Welcoming Christ, Welcoming Others

Today’s post is by Mary van Balen

Stepping out of the parking garage elevator and starting down the walkway to the office building, I stopped to look at the nativity scene that had been placed outside the large windows. All the faces were painted pink-white.

Sure, that nativity was probably bought decades ago and spends most of its time somewhere in the bowels of the building. Still, it’s almost 2019; you’d think we would do better. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were Jewish Middle Easterners, not Western Europeans.

It’s a little thing, but every morning as I walk to work, the figures remind me of white privilege and racism evidenced in current events. In fact, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops referenced the social climate as the reason for issuing “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” a pastoral letter against racism.

The first such letter in 40 years, “Open Wide Our Hearts” was released November 14. It includes sections on the meaning of racism and justice, and the history and experience of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics in our country. Other themes that weave throughout the letter include God’s love shared, all people created in God’s image, and the necessity to act in love to heal the wounds inflicted by racism.

Some of us remember images on television or in newspapers of people of many faiths and traditions marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or participating in sit-ins and demonstrations during the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s. Certainly progress has been made. The bishops recognize the work of many good people who spent their lives combatting such injustice.

While acknowledging this, the bishops confront the uncomfortable truth that “racism still infects our nation.” It exists in both individuals and their actions as well as in our culture and institutions. The call is for transformation of hearts and of society. The hard work of addressing racism has been going on for centuries, but it is far from over.

“Open Wide Our Hearts” also recognizes the complicity in this sin of racism by “…sons and daughters of the Catholic Church…” at all levels. Looking back in history for example, the bishops cite Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull Dum Diversas(1452) that gave permission for the sovereigns of Spain and Portugal to buy and sell Africans.

Of course, such blatant misuse of the gospel—and using God’s name to “bless” such oppression and dehumanization of others—met with immediate opposition from many Christians, subsequent popes, church leaders, and people of other faiths and spiritual traditions. Resistance to it continues. But you can see why racism is so difficult to root out. It was planted deeply, long ago in our culture and institutions.

In addition to calling us to honest reflection on the history and effects of racism in our country and to humbly examine complicity, both individual and institutional, this pastoral letter also calls us forward in hope. We do not work alone but draw on the love and presence of God who dwells within each of us. It is God’s love that will transform hearts and heal wounds. But it must flow through us.

We are called to work for justice with humility: “To press forward without fear also means cooperating with God’s grace by taking direct and deliberate steps for change. It means opening doorways where once only walls stood.”

There are personal steps to take like resisting the temptation to divide people in our lives and the world into “them” and “us.” There are communal steps like working to change laws and systems that discriminate. It is our duty as citizens of a democracy and as members of institutions.

The church I attend recently invited people to gather, reflect on excerpts from this pastoral letter, and share thoughts and stories. It was an opportunity to, as the bishops instructed, “… engage the world and encounter others…invite into dialogue those we ordinarily would not seek out…go beyond ourselves, opening our minds and hearts to value and respect the experiences of those who have been harmed by racism…”

We are God’s children. The season of Advent and Christmas celebrate Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. All of us. No exceptions. Each of us can strive to receive Christ in the “other,” to love as we are loved.

December 12, 2018 by Mary van Balen
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.


In 2025, Shalem will be a dynamic and inclusive community, empowered by the Spirit, where seekers engage in transformation of themselves, their communities, and the world through spiritual growth, deep connection, and courageous action.