The Unbearable Whiteness of American Lent

During one of the airless afternoons I spent in St. Rita Sunday school, our teacher gave us the exercise of drawing the indulgences that we would give up for the upcoming Lenten season.

Peering at the kids around me all sketching out their favorite snacks and most-beloved toys, I stared at my bright yellow construction paper at a total loss. When the time came to stand up and explain our choices, my paper was still blank and I became increasingly nervous as all of my white classmates proudly promised to abstain from playing with their Nintendo 64s or Tamagotchis (what ever happened to those?) until Holy Week.

After grilling me on the little joys I partook in on any given day, the teacher decided that I would be giving up television for Lent. As the only child of a perpetually exhausted, single working mom, our second-hand 24-inch Sony with its five channels was more de facto babysitter and playmate than luxury. In any case, I didn’t understand what that had to do with Jesus wandering in the desert.

I realized then that I didn’t really “get” Lent—or at least how white Catholics interpreted it. I would feel embarrassed for some time about my inability to think of the “indulgences” in my life, and it would be the first of many experiences that would highlight the race and class differences between myself and my Catholic peers.

The black Catholic community in the United States is pretty small. According to Pew, African Americans only make up three percent of American Catholics, and due to the dearth of predominately black Catholic churches, the majority of the three million black Catholics in the U.S. are the racial minority in their parishes. This can lead to a cultural, sometimes socio-economic disconnect, as it often did for me on Sundays.

For years, I would still continue to dutifully have my forehead marked on Ash Wednesday and avoid meat on Lenten Fridays, but the concept of Lent never stopped feeling foreign to me. The idea of self-imposed “suffering” that just clicks back off after the obligatory 40 days just seemed like a hallmark of privilege to me. Lent became yet another part of my Catholic faith that I felt “othered” by.

Even the aspects of Lent that some descendants of the Diaspora might identify with, such as Mardi Gras, have become co-opted beyond recognition with New Orleans evolving into more of a drinker’s paradise than a spiritual and cultural celebration.

It also doesn’t help that the origins of American Catholicism, like any other mostly white denomination, is stained by its racist past. The earliest American bishops defended slavery and even urged the Vatican to recognize the Confederacy; and for a long time, African Americans were rejected by most seminaries and convents. Roman Catholicism has attempted to course-correct since then—a friend once referred to Pope Francis as “the first black pope” due to his focus on liberation and social justice—but the scar tissue still remains.

I don’t see myself or my people in the American observance of Lent because the black experience in America is already “Lent.” When your culture is built on the idea of denial and forfeiture, a once-a-year exercise of giving up soda or chocolate loses its spiritual weight.

What exactly does it mean to fast if you’re already living in poverty and can’t afford fulfilling meals to begin with? What’s the purpose of self-denial when your entire existence in America is already measured in sacrifices, some nagging, some crushing?

As the years pass, I’ve learned to observe Lent in other ways that speak more to my cultural experiences. I began to use those 40 days and nights to grow more spiritually whole through increased self-reflection on the ways I could respect God and myself more. The meaning of Lent changed for me from an exercise in limited self-denial to one of self-love, a change that might move me further away from the solemnity of the liturgy but brings me a little closer to my spirit.