Read Monsignor Kevin Sullivan’s speech at the 2013 Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Dinner :
Tonight, with dubious judgment, you graciously present me this medallion named after a black immigrant, slave and saint. This white, free-born Amercian sinner is appreciative, humbled, inspired and burdened.
I accept this medallion on behalf of Catholic Charities’ thousands of trustees, staff, volunteers and benefactors, who provide help and create hope to New Yorkers in need – non-Catholics and Catholics alike – black, brown, yellow and white, overwhelmingly poor and vulnerable, each made in the image of God, worthy of dignity, life and love.
I commend Brother Tyrone and the commissioners of the Office of Black Ministry for devoting the proceeds of this dinner to advancing the education of future leaders, both here and in Haiti. Nothing is more important.
This 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington compels us tonight to not avoid the issue of race, and I include ethnicity.
That we have – and need – a black ministry office, testifies that race continues to haunt us as both society and church.
That we have a large and expanding Catholic Charities bears witness to our failures to implement the dream of many – including Martin Luther King, Pierre Toussaint, Dorothy Day, and not least, an itinerant preacher from Nazareth named Jesus.
Catholic Charities serves overwhelmingly, the poorest and most vulnerable of our society.
Catholic Charities serves overwhelmingly, black and brown New Yorkers. To not correlate these two is to perpetuate the inequality that makes us less as a nation and less as a church.
Pierre Toussaint’s cause for sainthood is so compelling: personal responsibility and social responsibility, the dignity of work, a vibrant faith that integrates the worship of God and love of neighbor.
We are beneficiaries of Pierre Toussaint’s legacy. We must accept being its burden bearers.
As a society we need to affirm and advance the dignity of work: in cleaning our buildings, teaching our children, driving our buses, caring for our elderly and infirm, on 700 street corners across this nation where 120,000 day laborers gather – and even far away, in the garment factories of Bangladesh where workers earn $32 a month. And yes, even in the neighborhood hairdressers, and the butler in the White House.
As a church we cannot remain satisfied with periodic liturgies that celebrate diversity in song and vestment. These are necessary and life giving, and insiring. And it is good and holy that “his eye is on the sparrow and he watches over me.” But let us also make sure that his eye is on board rooms and markets, workplaces and jails. Let us make certain that he watches over those places, as well.
As Catholic Charities, we must stop smugly touting the diversity in our waiting rooms filled with black and brown families. Our boast should be that our board rooms and executive management meetings, our investment managers and vendors are black and brown. Not yet, I am afraid to say, but I too, have a dream.
And to our neighbors of all faiths and no faith who say “amen” to these points, we invite you one more step. We will pray and we will worship. We need a God to inspire, support, and challenge us forward – a God whose image within us and everyone else needs to be acknowledged. And we say to our neighbors, who may not share all our values, we need to be respected, allowed to be inspired by our faith, and exercise those values as together we create the common good.
I appreciate being here with so many who share an ardent desire to make our diverse world more compassionate, equal and just – especially regarding race. You and I know that actions that put flesh on that ardent desire get a bit uncomfortable, and generate heat.
Let me end by sharing a refrain from a song by Pink that has haunted me for the past few months:
“Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame,
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned,
But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.
You gotta get up and try, try, try.
You gotta get up and try, try, try.
You gotta get up and try, try, try.”
Fellow beneficiaries and fellow burden bearers of Pierre Toussaint and many others, we gotta get up and try.