Monday, August 25, 2014

My Transformative Experiences Growing Up in the Civil Rights Era

By Sister Patricia Chappell, S.N.D. de N.

Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut as an African American young teenager in the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was exciting and challenging. The impact of institutional racism was felt daily in the Elm Haven Projects where we saw people of color struggle to meet basic human needs. It was exciting because for the first time I experienced a hope and affirmation of my blackness and dignity through the Black Power movement.

This was also time to ask challenging questions within my faith community at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, a predominantly African-American parish: How could this white, blonde, blue-eyed Jesus speak the Gospel of freedom and liberation when white people were the oppressors? And how could I identify with this Jesus? This shook my faith, but I had the opportunity to explore these questions more deeply with Baptists and Muslims.

My parish community began to incorporate Gospel music and Afrocentricity into its liturgical celebrations. As the Civil Rights Movement involved us, many parishioners came together with others of color who lived and worked in “the hood” to work for our own liberation and empowerment. Significantly, St. Martin’s joined other religious denominations as people of color who also experienced oppression, to protest the lack of resources and call upon New Haven to provide job training, jobs and better education. I learned that that social justice action was part of living out my Catholic faith.

My uncle was the Black Panthers Regional Organizer for Connecticut. He gave me a sense of pride as he empowered young people to do positive actions in neighborhoods where we lived. I served free meals provided by Black Panthers. Being Black, Catholic and involved in neighborhood struggles for justice led me to work to organize people to attain better education and jobs.

Another special memory in 1963 was when St. Martin’s parishioners began selling dinners to raise funds so some people could represent our parish and attend the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, calling for civil and economic rights for all African Americans. The pastor felt the March was of historical importance. We all felt a part of it, and clearly understood the radical ramifications this March would have on the rest of our lives and on the lives of others in the country.

Vividly, I also remember the sorrow and despair felt when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968. Someone in the family had died. The event would explode into angry rioting and destruction, which would take decades to rebuild.

To this day I carry these transformative experiences within me.


Sister Patricia Chappell is a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Connecticut unit. She is a former president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and currently Co-Chairs the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur-USA, National Anti-Racism Team. In November 2011, she became the first African-American Executive Director of Pax Christi USA. She also was the first African American to serve on the Provincial Leadership Team of her community. She holds a master’s degree in social work from The Catholic University of America and is a licensed social worker.

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