How have you experienced racism? And how does our faith inspire you to respond?

  • Written by Northwest Catholic
  • Published in NW Stories
Photos: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios Photos: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios

In light of our national conversation on racial justice, we asked five Catholics from around the Archdiocese of Seattle the above questions.

As the U.S. bishops wrote in their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “As Christians, we are called to listen and know the stories of our brothers and sister.”

Because, as Archbishop Paul D. Etienne said at a July 19 vigil for racial justice, “Listening leads to understanding, which helps us overcome indifference and builds renewed commitment to work for justice — carrying out our core mission as Catholics to build the kingdom of God for all people.”


Michael Hale does faith formation ministry at St. Leo the Great Parish in Tacoma. He is also a member of the archdiocese’s Black Catholic Advisory Circle. Photo: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios

I’ve been pulled over twice by white police officers for broken headlights.

The first time was in 1978, when three Black friends and I were driving through Kentucky to a memorial service. The officers told us to get out of the car and gave us sobriety tests. After a mix-up about the registration (I said the car was mine, forgetting it was a company car), we were ordered to “assume the position” and were frisked at gunpoint. Only after everything was cleared up did they explain about the headlight.

These officers were not upfront and honest. We were treated like dangerous criminals. The whole time I was praying we would not get shot. It was typical of too many encounters between law enforcement and people of color.

The second experience was on a night about 15 years ago after a hike near Mount Rainier. The lights in my van went out and I was stuck trying to drive home in complete darkness. I was praying, “Lord Jesus, please get me safely home!”

After about 20 miles, I was pulled over. I was afraid I looked suspicious driving with no lights. But instead of ordering me out of the car, the officer asked where I was going and offered to lead me home all the way to University Place. “Thank you, Jesus!”

These experiences let me know that law enforcement is not the enemy. If an officer has good morals and a caring heart, they will do what is right.


Cheryl Johnson is a member of St. Joachim Mission on the Lummi Reservation. Photo: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios

I am an enrolled member of the Lummi Tribe. My family has been Catholic for three generations. Ever since I was young, I’ve been familiar with a tone of voice and a look on a person’s face that lets me know I’m not welcome, even in church. Just two years ago, I attended a meeting at a nearby parish with several tribal members. A woman sitting near us said to the woman next to her, “I’m here with the wild Indians.” The woman replied, “Well, you better keep them in line!”

I in no way feel my experiences come close to what the Black community has encountered. Yes, I have been profiled by police, but no violence.

My faith has always inspired and sustained me in difficult times. I used to confront people on their assumptions, but not so much now. In the ’90s, I attended a series of talks by a Dominican priest about spiritual growth, and the biggest lesson I learned was this: Not everyone is going to like me. My favorite quote from the talks was, “Your opinion of me is none of my business. That is between you and God.”

I pray for people who harbor racism and prejudice. I pray for them to have their hearts of stone broken and to see that we are all the same in God’s eyes.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us!


Joseph Tseng serves on the pastoral council at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Parish in Seattle. He is also president of the Seattle Chinese Catholic Community. Photo: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios

I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. One day in second grade, our teacher introduced a new classmate who was an aboriginal from 200 miles south of the island. He had a complexion darker than the rest of us, was in a wrinkled shirt, had an unfamiliar accent and couldn’t speak our dialect. He became the joke of the day instantly and thereafter.

Decades later, I was driving 1,000 miles from Dallas, Texas, to a Midwestern town to report to my first job after college. As I stood in a hotel lobby, other travelers who arrived after me were welcomed, received and checked in, yet I was invisible to the receptionists until I waved my hands and raised my voice. I did not have the same complexion as the rest, was dressed in a second-hand shirt and did have an accent, despite being proficient in English.

Inequality exists in all societies. I was unable to truly comprehend the meaning of being a second-class citizen until I experienced it. The emotions of despair and frustration could easily have trapped me into self-destruction. Fortunately, I have learned to listen more deeply to my heart while facing challenges. The difference between unconscious, uninformed racism and deliberate racism is profound. Accepting the former lent coherence to my heart and led to forgiveness. Following the daily practices of thanksgiving, repentance, hope and giving back has guided me to a much more fulfilling Christian life.


Mercedes Lui is a member of the Chamorro community at Sacred Heart Parish in Lacey and is involved with the St. Peter Chanel Samoan Ministry at Holy Cross Parish in Tacoma. Photo: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios

I was born and raised in Guam, the eldest of 10 children in a Catholic family. After I moved to Washington, I worked at Community Bank and really enjoyed my job and the people I worked with.

As time went by, there were opportunities to move up to a higher position. I applied and interviewed, but was not hired. I was told that I did not have enough experience, even though I had worked in the bank for nearly six years. OK, I moved on.

I applied for another position, interviewed and again was not accepted. I often wondered what I was doing wrong; the only thing I could think of was I was the only minority in our section. I never felt any hate, only discriminated against because of my skin.

As much as I felt this, I continued to work and stayed for a few more years until I decided to work for the federal government, where I stayed for 20 years before retiring a few years ago. I never let my faith down; I know that God was leading me to the right place to be happy. My faith and the love of my family kept me going no matter how I felt and no matter what had happened.

Today, I thank the Lord for allowing me to believe, to be patient and to keep loving. I know that I am blessed and loved by the Lord.


Erika Barajas is a music minister at St. Mary of the Valley Parish in Monroe. Photo: Briane Henak/Rowland Studios

As a woman born in Mexico who has lived most of my life in the United States, I can say that racism is one of the hardest topics to address. For a while, I avoided the topic and pretended it did not exist, until one day when I was 15.

As I walked with my sister and a group of friends, a boy behind us shouted, “We are in the United States, we only speak English here.” I realized I had two choices — either ignore it and allow these comments to be part of our everyday lives, or else face the reality of racism and confront it.

I decided to stand up for my friends, my sister and myself, and replied, “I am sorry you feel like we should all speak one language, but for us it is a blessing to be able to speak both.”

Looking back, I think many people might have replied with a much angrier response, an insult, violence or revenge, but my faith had given me the tools to give a sincere response, meant not to offend but to respond with truth and love as Jesus did to those who challenged him. To this day, I choose to stand up against racism by allowing others to see the person my faith and my parents have shaped me to be — honest, sincere, educated and respectful. Jesus invites us to be like him each day, so let us strive for that, always loving our neighbor.

Northwest Catholic - September 2020