Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Religious, Civic, and Interpersonal Capital: Catholic Sisters in One Community's Response to Migrant Families

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Religious, Civic, and Interpersonal Capital: Catholic Sisters in One Community's Response to Migrant Families

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the last decades of the twentieth century, when it came to race relations, Bluffton was much like other medium-sized cities in the Midwestern United States. Predominantly white and comfortable in Western European traditions dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, Bluffton experienced massive lay-offs by the city's largest employers. The few people of color who lived in Bluffton were viewed by some white citizens with suspicion, as possible competition for blue-collar jobs, and as sources of the kind of violence that had struck other larger American cities. Perhaps then the cross-burnings and bricks thrown through black residents' windows in 1989 and the subsequent visit to Bluffton by the national director of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) (2) were not a surprise (3) (Karraker 1987).

What is engaging from a public policy perspective about Bluffton is that community's response to racism. First, a group of civic leaders recognized that their city projected a very negative image as a closed, prejudiced, racist community. These leaders then mobilized the community through a task force around successful integration, marshalling a plan that included community education and the recruitment of 100 families of color within five years. Along the way, Bluffton enlisted commitment across a broad swath of the community, from city employees to Girl Scouts, from 300 businesses to the city's newspaper. Of course, not everyone in Bluffton endorsed these efforts. Some were quite outspoken and a few took violent action around their opposition to the proposed changes. However, Bluffton's head of the city's civil rights office (himself black), told representatives of the national media that the difference between Bluffton and big cities like Chicago was that Bluffton had the guts to do something about racism.

The ability of communities like Bluffton to mobilize successfully in the face of demographic and societal change is no small feat of social engineering. While early national news accounts did not cite the Catholic Church or religious leaders' roles in Bluffton's civic regeneration, the Catholic Archbishop of Bluffton called on Christians to approach events at the time with courage, targeting the sin of racism in our churches, homes, schools, and society (Archbishop of Bluffton 1991). The archdiocese also produced and aired public service announcements on local television stations and sponsored ecumenical services in Bluffton on human rights and racism.

Catholic sisters (4) were commanding voices speaking against racism and in favor of human rights across the United States during the twentieth century. While some Catholic women's congregations (5) had struggled with discrimination in their own treatment of black women seeking membership, (6) Catholics as a group and even communities of sisters had also been targets of prejudice and even violence by the KKK. (7)

Members of Bluffton congregations were active in the Civil Rights movement. Some sisters experienced verbal abuse and even injury as they marched alongside blacks in larger cities. Sisters and their congregations were early and prominent members of committees formed to address Bluffton's struggles with diversity and racism (Encyclopedia Bluffton 2010). Sisters partnered with the local NAACP, the Human Rights Commission, and other organizations around specific projects, including opening and staffing multicultural centers to serve the black and growing Hispanic populations of Bluffton. In 1991 a consortium of women's religious congregations in Bluffton published a page in the daily newspaper stating their commitment to work to eliminate the sin of racism in ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and in other structures of Church and society.

Today, again like other cities its size in the Midwest, Bluffton confronts problems of educating, employing, and serving the needs of an ever more diverse population, a population that increasingly includes immigrants from across the globe. …

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