In 1961, there was a best-selling book called “Black Like Me.” It was the story of a journalist named John Howard Griffin, who changed his skin color from white to black and traveled through the South so that he could learn, as the book’s subtitle said, “what it is like to live the life of a Negro by becoming one!”
It was a rare glimpse through white eyes of an “other America” of segregation and racial hostility, and the book contributed to the nation’s growing awareness of the poisonous fruits of racism.
At the same time, a young African-American boy named Larry Oney was growing up in a Louisiana sharecropper’s family. The family was so poor they ate mustard greens for Thanksgiving, and at 7 years of age, Larry went to work in the cotton fields. If he and his family did not experience slavery, then it was a suffocating racial and economic servitude that was meant to keep such workers in their place.
Against great odds, and thanks to an immensely courageous mother who dared to dream bigger dreams, Larry escaped from the fields to the city. Racism was just as pervasive there, but eventually Larry went to college and became a successful businessman who today is a Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Yet he would tell you the real miracle of his life was that he came to forgive. What he and his family experienced in the 1960s and 1970s left him filled with anger and racial hatred that could have led him down a much darker path, if not for the grace of God.
The story of his conversion, his baptism and a deepening Catholic faith that eventually led him to become a deacon is told in a new book titled “Amazed by God’s Grace: Overcoming Racial Divides by the Power of the Holy Spirit.”
To meet Deacon Larry Oney today, one might never guess what he had endured as a boy. He seems to have a perpetual twinkle in his eye and gentleness of spirit. He is passionate about his faith and has a determined optimism about God’s ability to change lives.
Yet he is matter of fact about the racial divisions that still haunt our country. Unfortunately, for many of his fellow Americans, it still remains difficult to address these divisions honestly. Perhaps we need a second John Howard Griffin, whose profound racial empathy led him to walk in another man’s shoes for even a little while.
In Washington, D.C., the new National Museum of African American History and Culture tells the stories — good and bad — about the black experience in this country. But the anecdotal impression is that there are many more African-Americans than whites who are visiting that museum.
To let God’s healing mercy in, we need to start listening to each other’s stories. For me, the moment came when I heard a middle-aged professional describe what it was like to drive every day past a garage door with a huge Confederate flag on it.
He told me what it is like to be stopped by the police in a largely white county. He told me about “the talk” that black fathers have to have with their sons. This is not about the birds and the bees, but about how to behave when, not if, they are pulled over.
Deacon Larry knows these stories too, but what drives him is an experience of God’s love and mercy that transcended race and stilled his anger. His hope is that our church can become a leader in word and deed of true racial reconciliation in this country.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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