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Letter: Duke Catholic, it’s past time to truly minister to BIPOC students

guest letter

To Father Michael Martin, the Duke Catholic Center Advisory Board and staff, and the greater Duke Catholic community: 

The Duke Catholic Center (DCC) has a history of marginalizing Black students, failing to uphold its mission to create a welcoming community grounded in social justice. When individual members of our group have approached the DCC privately, the DCC has failed to address their grievances. We have thus formed a group of alumni known as Duke Catholics for Black Lives (DC4BL) to implore the DCC to seek reconciliation with Black students and foster an environment that is welcoming to all. 

In heeding the outcry of numerous Black Americans presently suffering throughout the United States, we have chosen to center the experiences of Black students in our appeals for immediate and substantial reform. We also recognize and uplift the experiences of marginalization that other students of color have endured throughout their time in the DCC.

In 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that racism often “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.” Racism kills and marginalizes; this directly counters the Church’s foundational conviction of the dignity of the human person. (CCC 2258, 2260-61).

On June 2, 2020, Catholic Center director, Fr. Michael Martin, released a statement titled “The Only Answer I Have” in response to recent “expressions of senseless violence rooted in the unjust abuse of power.” This statement failed to mention “race,” “racism,” or “police brutality,” nor did it identify any of the Black individuals whose precious lives have been taken since 2020 began. In fact, “The Only Answer I Have” did not contemplate the conditions that gave rise to this violence at all. The DCC’s subsequent acknowledgments of the movement against racism have been inconsistent and inadequate. The failure of this statement represents just one recent example of a pattern of failing to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students. DC4BL submits this letter to begin a public discourse in hopes that DCC leadership will acknowledge this failure and swiftly bring about long overdue change.

The following accounts of student experiences within the Duke Catholic Center were solicited from current and former students. We regret that it has once again fallen on primarily BIPOC students to educate their white administrators and peers, and we thank those students who have shared their experiences to bring attention to these issues.

Through programming that primarily appeals to white, wealthy, conservative students, the DCC elevates "whiteness" as the default for worship and leadership. The DCC fails to reflect on the absence of BIPOC participation, thus perpetuating the problem: 

“My experience of race at the Duke Catholic Center was of overwhelming whiteness. I was (and am) white. The priests and other adult leadership were white. Our speakers were (mostly) white.  My friends were (mostly) white. I saw mostly white folks at Mass. It is as if Noah saw the diversity God created and responded by taking out a big paint roller and blotting out all the color… What strikes me now, in retrospect is the utter lack of remark on this whiteness. We spoke (sometimes carefully) about some other justice issues... But when it came to race, voices stilled, and we all acquiesced to the implied message that normal is whiteness, and whiteness is normal… Looking back, the silence is deafening, and something that needs to change.” (Shane Hunt, T‘12)

“...I do believe however that it is obvious that there is a lack of diversity in the active Catholic community at Duke and that at its core the DCC is set up to appeal to a certain demographic which is typically upper class, conservative white students. No effort whatsoever is made to actively and specifically appeal to other demographics, especially the black student population.” (Aristide Sangano, P‘17)

“As a white, undergrad student at Duke, I had a largely positive experience being part of the DCC community… However, I started to feel disheartened when events were happening in our country and in our world—in particular, anti-Black violence, but also other examples of hatred and discrimination—and the homilies at mass or prayers of intention neglected to mention these. The silence on issues of social justice led me to seek out other faith communities…” (Elizabeth Knippler, T‘16)

DCC staff has failed to recognize and appreciate BIPOC students relative to white peers, which exacerbates the lack of belonging experienced by BIPOC in the DCC: 

“Throughout my 7 years in the DCC community, I was constantly confused with a fellow Latina, and our hometowns and ancestry constantly mixed up by staff. This happened even after my Latina peer graduated and I remained at Duke for law school.” (Ana Maganto Ramirez, T’17, L’20)

