I’m recording this on June 2, 2020. The United States is gripped by racial tension, including protests, riots, and lots of arguments. We’re kind of losing our minds.
When race is involved, I feel like we Americans are on a hamster wheel, running in place, going nowhere. That, or we are on a movie set of a very dark version of Ground Hog Day, doomed to experience the same day over and over until we get it right.
And let’s be clear. Race is one issue that America has never gotten right. We’ve never come close to getting it right. I realize that each person believes passionately that their own views are correct. But America as a whole? As a country, we are nowhere near getting race right. I hope we can all agree on that sad fact.
With all that in mind, I propose to try something completely different. We need to call in a rescue team, to parachute in to save us from ourselves.
I’m going to call in the Ugandan Martyrs to help us out. They are not at all involved in our American drama. They are not on anybody’s “side.” That is exactly why they might be able to help us.
Last December, my adult son and I visited Uganda. I was invited to speak at the National Catholic Youth Conference. Most of the time, my son and I were the only white people in sight. That is a powerful experience, in and of itself, for which I am deeply grateful. It was like hitting a “reset button” on my perspective on race.
One of the few things I knew about Uganda before I went over there was that in the Catholic Church, we have a memorial feast day in honor of “St. Charles Lwanga and companions,” who lived and died in the nineteenth century. This feast pops up every year in my prayer book. But I didn’t know much about it.
When I got over there, I saw churches and schools named for the Ugandan Martyrs. I learned that lots of men are named after one or another of the 22 Ugandan Martyrs. The country celebrates “Martyrs Day” as a national holiday. Over a million people show up at the Ugandan Martyrs Shrine to celebrate. Most of them walk to get there.
Uganda is a desperately poor country. Less than 5% of households have a flush toilet. Only 30% of households have electricity. In other words, grinding poverty in material terms.
In the comments, I am posting a couple short videos of the 2019 Martyrs Day celebration. When you watch these video clips, you may think, “These people don’t have two nickels to rub together. And look at the time, money and expense that went into this celebration.” But if you believe in God, you really can’t love and worship Him too much.
At the National Catholic Youth conference that I attended, every liturgy, every day was just as exuberant as the one you see in this video. Not as big, but just as over the top with love, with beauty, and attention to detail and protocol. It was a privilege to worship with them.
That is why I am telling you this. I thought I was going over there to help them. And I hope that I did help them in some way. But the truth is they helped me and my son at least as much and probably more than we helped them. They are better than I am in the one thing that matters most: worshipping and loving God. Recognizing my inferiority in this very important regard stood me on my head. Saying that you are going to help someone can be genuine charity and concern for their good. Or it can be a chance to lord it over them and look down on them. Doing something that benefits another person can be helpful and loving. Or it can be something opportunistic that contracts a debt. “Now that I have done something for you, you owe me. You owe me gratitude or loyalty or your vote or something.”
We have to admit that race relations in America have always included large dollops of opportunism. And that gets in the way of genuine solidarity and equality and justice.
That is why I wanted to share these videos with you. Let yourself worship God with the Ugandans, your brothers and sisters in Christ. Catholics, especially, allow yourself to identify with them. If you watch one of the longer videos, you’ll hear them singing some part of the Mass in Latin. And for those of you who do not believe in God at all, allow yourself to enter into the joy-filled love of God you see displayed here.
I’m Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse for the Ruth Institute. I hope I get the chance to tell you more about Uganda and the Ugandan Martyrs soon.
I’ll see you next time.
This is the text for the video created on June 2, 2020.
Highlights from Martyrs Day 2019. 13 minutes. The Gloria in Latin starts around the four-minute mark.