Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer
January 31, 2024 // Diocese

At Holy Cross, ‘Dynamic Deacon’ Offers a Response to Racism

Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer

“The Catholic Church is not racist,” declared Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers in a talk as part of the Heart and Mind Series at Holy Cross College on Monday, January 22, “but people in the Church are racist. Individuals have often been tempted to follow civil [Jim Crow] law and attitudes rather than God’s law of love. We’re all broken, fallen, and in need of the salvation Jesus Christ came to bring.”

Ordained to the diaconate on November 23, 2002, Deacon Burke-Sivers, a well-known Catholic speaker and author, who is known as the “Dynamic Deacon,” identifies himself as a Catholic person of color rather than a “Black Catholic,” and he’d like to abolish the term “minority.” Born in Barbados, he’s proud of his heritage but sees himself primarily as a son of God. Although “overcoming racism is a demand of justice,” only love can change hearts, he said – a far more fundamental mission than changing institutions or behavior. The only kind of love that can overcome racism is God’s unconditional love, he told the audience – a love that is based on a covenant of self-gift between persons rather than a contract regarding obligations and possessions.

Photos by Evan Cobb
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers hugs Deacon Mel Tardy after being presented with an image of Our Lady of Kibeho during his talk at Holy Cross College on Monday, January 22.

In introducing Deacon Burke-Sivers, Marco Clark, President of Holy Cross College, compared two “passionate prophetic voices” – Martin Luther King Jr. and Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Members of that order, who established Holy Cross College, are celebrating the 150th anniversary of his “entrance into heaven” this year. Both men addressed the needs of their times, Clark said, by advocating Christian witness and Christian education as essential solutions.

Before the talk, LaDonna Flynn led the choir from St. Augustine Parish in South Bend in singing “You Can’t Beat God Giving” and “O Happy Day” with audience participation. Deacon Mel Tardy, who was a former classmate of Deacon Burke-Sivers’ at the University of Notre Dame, was the accompanist. Deacon Burke-Sivers spoke warmly of the personal welcome he experienced at Holy Cross College.

Photographs from the spring semester’s Mind & Heart lecture featuring Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

As he spoke, Deacon Burke-Sivers demonstrated his own passion and evoked a congregational call-and-response. He peppered his presentation with Scriptural citations and memorable anecdotes from his own experience, like a parishioner assuming he had come to church to seek assistance from St. Vincent de Paul rather than to give a talk, and the way he became friends with his white roommate at Notre Dame beginning in 1984. He made a distinction between prejudice and racism; the latter categorizes a whole group of people as inferior or even less than human.

By contrast, he said, the Book of Genesis asserts that all human beings bear God’s image. In Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam are punished for objecting to Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian (Cushite) – “God’s response to racist attitudes,” he said. In that story, Aaron begs for mercy, admitting that their racism is “foolish and sinful.” Although other kinds of slaves are mentioned in the Bible, the Book of Leviticus categorically forbids chattel slavery, based on the Israelites’ experience as slaves in Egypt.

“No one is born racist,” Deacon Burke-Sivers reminded his audience. “And if racism is learned, it can be unlearned.” He outlined several steps for doing that, such as seeing past stereotypes, appreciating the gifts of others’ cultural identities, and deliberately entering into dialogue – for example, studying together the Church’s official documents on racism, such as the pastoral letter “Open Wide Your Hearts” by the U.S. bishops.

Photographs from the spring semester’s Mind & Heart lecture featuring Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

He gave many practical examples from his service as a deacon at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Portland, Oregon. Since that church was built near the shipyards to serve successive groups of immigrant workers, Deacon Burke-Sivers found that it was composed of ethnic “silos,” people who seldom interacted. Things began to change when choirs swapped Masses and people came together for a potluck featuring foods and testimonies from members of different groups. Adding images of patron saints from other cultures to the worship space was another helpful step. Deacon Burke-Sivers advocates that Catholic educational institutions expand beyond commemorating November as Black Catholic History Month to incorporating Black saints and Black history into the entire curriculum.

Sounding at times like an enthusiastic evangelist, Deacon Burke-Sivers promoted fasting as well as prayer, and he returned often to the importance of falling in love with Jesus Christ. “People aren’t leaving the Church over issues,” he asserted. “They’re leaving because they haven’t encountered in the Catholic Church a way to know and love Jesus. The Catholic Church should be taking the lead on issues like racism.”

Deacon Burke-Sivers spent some time talking about Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, listed on his baptismal record as the “property” of his owner. Father Tolton had to go to Rome to study for the priesthood after being rejected by every American seminary. Deacon Burke-Sivers is the author of “Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave Who Became the First African-American Priest” (EWTN Publishing, 2018). His other books include “Behold the Man: A Catholic Vison of Male Spirituality” (Ignatius Press, 2015), and a new book that gave its title to the lecture at Holy Cross, “Building a Civilization of Love: A Catholic Response to Racism” (Ignatius Press, 2023).

Besides writing and speaking, Deacon Burke-Sivers hosts regular programs on Mater Dei Radio and EWTN Television, as well as “Walk by Faith Wednesday Webinars” on YouTube. He is scheduled to give one of the keynote talks at the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis this July.

During a question-and-answer session following his talk, a student in the audience who is the son of a permanent deacon, said he sometimes resents how busy his father’s ministry keeps him. Deacon Burke-Sivers spoke about the importance of having clear priorities: “God, then family, then everything else,” he said. Although he travels 250,000 miles a year to give talks and retreats, after 30 years of marriage, his own family is his first priority, he said.

Holy Cross College presented to both Deacon Burke-Sivers and to the representatives from St. Augustine Parish an image of Our Lady of Kibeho (Rwanda) surrounded by other Black saints.

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