In an era of social justice movements and national discourse fraught with division, especially over racism, does the Catholic Church have anything unique to bring to the conversation? Two Catholic women, brought together through the Internet following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, believe that it does – and even more, that the Church points to the answer.
When Chenele Shaw and Maria Benes co-founded a new organization to shine the light of Catholic teaching on racism, they were upfront about what they believe is the source of unity and healing from racism’s wounds.
The Before Gethsemane Initiative’s name comes from the part of Scripture that describes Jesus’ prayer before he enters the Garden of Gethsemane, the starting point of his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. It’s a passionate prayer for unity: “That they may all be one" (John 17:21).
“What was on Jesus’ heart right before he goes to his [death and resurrection]?” Benes asks. For BGI, it comes down to the unity and deeper conversion of all Jesus’ followers.
The group takes Jesus’ prayer to heart in its mission: “to promote racial reconciliation, healing and awareness about racism and xenophobia from an understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person.”
Prayer That Leads to Action
Practically speaking, this makes up BGI’s two pillars of action. The first component, headed by Shaw, a Black Catholic, is to foster healing for those who have experienced the wounds and trauma of racism, specifically by organizing retreats for Catholics of color and increasing access to affordable counseling. Shaw, who is working to begin her own Master’s degree in clinical counseling, is currently in talks with Catholic counselors across the country about how they can offer these services to those who need them.
The second component is offering racial sensitivity training grounded in Catholic social teaching. “After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I really felt there needed to be a Catholic organization speaking to these issues,” says Benes, a Catholic political scientist who leads this aspect of BGI’s mission and draws on her experience teaching in college classrooms. When broaching sensitive human rights topics with her students, she developed her own curriculum for how to have these conversations in the first place without the room exploding or people shutting down. Finding success in the classroom, Benes wondered why it was so hard to replicate this experience in the Church or society at large, and she began reaching out to Catholics of color in ministry. She found an online article by Shaw and the connection was immediate: BGI was born.
Benes, who lives in Nebraska, has just begun offering racial sensitivity training to local Catholic organizations. She’s also slated to meet with all the Catholic school principals of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Whether she’s presenting to kindergarteners or school staff, she follows the same basic framework: Lay the groundwork for how to have challenging but charitable conversations, bring in the Church’s teaching on social justice (for junior high and high school students, she uses Ascension Press’ Connected curriculum), and leave plenty of time for questions and answers. Prayer underpins everything.
“Any time a Catholic school or organization contacts us, we add them to our list, and as a team we pray and fast for them,” Benes says.
Meaningful Conversations and Educating Others
The response to BGI has been positive. Organizations or individuals who may have had initial reservations about bringing in a presenter on racism - or that, as Benes says, “We’re going to be about cancel culture stuff” - tend to be reassured when they realize that BGI roots itself deeply in Catholic teaching.
“A lot of times it takes us Zooming with them, meeting with them, to overcome those fears,” Benes says. “[They realize] we really do believe life begins at conception, that we’re not a political organization - stuff in our fidelity statement would make both political parties mad.”
While acknowledging and lamenting the real wounds of racism, Benes and Shaw hope to lead BGI with a positive approach to discussions on race - a vision that focuses on what’s possible, on what’s worth hoping for, and on what the Church holds out as the type of society Christians should strive for. Pope St. John Paul II often called it “the civilization of love”: a world that respects and serves the dignity of every human being. That’s the end goal, and Jesus’ prayer sustains them on the way: “That they may all be one.”