June 26, 2020

Can change lead us from fear to fairness, friendship?

By John Shaughnessy

Marcha Bennett never expected the situation to end in friendship.

In fact, the situation could have more easily led to distrust and even hatred.

The situation unfolded in the late 1970s when Bennett moved from Chicago to Indianapolis to take a job as a management trainee at a large, local bank. As part of her training, Bennett, who is black, was assigned to a branch where both the manager and the assistant manager were white.

“For the first couple of months, the assistant manager never called me by my name,” recalls Bennett, a member of St. Thomas the Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis. “He would kind of wait until we made eye contact and give me something to do or explain a procedure. One day, three or four months in, I looked up, and he pointed at me and said, ‘You, come here.’

“I was appalled.”

Bennett left her chair, approached the assistant manager and said, “We need to talk with the manager now.”

“Long story short, he grew up west of Indianapolis and had never interacted with black people before,” she says. “Even though he attended IU [Indiana University], he lived in a frat house where everyone was white, and he was in the business school where it was predominantly white. So this was a new experience for him.

“We talked about our differences, which was mainly about color, and what his expectations had been. He just didn’t have a clue. In the end, we became good friends, and he helped paint our first house.”

That story matches the goal of the Race and Culture Committee at St. Thomas—“That They All May Be One.” Bennett was instrumental in starting the committee in late 2018, with the hope of creating more diversity at the parish and better understanding of race relations. While she has worked toward those goals, Bennett says she has also gained some insights about the best way to pursue them.

“I have learned through the committee that in order to effect change at the local and national level, there has to be education on both sides of the equation,” she says. “There must be an orderly process. That is the only way we can be sure that change will occur and stick.”

And change is what she continues to long for against the backdrop of recent events in Indianapolis and across the country.

Bennett has long seen the need for change in the routine traffic stops of black men by police. As a wife, a mother and a grandmother, she finds it demoralizing that “Indiana is way down the list” regarding infant mortality in the black community. She also is aware of the difference between the number of black men and white men in prison and the difference in sentencing they often receive.

“I truly hope that before I die I see a sustainable change in this country where everyone is treated the same and not feared because of their skin color.”

At the same time, there is one change that gives her a measure of hope, a change that reminds her of a time from earlier in her life when two people from different races became friends.

“I think that’s what’s going on with the younger generation now,” she says. “They have gone to school with black kids, played on sports teams with black kids, and even spent the night at their homes. We are one, but we have to have more of these interactions.” †


Related story: Parish paves a path to help overcome deep pain of racism through a more profound faith

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