“My faith journey in college was rich and rewarding yet marred by instances in which certain staff members treated me as though I was insignificant. My earliest memories of such treatment occurred as a freshman when I would regularly accompany my roommate to mass. One priest would stop to greet and chat with her weekly but consistently neglected to engage me in conversation or at minimum, learn my name… In 2016, I entered the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil. My sponsor (the freshman roommate) and the same priest stood with me as I was confirmed into the church...The following year, after participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with said priest, he asked me who I was and where I had done my undergrad... Even afterward, in my role as Assistant Wedding Director at Duke Chapel, I facilitated weddings that the priest officiated and he still neglected to address me by name.” (Amber Black, T’16, L’20)

The DCC has failed to take simple, low-cost measures to welcome BIPOC students when requested:

“...I invited a Protestant, Chinese-Malaysian-American friend to accompany me to a Tuesday Night Dinner… The [Peer Ministry Coordinator] at the time asked how she was enjoying herself, and my friend told the PMC exactly what she had told me earlier—that things felt cliquey and unwelcoming. As she began to explain why she felt this way and offer suggestions about what the DCC could do to ensure visitors didn't feel that way in the future, the PMC began looking around, seemingly ignoring my friend, and eventually cut the conversation short before joining a different group of (white) students... I apologized profusely on the walk home… I was embarrassed that the DCC's habit of inadvertently marginalizing people of color was so pervasive that it had affected the experience of a first-time (and only-time) visitor, too.” (Amber Black, T’16, L’20)

“I went to Mass quite regularly in my first year but I did not feel like the announcements for things like beach week or Tuesday Night Dinner were necessarily aimed at me. For someone who already wasn’t seeing many people that looked like me, talked like me, worshiped like me I needed some signs that [the DCC] was a place for me. Just because a door is open does not mean everyone is or feels welcome to enter through it.” (Aristide Sangano, P‘17)

“Though I feel my faith has grown through my experience in the DCC, it came at the cost of my decreased self-worth and drained resilience and vigor for evangelization. Even after graduating from undergrad knowing I would remain at Duke for law school, the first words from one of the staff was "oh great! now we have someone to lead graduate retreats." As if I was only good for my emotional and physical labor[.] What’s more, I suggested the creation of a Spanish-speaking small group. They ignored my pleas and arguments for it though a significant portion of the student population would have benefited. I felt that the DCC's primary involvement in my faith was for the purpose of my labor for the masses rather than my faith journey and relationship with Christ as an individual.” (Ana Maganto Ramirez, T’17, L’20)

We bring these concerns and testimonials to light not to harm the DCC, but because we believe that the staff and community can—and must—do better. Accordingly, we have authored a list of demands so that the DCC can address these grievances. The DCC has helped countless students encounter and deepen their relationships with Christ. It is imperative that the DCC cast their nets ever wider and deeper (Luke 5:1-11) so that all students may be welcomed and nurtured in the Catholic community at Duke.

We invite readers to visit our website, view our demands, and join the list of signatories. If you would like to share about your own experience within the DCC, which may later be posted to our website, you may submit your account here.

Attentively, 

Duke Catholics for Black Lives: 

Bernadette Marcu, T’14

Chris Dieckhaus, T’16

Mary Skapek, T’16

Laura Naslund T’19

Michelle Krogius P’19

Shannon Malloy, T’19

Amber Black, T’16, L’20

Ana Maganto Ramirez T’17, L’20

Editor's note: Reached for comment on this letter, Catholic Center Director Michael Martin provided the following statement in an email to The Chronicle: "As a country and a world, we are in a unique time of self-reflection about the ways in which racism has so egregiously impacted the lives of generations of people of color. The Roman Catholic Church, and the Duke Catholic Center as a local community of the same, stand together with all people of good will to uphold the dignity of human life, and will continue to seek forgiveness for the ways in which it has not lived up to that high value. The Duke Catholic Center has been in conversation with the alumni who have become Duke Catholics for Black Lives for several months. While we do not agree with many of DC4BL’s characterizations of our community, we value their insights and hope they will work with us to realize our shared mission on campus, and in the world. Their lived experiences deserve to be heard, and we are prayerfully considering how to grow. The doors of the Duke Catholic Center remain open to all students and alumni who wish to engage with us. The nature of the mission of the DCC, centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, encourages us to foster healthy human dialogue as brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are deeply committed to healing and reconciliation."

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