One in Christ:
Chicago Catholics and the Quest
for Interracial Justice
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2018
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Reviewed by Claire Johnson
During this past Easter Break, I exited what was supposed to be a unified, city-wide prayer and worship service in my hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas. Instead, the event was marked with sharp racial divisions of black and white. Catholics and far-fetched liberals weren’t present, or if they were, the white, evangelical event planners had stripped their voices. The body of Christ was not unified. The service was held in a conservative, white Protestant church with white contemporary Protestant Christian music led by the white band from the Southern Baptist church down the street. White pastors from white Protestant churches led the inter-song devotionals. The façade of unity came only from the closeting of diversity. Unity with no diversity is not unity at all.
The only glimmer of diversity was at the end when all of the pastors present went to the front of the sanctuary to pray for Nacogdoches and the people attending the service. Finally, I thought. Maybe a person of color will lead the final prayer. But, nope. The African-American pastors stood on the side while another white evangelical preacher ran the prayer show. How I wish I had already read Karen J. Johnson’s new book, One in Christ. I knew something with the service wasn’t right, but Johnson’s book tells the narratives of people advocating for interracial justice in Chicago during the mid-20th century, helping readers to understand the need for actual unity of the body—not just stifled inclusion of minority groups but instead through the pursuit of personal relationships.
In One in Christ, Johnson narrates the story of African-American Chicago resident and doctor Arthur Falls. Falls advocates for unity in the Catholic church in conjunction with several lay people—some white—in bringing unity to the Catholic body of Christ in Chicago from the 1930s through the end of the century. Johnson likens Falls to other models of faithful lay workers in the Catholic tradition such as Dorothy Day, empowering readers to more tangibly love their neighbor, whoever that neighbor might be.
Johnson does not, however, paint a façade of seamless activism. She is honest about the failures of the Catholic civil rights movements, noting that: “While they won hearts and helped pave the way for middle-class integration, they failed to convince most white people to sacrifice for racial justice, particularly when laws could not resolve the issues” (226). Despite Falls’s and other activists’ best efforts, “segregation continues along racial and class lines” and it is through the interracial activists’ stories that we begin to understand the complexity of segregation and “racial hierarchies” shown through “the most personal of relationships and the most impersonal of institutions” (226). It takes more than just one religious facet for full widespread institutional change to happen, though just one religious facet can make an incredibly powerful impact on society.
The church—Protestant and Catholic alike—can learn a lot from the work of the Catholic Church during the 20th century. Johnson highlights the work of Father Reiner, someone Falls knew through the Federation and the Interracial Commission (52). Reiner worked with Catholic youth, teaching students to “advance Christ’s reign by practicing the Catholic Action dictum of seeing a situation, judging what needed to be done, and, most importantly, acting on that judgement” (52-53). Father Reiner emphasized that “only personal involvement—not fundraising or discussion, but empathizing with others—could unlock Christ’s love” (53). Neither denomination, nor race, nor socioeconomic status should separate the body of Christ. Rather, as the title suggests, the body must be unified in pursuit of social justice.
Absent from the service I attended over break, as was characteristic of most of my evangelical background, was the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. Johnson relies on this doctrine as the basis for social justice work. The Mystical Body of Christ “empower[s] lay-people to act as Christ,” Johnson writes. “The liturgical movement in America intertwined social concern with the Eucharist as the focus of Catholic spirituality, and emphasized laypeople’s knowledgeable liturgical participation” (54). For Reiner and his students, transubstantiation further empowered this doctrine, providing an even more “physical connection to Christ” which “enabled one to be Christ’s hands and feet in a mystical but real way, which was a mighty calling for the young persons not planning to be a priest” (54). The doctrine is at the heart of social justice. If the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ brought those from the margins into the deepest essence of Christ’s work, then it follows that those empowered by this doctrine worked fervently and diligently to bring those on the margins—racial minorities in Chicago—to a place of health and healing. Everyone is welcomed to partake in doing God’s immanent work.
Johnson echoes other scholars’ claims that issues of segregation and racial injustice are spiritual issues—issues that must be resolved through complete unity of the body of Christ: “If people and institutions have fabricated discrimination and the moral, spiritual problems associated with it, interracial justice—and the unity it produced—can also be created” (226). Johnson continues Falls’s narrative, wading through hundreds of mini-narratives concerning national issues of racism, the role of government and the church in perpetuating injustice, and the formation of several key organizations and councils in the Chicago Catholic Civil Rights movement, all the while emphasizing the importance of practicing social justice through personal relationships: it was in “creating hospitable places that drew people together, [that] change happened, change that brought people together as one body working for a more just society in which people laid down their lives for their friends” (227). The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ fosters hospitality, and through this hospitality radical social change can happen. How beautiful it is when brothers and sisters in Christ live their lives unified and welcoming to the broken and hurting world around them!
So, who should read this book? You. You, the Catholic. You, the evangelical. You, the avid social justice protester. You, the agnostic. You, the follower of Christ. When I sat on that Nacogdoches pew on Good Friday this past spring, all I heard was I. I, the white savior. I, the white minister, who figured out what church should look like. I, the white musician with all the right hymns. The you was absent. Through denominational and racial divisions, the body had been segregated into pews of I over here and you over there. There was no we.
It’s through stories that we become we again. And what better way than through the stories of great Chicagoans can we learn how to live as social justice advocates? We learn from their victories. We learn from their failures. Most importantly, though, we learn as we. Johnson unites the you and the I, reminding us of the importance of sitting with one another sharing stories in “the quest for interracial justice,” as the subtitle puts it. Our greatest teachers in life are the stories of other people, and Johnson tells several of those stories—stories worth following.