Audrey Johnson

Praying for the end of racism

  • June 20, 2020

Audrey Johnson has seen systemic racism. She’s felt it. And every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. sharp she and a small circle of black friends meet at church and kneel down and pray for it to end.

“It’s too bad we don’t hear this preached upon in the pulpit,” said Johnson, a parishioner at Prince of Peace Parish in Scarborough, Ont.

Trying to correct systemic racism was once Johnson’s job. For two years in the mid-1990s she was the diversity officer for visible minorities with the Bank of Montreal. It was difficult and eventually she moved on to other roles in the bank.

“At the end of the day, the push-back from senior people — I had had enough,” Johnson said.

Johnson sees racism in her own Church, a kind of racism white Catholics can’t quite see or understand. She questions why there seems to be few black Catholics serving on parish pastoral and finance councils. The Archdiocese of Toronto is arguably the most multicultural diocese in the Catholic world, yet in her experience black people seldom are asked to serve, she said.

“Where we are, you’ve got a multitude of different faces,” said Johnson. “But there are only certain faces you’re seeing on the altar.”

She recalls a priest who approached a group of older black women chatting after Mass. “Oh, what are you doing there? Are you selling drugs?” the priest joked.

Johnson didn’t think it was funny.

“What could ever come out of your mouth with something like that? That’s a stigma on the community,” she said. “How dare you.”

Johnson’s 7 a.m. prayer group came together in 2012, in the midst of an intense debate about police carding in Toronto, an avalanche of guns and gangs stories in the media and painful awareness of poverty, unemployment and inadequate housing in Toronto’s black community.

There was no one issue that sparked the prayer group, just “a cold sober look at the system in general,” she said. “A call to action starts with seeing things…. Once you were seeing all of those things, then you are called to action in a prayerful way.”

She’s aware of black families who are fearful of what might happen if black sons are ever stopped by police, and looks back on her struggles raising three black children in the Catholic school system.

"A call to action starts with seeing things. ... Then you are called to action in a prayerful way."

- Audrey Johnson

Today her son Shaun is a speech pathologist in New York City, her daughter Tanya is a BSc., university-trained nurse and her daughter Tracy a school principal. But Johnson had to fight to keep her kids from being streamed into the trades and out of the academic courses that would lead to university admission. Shaun particularly was told by his guidance counsellor he would be better off in the general courses. 

“I thought, ‘This ain’t going to happen,’ ” Johnson said.

She confronted the guidance counsellor, then confronted her son about slacking off.

Growing up a poor, scholarship student at a private girls’ school in Jamaica, Johnson never forgot the value of an education. She arrived in Canada a confident young 19-year-old in 1969 and enrolled in Montreal’s Loyola College. When she had a family of her own, she made education a centrepiece.

“My kids never had it easy. They had a tough mother when it came to education,” she said.

As protests in response to the killing of George Floyd enveloped the globe, the Toronto Catholic District School Board was moved to respond.

“Anti-black racism is real. We have to face the truth that anti-black racism exists in our city and in our schools,” said a June 2 statement signed by director of education Rory McGuckin and TCDSB board chair Joe Martino.

The reality of racism goes deeper than our politics, our policing, our economy or our education system, said Johnson.

“Satan is behind racism,” she said. “I know how wicked Satan is. Racism is a spirit. Racism is an evil, wicked spirit.”

Johnson carries on her spiritual battle against racism as one of the principal organizers of the annual St. Josephine Bakhita pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont. This year, COVID-19 has forced the Aug. 15 pilgrimage online, but Johnson believes the event will be as strong as ever.

“When I look at this (waves of protest in cities around the world) I’m thinking, ‘But Jesus, you are so awesome.’ The black faces, the white faces, the brown people, the different faces — this is what the Lord is after us to do as a Church.”

Since St. Josephine Bakhita’s canonization by St. Pope John Paul II in 2000, the Church has implicitly preached that black lives matter. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Pope Francis did his best to make that preaching explicit.

“We cannot close our eyes to any form of racism or exclusion, while pretending to defend the sacredness of every human life,” he said.

Johnson is on the Pope’s side.

“(Satan) is going to push his agenda. How do we deal with that?” Johnson asked. “Prayers. We are people of prayer.”

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