But when it came time for kindergarten, I had an easy walk to a public school three blocks from my house while the black children hiked more than a mile to “their” school. So in this case, I was on the other side of the divide. Separate but equal wasn’t, if for no other reason than how cold and tired children would be when they got to school.
On a business trip to Toronto in the 1980s, before Americans had to carry passports and the fear was just immigration and not terrorism, the gate agent asked me if I had a passport and put me in the short line with a Pakistani couple where we were asked many more questions about where we came from and where we were going than the other similarly trenchcoated, briefcase-carrying travelers.
Walking down the street one day just a few years ago in an area of Kansas City which was “transitioning” from mostly white to Hispanic, a man in front of a bar started yelling at me, “Hey, what country is this? Isn’t this America? It’s not Mexico, it’s America!” Some people can walk down any street without harassment; some have to listen to strangers yelling for them to go back to somewhere they never came from.
My experiences are minor in comparison to what many people endure every day when we are judged simply by the way we look. I don’t tell these stories to get sympathy or to make anyone feel guilty. It’s just to remind us all that the world can feel very different depending on where any one of us stands. There are white people who think every black person wants to hurt them and black people who feel the same about whites. As long as anyone feels uncomfortable in the presence of a majority of people unlike themselves, we fall short of Jesus who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Jesus hung out with a lot of people from different sides of divides. He made no apologies for it and he challenged everyone to come to the table and celebrate their diversity, even sinners and outcasts and foreigners. He wants us at that table where we can have conversations, hear what it’s like in another place and become people of compassion and welcome.