Sweet Spirit: Educating for Freedom in Catholic Schools

The following blog was contributed by Dr. Brandi Odom Lucas, principal, and Karen Chambers, director of campus ministry, at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles. Dr. O.L. earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from Loyola Marymount University. She is passionate about how faith and culture enhance education, is a mom of three amazing humans and a super fan of students, educators and gospel music. In addition to her role in campus ministry, Karen Chambers, M.Div. also teaches theology. She earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,
And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord;
There are sweet expressions on each face,
And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.

 The above lyrics are to the gospel song Sweet, Sweet Spirit by Doris Akers. It describes the feeling I have when I walk on my Catholic high school campus each day. Which is why it pains me to say what I am about to say.

There is racism at your (and my) school. Hard Stop.

It is lurking in your classrooms, your curriculum, your handbooks, your locker rooms, your faculty rooms, and even in your relationships.

It is sneaky and camouflaged in phrases like:

“It’s our tradition.”

“We’ve always taught it this way.”

“We can’t become political. We are just a school.”

“They (students) are hearing that from their parents. What can we do about it?”

It threatens to disarm you with beliefs like:

“If I say something the board will get upset.”

“That parent is a donor and we need them.”

“I am white. What can I do/say about it?”

And it gains strength through your denial which can sound like:

“This is an isolated event.”

“I know the student’s family…s/he’s a good boy. He didn’t mean it like that.”

“Racism doesn’t exist at my school.”

There is racism at your school. Your job, as educational leaders (administrators and teachers), is to measure it regularly and extinguish it immediately. Any racism occurring in an institution opened in the name of Jesus Christ, a Catholic institution, is an abomination of God.

From the very first chapter in Genesis we learn that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Scripture doesn’t say God created some people in God’s image. Scripture shows us that every human is made in the image of God, inherently has equal dignity, and that it is imperative to take action when that dignity is called into question. In 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter against racism entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts, The Enduring Call to Love,” in which they remind the faithful that, “Every racist act—every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin—is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God. In these and in many other such acts, the sin of racism persists in our lives, in our country, and in our world.” This sin of racism rejects the dignity of our Black brothers and sisters, and it works against the consistent ethic of life that Catholics believe vital to the faith. We deny God’s greatest gift to us – life – when we devalue the life of God’s children.

Catholic Social Teaching, which is based on Scripture and tradition, revolves around the central theme of “Life and Dignity of the Human Person.” The personal and social sin of racism violates the central theme of our moral and ethical foundation. Pope Francis recognized this when he stated in his general audience on June 3, 2020 (following the murder of George Floyd) that, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” However, simply “not being a racist” is not enough. When we stand by and watch it without taking action, we are complicit at best. The U.S. Bishops recognize this when they say, “Finally, too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered” (“Open Wide our Hearts”). To stand by and do nothing is a sin. Our faith calls us to be disciples of Christ who recognize the dignity of all people, who stand with those on the margins, and who fight for justice. If we are not taking action against the sin of racial injustice, we are failing in our Christian faith, we are missing the mark, we are sinning.

Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly Dove,
Stay right here with us, filling us with Your love.
And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise;
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

In the past, the tendency has been for us to designate spaces in our schools where Black students and students of color are comfortable to be themselves. Most times these spaces are found in the relationships with certain faculty members. And many times, those faculty members are also persons of color. Many schools have allowed these relationships to shoulder the sole responsibility of responding to, comforting and healing students who are facing racialized experiences in and outside our school. Recent responses from alumni of Catholic schools to “Black Lives Matter” social media posts indicate that those safe spaces are not enough to counter the trauma caused by unchecked racist practices in Catholic schools. Catholic schools must be the safe spaces for its Black students and students of color.

In order to become safe spaces for our students, Catholic schools must educate for freedom. This involves:

  • Showing commitment to shifting the consciousness of their faculty and staff. This is accomplished through challenging racial biases and residual white advantage at our schools.[1]
  • Affirming and acknowledging the identities, cultures, experiences and perspectives of their students of color.
  • Identifying, addressing and protecting all students against racialized experiences occurring within the institution especially in areas of curriculum, policy and stakeholder relationships.
  • Strengthening student’s ability to name their oppression and those of other marginalized communities using both theory and experience.

The result of the above commitments is a transformed student who is free to interact with and change their world. The schools that educate for freedom are better positioned to work alongside the student’s family and community to transform their self-concept and view of the world. The institution’s shift from an inactive-complicit approach to an active-healing approach helps to better prepare all students, especially Black students, for the world they will experience and positions them as active participators in that world. The Catholic school then assumes a countercultural position through its commitment to an education that heals and restores the damage caused by a society that devalues the lives, histories, contributions and experiences of Black people and people of color. Teachers and staff members become “care agents” who, through their critical teaching, “provide opportunities for deeper reflection and affirm students’ lived moments”[2]. 2 Corinthians 3:17 reminds us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. To what degree does the Holy Spirit dwell in your institutions? How will you answer God’s call for freedom?


[1] Singleton, Glenn (2015). Courageous Conversations About Race. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, California

[2] Odom Lucas, Brandi, “Sweet Spirit: The Pedagogical Relevance of the Black Church for African American Males” (2014). LMU/LLS These and Dissertations, 205. https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/etd/205