“Agitating the Charism: Olga Segura on BLM and the Catholic Church”

by, Kyla Guilfoil, Staff Writer

The Black Lives Matter movement has permeated society in a deeper way than it ever has before. There have been countless protests, social media posts, t-shirts made, face masks worn and statements from politicians, organizations and companies all regarding the movement. 

In America right now it is virtually impossible for an organization to avoid stating an opinion on BLM. And yet, that is what the Catholic Church has appeared to do.

Olga Segura, a freelance writer and an Afro-Domincan member of the Catholic community, has written a book called “Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church,” that will be published in January 2021. 

During the virtual event, titled “Agitating the Charism,” Segura spoke to MC faculty and students about her book, her emotional process through it and the issue of racism within our society and the Catholic church.

“Agitating the Charism” is a series of events hosted by the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center that hopes to expose students to speakers that demonstrate how to speak out within an institution and fight for their truth.

“[When the LWGRC was beginning] students were saying that they wished they had a model of how you speak truth to power, how you say this is what is wrong with this institution, from a place of love and believing in it, but wanting it to change,” Jordan Pascoe, professor of critical race studies and co-director of the LWGRC, said. “And so that’s what ‘Agitating the Charism’ is, it is our attempt to bring in people who can help give students a model for what that kind of work within our tradition would look like.”

According to Pascoe, Segura filled this role excellently. Segura’s book was originally going to be a history of the BLM movement for Christians to learn and connect their faith to, in order to help them feel more comfortable talking about racism. However, the events of 2020 completely changed her approach. 

“My book was due June 30, and on June 1, I completely scrapped everything that I had for this book, because it just didn’t match the state of the world, it didn’t match where I was politically, or where I was spiritually,” Segura said. “It became less ‘let me help white Catholics understand what racism is’ and became more of ‘no, no, no, every person in our church is complicit in racism and here is why you have to acknowledge your privilege, here’s why you have to acknowledge your own white supremacy, and really start to engage, not just with the BLM movement, but with every racial justice movement that is doing the work that the church is unfortunately not doing.”  

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has not made any official statement acknowledging the BLM movement. However, in the past year, there have been many protests and statements made from the Catholic community in opposition to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions placed on their worship services. 

“There’s a willingness to protest that, and not a willingness to protest about [BLM],” Pascoe said. “I have noticed what various institutions have decided to get up in arms about and what they have decided to be silent about. It is not that the Catholic church is not making political statements, it is that it is choosing not to make this political statement.” 

In 2018, Segura spoke to one of the founders of BLM, Alicia Garza. During that conversation, Garza emphasized that the Catholic church does have a place in the movement, but they have to want it. Segura came away from this conversation with a validated belief that the Catholic church would be welcomed by BLM — only if they joined with open minds and with support for it. 

By seeing her church’s silent stance this year, Segura has been forced to evaluate its complicity. 

“There was this complete devastation that happened after I finished the book, because I spent a month and a half essentially just sitting with these really profound ideas about capitalism, and about racism,” Segura said. “The Catholic church is complicit in all of these things, and I was in a really, really dark place in July, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how my faith is going to take me out of this.’” 

Lois Harr, a professor of religious studies and the vice president of Campus Ministry and Social Action at MC, spoke out about the importance of the church making a statement about BLM. She cited the sacraments, a series of religious ceremonies that Catholics stand by as critical parts of their faith. Harr believes by withholding a statement the church is not fulfilling the ideals of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

“The first part is you have to be sorry and you have to own up to it,” Harr said. “You have to tell somebody these bad things, out loud. You have to have a firm purpose of amendment. You have to be committed to changing your ways. So you have to be sorry, you have to say it all out loud, you have to promise to be different, and then you have to be different. That’s what Reconciliation is, at the very least.”

As Segura demonstrated in her presentation, many Catholics of color have had to acknowledge the complicity of racism in their church. Segura remarked how this complicity is likely due to the church’s hierarchy not wanting to go against a system that gives them power. 

Both Segura and Harr spoke about the abundance of white male power in the church’s hierarchy and how that makes it natural for a Bishop to adopt white supremacist ways in order to fit the mold. 

There is actually a very large population of Catholics of color in America despite the stereotype of them mostly being white. According to research conducted by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 2016, 40 percent of the American Catholic population was found to be Hispanic. Considering that in 2016 Hispanics only made up an estimated 18 percent of the US population, this figure is substantial. 

Despite the presence of Catholics of color in America, Harr and Segura noted that Catholic services led by non-white groups may be looked down upon by traditional, white Catholics. 

Segura argued that internalized colonialism has led to the division of Hispanic and Black people, which directly has affected Segura, who identifies as both Dominican and Black. She sees the conflict in her birth-country, the Dominican Republic, where colonialism by white settlers led to an internalized anti-blackness in the Dominican descendants, despite a large presence of African diaspora in the Latin American countries.

Pascoe remarked that it is impossible to reference Latinx or African American people without also acknowledging the processes of colonialism that have given those groups their names. Colonialism is much more present in our lives than we realize.

“Colonialism is more than [what we historically consider it],” Pascoe said. “It is a way of knowing the world, and it is a way of placing ourselves in the world and replacing the world around us. The structures of redlining, of gentrification, of segregation, the carceral state, our policies of policing, all of those are just mock considerations of colonialism. It’s the same logic. So we are still repeating colonialism.”

Segura’s book tackles all of these topics of systemic racism, capitalism and the Catholic church, and she hopes it will be a way to help more people think about these things and how to start shifting power from the white, traditional Catholic leaders in our country to those communities that have been disproportionately disadvantaged since the founding of our country. 

Before the BLM movement, Segura hadn’t seen how obviously the Catholic religion is told through a white lens. 

“What is the role for someone like me in this church, someone who’s trying to figure out what her identity is, the role that her faith can be, and my book really challenged me to do that, but it was also really hard to just sit with your church’s sins,” Segura said. 

Harr emphasized this ideal as a woman, as she has experienced exclusion in her church because of her sex. 

“As a woman, I think God includes me, but I don’t always think the church includes me,” Harr said. “I try not to let it diminish my faith, but the institution gets my doubt.”

Pascoe furthered this idea, asserting that white women can use this comparison as a way to begin understanding racism in the church and in the country.

“Black lives matter works a little bit like ‘believe women’ in the MeToo movement,” Pascoe said. “In making the claim [that Black Lives Matter], in showing up, you are admitting that in fact black lives often do not matter. When you say believe women, you are articulating the ways that we don’t believe women. There’s some cognitive work that one has to do for BLM to feel urgent and true if you’ve spent your whole life actively not understanding that the American system is organized to devalue black lives.”

Segura hopes her book will convince Catholics to stand behind the BLM movement, because she believes that any movement fighting for black life is one that is worthy in itself, regardless of where you stand.

 “I want to see our church leaders show that they care about my life, the life of the people that I admire, and the life of the people that I love,” Segura said.