When former Marist theology teacher Mary Catherine Harmon-Christian offered up a morning prayer addressing racism within the school community, she never expected a divided community, a polarizing debate and an end to a job she loved.
“I think with my prayer I released something that had been brushed under the surface and suppressed for a long time. I was really surprised at the response,” said Harmon-Christian after agreeing to what her lawyer Raeburn Josey called an “amicable parting” with Marist. Neither would go into further detail.
Harmon-Christian delivered her reflection and prayer to the school over the public announcement system on a Friday in mid-November. Two days later, on a Sunday, she was called in and placed on mandatory leave. “They took my keys and my access to email. I have not been back to Marist except to pack my things.”
Her prayer and the racial fault lines it exposed pushed Marist to address its diversity and inclusion, including holding an emotional meeting with families of color in the fall and, more recently, hiring consultants to help guide it.
“We have made positive strides in this area and are willing to seek outside resources to help us achieve our goal. We are excited to begin work with our experienced and effective partner to build upon and expand our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. We plan to allocate resources as necessary and appropriate,” said the Rev. William F. Rowland, president of Marist, in response to a question about its diversity consultant.
As to Harmon-Christian’s departure, Rowland only would say: “Dr. Cathy Harmon-Christian will not be returning to Marist School. We are grateful for her service to Marist and its students, and we wish her the best in her future pursuits.”
A project by a black student in Harmon-Christian’s class on the theme of who are our neighbors inspired her prayer. In seeking input from black staff and students at Marist about their experiences there, the young man found classmates of color did not feel safe or heard at the school, said Harmon-Christian.
Harmon-Christian, who holds a doctorate and two master’s degrees, said she felt compelled to “report racism, which causes just as much pain and suffering. As a theology teacher and a person of faith, I felt prayer was the obvious path.”
In the prayer, she cited an incident that black students said had made them feel marginalized.
White students at Marist posted an off-campus Snapchat video of themselves with darkened faces and dancing to rap music. The Snapchat video was several weeks before Harmon-Christian’s student began his research questionnaire of black students and faculty/staff.
While Harmon-Christian did not name the female students in the video, the reference still upset parents, who maintain the girls darkened their faces to appear highly tanned and never sought to offend classmates of color.
Harmon-Christian’s attorney questions that explanation. “If kids put on brown face or bronze face and then dance to rap music, I don’t think you’d be wrong in viewing that as a racial incident,” said attorney Josey. “They didn’t put on ‘Mary Poppins’ music or the Coppertone tan theme song in the background. They put on rap music and that has a definite connotation. The people who are supporting those girls may be well-intentioned, but they couldn’t see racism if it bit them.”
“There was too much focus on whether or not this was blackface. We lost the forest for the trees,” said Harmon-Christian. “The point is that black students were hurt and really felt unsafe. But the focus at all schools, not just Marist, always becomes that these white students are good kids and just made a mistake. But they continue to make those same mistakes because they are not held accountable.’’
After I wrote about this controversy when it occurred, angry white Marist parents insisted in emails and calls that not only was the Snapchat video not racist, but that any suggestion of racism at Marist was exaggerated or part of Harmon-Christian’s personal agenda, based on her own child’s allegations, as an LGBTQ student, of bullying. (Harmon-Christian’s child has left Marist and is now living abroad.)
Countering those white parents were black parents and recent graduates of Marist who said the school refused to acknowledge its racism and deferred to powerful white parents and donors. More than 60 graduates quickly formed Marist Graduates of Color and mobilized behind Harmon-Christian, saying she had created a haven for them at the high school and was a trusted ally.
Still, Marist chose not to allow her back despite strong performance reviews and its own public mea culpa.
After his first meeting with parents of color, Rowland issued a statement: “At Marist School, we are heartbroken because creating a community of inclusion that respects race is very important to us. Inclusiveness is a core Marist value that we strive to live by every day. Although we have been taking steps toward creating a diverse and inclusive campus, it is sobering and disappointing to realize we have a long way to go to achieve this goal.”
“I have become a scapegoat,” Harmon-Christian said. “I am a woman in the Catholic Church. They don’t listen to women. I am divorced. I have a child who is LGBTQ. I am the perfect person to push out and not be heard of again.”
Her parting message to white parents and students at Marist: “Please, think about that you may not see the whole picture and be open enough to explore what these students are saying and believe that what they are saying is valid. It requires intelligence; it requires empathy; it requires living your faith the way it needs to be lived.”
To students of color and LGBTQ students, Harmon-Christian said: “I pray for you and think of you. And just know I am there for you. Find your own voice. Build a coalition. Talk to each other. Don’t let this disempower you.”
And to the church?
“The Catholic Church as a whole needs to stand up for its black students. It needs to deal with racism. It needs to stand up for LGBTQ students. They are children. No adults should be bullying our children,” she said. “To me, the question is whether children can show up in school as their whole selves, or is the school only tending to a narrow bandwidth of students?”
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