Dear Members of the Fordham Family,
It is with a heavy and (let me be honest here) angry heart that I write to you today. I suspect that your hearts are also angry and heavy with sorrow. And how could we not be angry, dismayed and sorrowful at this moment? In the course of the past few painful months, we have witnessed the savage and senseless killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, as well as many other instances of violence—lethal and not—against people of color in the United States. That is not to mention the longstanding economic violence against people of color and their communities in this country, and the widespread, systemic and shameful disregard for the value of their lives in the eyes of others. (We have seen this systemic disregard quite clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic: amid the suffering across the country, and especially in the Bronx, communities of color were and are more vulnerable and more harshly affected than are white communities.)
I do not think I have to convince any of you that these acts and this state of affairs are sinful and immoral, and that they go against everything that a Jesuit university stands for. I do, however, think that some of our fellow citizens need to be reminded that they are happening every day in our very midst—in our own communities. Although we don’t all like to admit it, people of color—and let’s be frank, especially Black people—live lives of relentlessly hostile scrutiny, and they have been telling us so since the ink on the Thirteenth Amendment was barely dry. Four years ago, when we were confronted with a sadly similar shameful moment, former President Obama wrote that, “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts. And that should trouble all of us. This is not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about. All fair-minded people should be concerned.” And he was and is right. The problems that we must confront belong to all of us. Therefore, we need to own up to them. We have to own them. All of us. Their solutions also need to be owned by everyone, but especially by our leaders and those in positions of authority and influence.
Yesterday, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death former President Obama once again issued a statement that said, in part, “…we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’ — whether it’s while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park.”
As you might imagine, I found myself returning to President Obama’s haunting reflections over and over again in the course of the past few days. And I was made uneasy by them—in the best possible sense of that word. For you see, I heard in them the unmistakable ring of truth. And that truth pierced me to the heart. Therefore, I asked myself how the Fordham family can and should respond to the challenges that the events of past week have presented to us. Of course, as a community of faith, we will pray for the repose of the souls of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. We will also pray for their families as they wrestle with the losses they have suffered in and through the deaths of those whom they loved so dearly. That goes without saying, and I ask you to join me in those fervent prayers.
But, let’s be honest. That is not enough. We must do more. We are a university community. Therefore, we must also recommit ourselves to the work that is proper to us as an academic community. A university’s greatest strength is its intellectual capital—the research, teaching, and learning that occurs both in and outside of the classroom. It is our central mission, and the one on which we expend the great majority of our budget and most of our energy—intellectual and moral. Tapping into these strengths and assets, we must recommit ourselves to the work of educating for justice and to doing all we can to figure out how our beloved nation, to paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal, has allowed itself to stray from the ideals (and the promises those ideals hold out to all) upon which it was founded.
We are not, however, merely a university community. We are a Jesuit university community. And what does that mean for us and the work we must undertake? As I have told you before, I believe that the issues that divide and challenge our nation are moral issues. Therefore, I believe that precisely because we are a Jesuit institution, we have a special responsibility to reflect on the events of the past week and on the challenges that they have created for our nation in particularly moral terms. What do I mean? Just this: We can remind our students (and ourselves) that the situation in which the nation now finds itself is one that requires us to engage in an honest examination of conscience and consciousness so that we can be what God wants us to be. If we are willing to engage in this examination of consciousness, we will be able to take the first step toward the conversion of heart that will free us from the bondage of anger, frustration, and suspicion that holds us back.
I will not lie to you. The work of conversion is hard. And frequently it takes time. A long time. But I assure you that it is worth the exertion that it requires. The death of innocents calls us to it. The Gospel that has always stood at the center of our life and mission calls us to it. Therefore, let us all look into our hearts and see what justice would look like for the communities of color that are languishing and being crushed under the weight of racism in our country. Let us take to heart the loving invitation contained in the message issued on Friday by the United States Catholic Conference: “Encounter the people who historically have been disenfranchised [and]continue to experience sadness and pain and more authentically accompany them, listen to their stories, and learn from them, finding substantive ways to enact systemic change. Such encounters will start to bring about the needed transformation of our understanding of true life, charity, and justice in the United States.”
As I said, the work of conversion is hard, but if we commit ourselves to its rigors, we will be able to redeem the promises of our founding ideals for all of our citizens, who are (in the eyes of God) our brothers and sisters. Our beloved brothers and sisters.
You are in my thoughts and prayers today and every day.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.