Seems like a safe theme for the 2008 papal visit, doesn’t it? Hope is a nice word; the politicians have grabbed on to it; it’s a great Scripture for newlyweds.
But hope can be a very dangerous word, if you really believe in Christian hope. Just ask Martha Sweed Walker.
I met Martha when I was working for the Austin Catholic Diocese in the 1980s. A diminutive woman in stature, her personality filled the room. Martha had to have a will of iron and a faith of steel. Martha Walker was the matriarch of the small community at Old-Washington-on-the-Brazos, a mere dot on the road between Houston and Austin, known by Texas school children as the place where Texas declared its independence from Mexico. For Mrs. Walker and her clan, though, it was home, where their ancestors worked the fields for a white family who established the first chapel in what would become the Austin Diocese. Whites and blacks worshiped side by side in the mid 1800s, until the white family pulled out after the Civil War and left their property to the men and women who had worked the soil.
Being both black and Catholic in rural Texas required fortitude, courage, determination – and hope. Mrs. Walker told me how her father would take the buckboard wagon to Navasota and wait for the train, then under the cover of darkness he would transport the white priest under quilts on the back of the wagon through the back roads to their home in the woods near Old-Washington. Those nerve-wracking rides were far too rare, though; most Sundays there was no priest and no Mass, so the families would recite the rosary together.
They could have become Baptists or Methodists or joined any other black Protestant church in the area. It might have made them less of a target of the Ku Klux Klan. But that wasn’t Martha’s faith. When the Austin Diocese worked with the Catholic Extension Society to build a new chapel for the Catholic community at Old-Washington, Martha told the bishop in no uncertain terms that it was going to be named Blessed Virgin Mary. No discussion, thank you very much, bishop.
Martha’s family and the other black families who had kept the faith through KKK threats, Protestant proselytizing and the grinding poverty of post-cotton rural Texas, filled the new church for Old-Washington. Today, Martha’s grandson is a permanent deacon for the parish. That didn’t happen because they had amazing liturgies or dynamic catechetics or an air-conditioned parish hall and office complex. It happened because Martha and her family not only understood, but lived, Christian hope.
Their lives were in danger because they clung, perhaps stubbornly, to their faith in Christ, as expressed through the Catholic Church. Christ is their hope. And that hope can be an inspiration to all of us as we prepare for Pope Benedict XVI’s first visit to the United States.
Secretary of Communications
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops