The Church is Not Yet Dead: An Interview with Dr. Shannen Dee Williams

“No person has ever been simply Catholic, and any attempt to discuss or frame Catholicism without acknowledging the great diversity of the Catholic faithful or the intersection of people’s identities is woefully inadequate and perhaps even intentionally insincere. Indeed, I immediately become suspicious when I hear someone dare to offer the “Catholic” perspective … being Catholic means to live, breathe, serve, and rejoice in the Holy Spirit like Martha Jane Chisley Tolton. It also means to be the pious, but once lapsed, black Catholic woman to whom Martha Jane’s son, Father Augustus Tolton, administered death rites on Sunday, May 10, 1891. Nine years earlier, this black woman, whose name has been lost in the historical record, had been “hurled out of a white church and even cursed at by the Irish members” for daring to worship with her fellow Catholics in Chicago as equals. Despite suffering such savage violence and hatred from white Catholics, this woman’s faith had endured, and she “thanked God” at her death for a priest who finally saw her as a human being and a child of God. That is what it means to keep the faith and serve God in the face of oppression. That is what it means to be truly Catholic.”

The Catholic Church is called such because it is supposed to be catholic (i.e. universal). I grew up in a stodgy, white church, where the only, right, sacred way to worship God is that of Northern European liturgical culture, language, and music handed down to the present unchanged. I have my own complaints about that myopic perspective, but it pales in comparison with the stories Dr. Williams shares about herself and other black Catholics throughout history.

At the end of the day, why do we stay? The only reason that makes sense is that although the Church is made of imperfect humans that do plenty of awful things, we are all centered around and reaching for God, Who makes us more than the sum of our imperfect parts.

Daily Theology

Over the last month, I have had the privilege of interviewing, via email, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.  Williams is currently working on the manuscript for her first book entitled, “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America,” which unearths the forgotten history of black Catholic sisters in the fight to eradicate racial and gender barriers in the U.S. Church and wider American society. When published, it will be the first historical monograph on black nuns in twentieth-century America.  

JS: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of the conversation here at Daily Theology.  If you don’t mind, let’s start with your background.  Could you tell me a bit about your own journey, growing up in the Catholic Church?

Dr. Shannen Dee Williams

SW: Growing up, I could count the number of…

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Woman discriminated against for being Christian

Or, more accurately, she was discriminated against for the brand of Christianity practiced by the college she went to.  Here’s the story.

The TL/DR version is that Bethany Paquette applied to be an assistant guide intern for a company called Amaruk, which is a Norwegian wilderness tourism company.  Assuming she truly is an experienced river rafting guide as described in the link, this seems like a great job for her to apply for.

Now, tell me, dear readers – what normally happens when you apply for a job at a company that doesn’t want to hire you?  That’s right – usually nothing.  They either ignore your application altogether or send a form letter with some pleasant-sounding bovine excrement like “Thank you for applying.  Unfortunately all our Senior TPS Report Analyst II positions are filled.  However, we will promptly print out your electronic application so that we have the pleasure of physically shredding it.”

But is that what this fine, upstanding company did?  Of course not.  These self-described Vikings decided to take a moral stance and change the world for the better by … lashing out at the applicant because they didn’t like her alma mater, Trinity Western University.  Here is the email chain.

Now, in fairness, the fact that she supposedly didn’t meet all the qualifications for the job is the first thing said in the reply to her.  But it’s never made clear exactly which qualifications she didn’t meet, and I admit I’m kinda curious –

1) The fitness standards aren’t outlandish – I met them myself when I was 19 and in the Air Force.

2) She’s clearly fluent in English

3) I assume she is “legally entitled to work in region of operation.”

4) I’m also going to assume that she has “no violation under any wildlife legislation.”

So of the possible qualifications, that leaves only current active/inactive PAWGI Certified Assistant Guide (CAG) certification or the “backcountry experience” (however that is defined and assessed) that she supposedly didn’t meet.

And while they make a lot of noise about the fact that she knew or should have know that she didn’t meet the qualifications, is it REALLY so ridiculous that she applied anyway knowing that she didn’t meet all the minimum qualifications?  Men do it often enough.  In fact, it’s a good possibility that it’s one of the reasons for the $.077/$1 wage gap (not an entirely meaningless number to the extent that it results from individual choices that are not freely made).  According to these figures, Ms. Paquette displays confidence in her abilities uncharacteristic of most women.  If this is how men play the game, and we want to tell women to change their behavior to succeed at the game as it’s played today, we need to encourage this behavior in women, even in the face of this type of rejection.  I hope Ms. Paquette doesn’t let this incident kill her self-confidence, and I hope more women start doing the same.

But this seems like such a random, obviously-horrible way to engage with a job applicant, I wondered whether there was some explanation other than anti-Christian bigotry or misogyny.  Usually these prejudices, where they exist, aren’t so … well-broadcasted to “the enemy,” in no small part because of the teeth of anti-discrimination laws.  So I scanned through the comments at the CBC link above to see if anyone chimed in with any helpful info, and I ran across something from a creatively-named fellow named Not Paid to Post Here: “The outdoor adventure company provides outdoor adventure services for gay men.”  Oh.  Well, if that’s true, then the outburst doesn’t quite seem so random.  Not excusable by any means, but somewhat explainable.

To see if I could verify this, I did a couple Google searches for gay-friendly travel, gay-friendly outdoor adventures, expeditions, things of that nature, but Amaruk never showed up in the first handful of links.  Not even when I followed some of the links and clicked around a bit.  And I poked around the Amaruk website, seeing several muscular, shirtless men (no women that I saw) as well as the very standard-sounding “We embrace diversity and offer our staff and clients a tolerant environment free of harassment and prejudice.”  Okay.  Does this seem to be discretely marketed to gay men to you?  I honestly can’t tell, having never spent much time trying to figure out the sexual orientation of anyone I know.

But just for fun, let’s run with this primarily-gay-clientele hypothesis for a moment.  I see two possibilities – 1) this would be a GREAT work environment for a straight woman, as sexual harassment from the clientele shouldn’t be a concern; or 2) the company is concerned that someone who voluntarily associated with a gay-unfriendly institution would be permanently out of commission due to “moral objections” to leading a group of gay singles and couples.  But consideration of whether an applicant would fit in with the company culture should come AFTER determining whether the applicant is qualified.

Whether Ms. Paquette was rejected because she legitimately wasn’t qualified for the job or because she wouldn’t be a good fit for the company culture, Amaruk completely bungled their handling of this.  At the very least they could have just clicked “delete” and not even responded.  I’m sure they do it all the time.  But they decide to crucify (ha ha – see what I did there?) a TWU graduate with NO CONTROL over Trinity’s administrative policies because of objections they have to the institution as a whole?  Remember the guy who went through the window at Chick-Fil-A to harass an employee over the viewpoints of the company owners?  Yeah.  Very similar thing.  That guy was denounced as an asshole and ultimately fired; rightly so.  For the same reasons, and also because it appears they very clearly, self-righteously and unapologetically broke the law, I hope they lose the court case and I hope they pay for it.