Prejudice is the child of ignorance.
– William Hazlitt
Prejudice has no place in the human heart.
– Rev. Billy Graham
It was an informal meeting of the “parish ladies” in the school cafeteria where we were planning a major fundraising event. A woman whom I knew only casually approached the group and started toward me. It was evident from her demeanor that she was unhappy about something. I mistakenly presumed her anger was related to the scope of the upcoming fundraiser.
“You,” she shouted at me, “have no business working on this committee! You are a troublemaker, and we don’t need your liberal type here.” Heads turned. People stared. Silence ensued. Nobody knew what to do. I was stunned. My head was spinning, as if recovering from a physical blow. I had had very little, if any, interaction with this woman prior to this event, so I had no idea what could have precipitated her venom. I just knew she was a regular parishioner, and I had seen her occasionally at Mass. I struggled to find the appropriate words in response.
This incident happened over 40 years ago, but I still recall it vividly. I felt so embarrassed, and specifically as if I had done something wrong. I remember expressing regret if I had offended her, while at the same time asking her what I had done. She never answered me, but just haughtily turned her back and walked away. I don’t recall ever seeing her again, and so I can only presume why she was upset with me. She had verbalized the word liberal with such loathing that it sounded like a curse.
Since the incident occurred at a parish function, I presumed that my offense had something to do with the parish and my parish involvement. Vatican II had just ended a few years before, and I had embraced the transformation with joy. I was a member of the newly formed liturgical committee as well as the social justice committee. I was heady with the excitement of change, both in the church and in society. My husband and I were also foster parents to an infant of color, a conspicuous change in our traditionally Caucasian parish. We were very noticeable at the regular Sunday liturgy, where we were, in actuality, a curiosity.
Was the woman aware of all this? Is that what upset her? Was I considered a liberal because of my embrace of Vatican II or because of my involvement with the burgeoning civil rights movement? Or was it something else? I never found out. She only knew of my involvement in certain activities, and yet I had incited her rage.
I understand that labels in and of themselves are often necessary, but this was the first time in my life when I actually remember being labeled unfairly, a victim of a prejudicial judgment. I had been misidentified as a troublemaker by a woman who really did not know me at all. The incident certainly heightened my awareness of the many people in our society who are victims of another’s preconceived notions and ideas. It must be very difficult to protect yourself against such rancor. As the American writer E. B. White once said, “Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get any facts.”
In today’s chaotic world of differing political opinions, opposing religious attitudes, legal and health disagreements, immigration issues, and climate change positions, it seems easier to be impolite, to rush to judgment, and to be nasty with inclinations to violence. Even Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, cited “the polarization affecting society” as one of the wounds the church is enduring in his recent address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It is a difficult social time, and it presents a challenge to avoid labeling people. I just know that I hate to see prejudice in action, and I hope that I will never allow myself to fall into its trap. I also have to remember not to react to prejudicial comments in kind, remembering that no person is born prejudiced; someone has taught them. My challenge is to lead by example. I take the words of the Gospel of John as my guide: “I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (14:34–35).
Anne Kerrigan is a registered nurse, mother of five, and grandmother of nine. She also has a master’s degree in theology and is the winner of the Australasian Religious Press Association Silver Award in Excellence for “Best Faith Reflection.” She is in the process of writing her memoir. She can be reached at email@example.com.