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February 28, 2020 — Members of the Jesuit Antiracism Sodality (JARS) began 2020 by spending seven days on a pilgrimage from New Orleans to Mobile, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta. They visited historical sites and met with black Catholic leaders, dedicating themselves to JARS’ mission priority of racial healing and reconciliation, as well as the Universal Apostolic Preferences.

The pilgrimage was just one initiative of JARS’ efforts to address the issue of racism both within the Society and its works and institutions. Committed to continued dialogue and action, the group aims for exposure and education not only in relation to the racism of today, but to the history that shaped our current racial conditions and those who have come before us in the struggle for justice. JARS’ next pilgrimage is scheduled for June 20-27 of this coming summer, following the Archbishop Lyke Conference in New Orleans.

The January pilgrimage began in the historically Catholic city of New Orleans, with participants learning how Hurricane Katrina disproportionately impacted the black community in the city. The Jesuits visited the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas during the 2005 hurricane, and toured the nearby Whitney Plantation.

JARS at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

In Mobile, Alabama, the Jesuits visited Spring Hill College, one of only two Jesuit colleges and universities maintained in the South, for extensive group reflection and discussion. They next drove to Selma, Alabama, and the Pettus Bridge, the site of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

In Montgomery, where Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Jesuits visited the National Peace and Justice Memorial and the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum. They then toured the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta, where they closed their trip.

Although JARS was begun as an initiative of Midwest Jesuits in formation, it is now sponsored by the province and open to Jesuits at every stage of formation and beyond.

Jesuits toured the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, dedicated to telling the story of those who lived in slavery.

Last June, JARS assembled over 70 Jesuits to discuss how the Society of Jesus continues to be influenced by racism and to pray for guidance to grapple with that reality.

Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, called for such activity in a 1967 letter to American Jesuits, “On the Interracial Apostolate,” in which he deemed Jesuit relations with African Americans a failure. Among the reasons he gave was “an unconscious conformity to the discriminatory thought and action patterns of the surrounding white community.”

The JARS discussion last June included a time of silent prayer where Jesuits reflected on 1 John 1:5-10, “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

Jesuits visited the Selma Voting Rights Monument and Park, with the Pettus Bridge visible in the distance.

In a discussion afterward, multiple white Jesuits talked about how easy self-deception can be for white people when it comes to racism and how vulnerable individuals are to unconsciously taking on racist attitudes that can impact institutional decisions.

“I don’t think anyone in this room would ask the question if they are a sinner, but we would ask, how am I a sinner?” one Jesuit scholastic shared. “The question isn’t if I’m racist, the question is how am I, or how are we, racist?”

Pilgrimage participants outside the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the starting point for the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.

While the reality that racism infects the Jesuits even today is quite serious and cause for contrition, JARS is bringing Jesuits a sense of hope.

“I am hoping that [JARS]…will help our Jesuit brothers see that the truth really does set us free,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Brown. “Racism entombs us all. Only by holding on to the truth of redemptive love can we bring ourselves out of the tomb that we human beings have constructed.” [Source: Midwest Jesuits]

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