October 11, 2019

‘This office can only have five people of color, and you make number six’

By Sean Gallagher

Deacon Emilio Ferrer-Soto, who ministers at St. Patrick Parish in Indianapolis, shared his experience of racism, which is related both to his Hispanic roots as a native of Puerto Rico and his dark brown skin color as a descendent of slaves or freed slaves.

Deacon Ferrer-Soto told a diverse group of roughly 100 people gathered for a listening session on racism held at Marian University in Indianapolis on Sept. 30, that growing up in Puerto Rico, “no distinctions were made” in his family or in the wider culture about people like himself. That changed when he entered the U.S. Army and was assigned to a race relations committee on a base in Germany where he was serving.

“One of the committee members, a white soldier, asked me where I was from,” Deacon Ferrer-Soto recalled. “When I answered, ‘I am from Puerto Rico,’ he told me, ‘Is that place in a jungle where there are people that are not civilized?’

“I panicked. The only thing that I said to him was, ‘No sir. We are all civilized, and we are a territory that belongs to the United States since 1898.’ ”

In reflection on this and other incidents from decades ago, Deacon Ferrer-Soto realizes that some of his fellow soldiers only “recognized me for my brown skin color.”

This categorization of him continued when he went to work for the Social Security Administration in Indianapolis and was asked to move from an office on the west side of the city to one downtown. When asked why, he was told that “this office can only have five people of color, and you make number six.”

More recently, Deacon Ferrer-Soto has experienced discriminatory remarks because of the accent he has when speaking English.

Ordained in 2008 as a member of the first class of permanent deacons in the history of the archdiocese, Deacon Ferrer-Soto was once asked to preach in English at Sacred Heart Church in Indianapolis.

After the Mass, the pastor at the time and many parishioners complimented him on his preaching.

“Except an older lady,” Deacon Ferrer-Soto said. “We were greeting and saying goodbye to the parishioners [after Mass] when suddenly this lady, without greeting me, shouted ‘You don’t speak English like blacks. At least I can understand them.’ ”

Deacon Ferrer-Soto ended his story with a challenge regarding preaching about racism in the Church.

“I personally believe that most blacks, whites, Hispanics and other Catholics have not heard in recent years homilies that refer to racism or racial injustice,” he said. “Therefore, in my opinion, the racism of many Catholics is fostered by the silence of their pastors and lay people in positions of leadership. Sadly, it is a silence that has become permissive, inexplicable, contradictory and distant from the true teachings of Jesus.” †


Related story: Local Catholics share experiences of evils of racism at listening session

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