The Feast of Our Lady of the Heights
June 1st - In Commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre
On the eve of June 1st in 1921, a massacre erupted in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Known nationally as “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood was the economic, social, and cultural center of a thriving Black community that spanned the northern reaches of downtown “Boomtown.”
Black schools, churches, and affluent neighborhoods bloomed
around Greenwood nurtured by a vast array of Black-owned
businesses, the shops, banks, theaters, restaurants, bars, and
social centers that were the lifeblood of this vibrant, flourishing
community. It was an international marvel and a fitting testimony
of Black ingenuity, resilience, and socio-economic prowess. It was
also a lightning rod and a source of jealousy and indignation for the
many white supremacists that called Tulsa home.
Racial tensions ran especially high that hot, dry summer. The winds of change and progress added to the fire danger in a city on the verge of combustion. All that was needed was a single spark that could be fanned into flame. That spark was struck on Memorial Day weekend when a young black man was falsely accused of assaulting a young white woman. Rumors spread like wildfire. Crowds called for his lynching. Unrest grew exponentially. White men were deputized and sent on patrol. Eventually gunfire erupted. Within an hour mobs descended on Greenwood. Black men, women, and children were gunned down in the streets as they fled. Homes and shops were looted by deputized white citizens until “crop dusters” began firebombing black homes, churches, schools, and businesses from the sky. When the smoke cleared days later, hundreds were dead, thousands were left homeless, and an entire community was all but annihilated in what has been described as the single worst incidence of racial violence in American history.
100 years later, the Parish Church of St. Jerome sits quietly in “The Heights” neighborhood a short walk from Greenwood. Many parishioners drive past the “burned out neighborhood” on their way to Church, past the charred streets, sidewalks, and steps that now lead to nowhere. 100 years later, the Parish Church of St. Jerome sat solemnly, prayerfully pondering how to remember an event so horrific as to defy our most cherished convictions and values as a diverse, inclusive, and egalitarian community of faith. How could we commemorate such a dark time? More importantly, how could we ensure that we never forget?
Naturally, we turned to our faith tradition for guidance and inspiration. Catholics have a uniquely spiritual and communal way of remembering through our sacred calendars and in the holy sacrifice of the mass. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit a new memorial was born. The feast of Our Lady of the Heights was to be celebrated on June 1st in perpetual remembrance of the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It is our hope that this feast day will become a prayerful and intentional way of perpetually commemorating all those murdered for the color of their skin. We are confident that Our Lady of the Heights will lead all of God’s people to racial justice and reconciliation by her prophetic example and powerful intercession.
The inaugural feast of Our Lady of the Heights was celebrated in great
solemnity on the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. This solemn mass
featured a newly composed formulary including antiphons, a collect, the
prayer over the gifts, a sung preface, the prayer after communion, and a
solemn blessing. An image of the Black Madonna and Child was carried in
procession and venerated with incense. The parish choir inspired those
gathered with songs of justice and resistance. The Rev. Gary Russell, Pastor
of Greater Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, brought a word of
edification and challenge to our congregation. We gathered as one human
family around Christ’s table and begged Our Lady’s intercession for racial
healing and social justice. We chose to remember. We refused to forget.
100 years later, a newly installed statue of Our Lady of the Heights sits prayerfully on the eastern steps of the Parish Church of St. Jerome. She is not the customary white or pale grey, but rather has an almond hue reminding us that our Blessed Mother was a first century Palestinian and a woman of color. She does not face squarely forward but turns slightly to the right, toward Greenwood - the location of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Her hair is uncovered, long and flowing, a symbol of St. Jerome’s commitment to LGBTQIA+ inclusivity and gender equality. Her facial expression is one of defiance and determination, not the traditional "look" of peaceful passivity and serene bliss, reminding us that we are called to be resolute in our opposition to racism, bigotry, and oppression in all its forms. Her hands are folded in prayer at the level of her heart in constant intercession for those slain during the Tulsa Race Massacre and all the victims of racially motivated violence. She tramples the serpent beneath her holy feet, calling us to join in her fight against the forces of evil that seek to divide us and turn us against one another. Finally, a close inspection of the globe beneath Mary's feet reveals a broken world in need of healing. We believe sincerely that this feast, the prophetic example and powerful intercession of Our Lady of the Heights, and St. Jerome's commitment to racial justice and reconciliation will bring us ever closer to that day, symbolized by an octagonal disc, when all of God's children will be honored as beautiful, precious, and made in the image of God.
The Parish Church of St. Jerome invites all Catholics to join us observing the Feast of Our Lady of the Heights on June 1st as we work collaboratively to build a Church Catholic that incarnates the beautiful divine diversity inherent in God’s multi-faceted creation. For in truth, only when we come to terms with our broken pasts can we embrace the shared future God has for us. Only when we embrace one another without bias and qualification can we work together to build “God’s Dominion on earth as it is in heaven.” May the powerful intercession and prophetic example of Our Lady of the Heights guide us on that way and toward that day.
To that end we pray: “Grant, merciful God, that as we
venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the
Heights, we may be inspired by her prophetic example
and powerful intercession to work tirelessly for that day
when racism and bigotry will be cast down and racial
reconciliation and justice will be exalted, when violence
and oppression will be crushed beneath holy feet and peace
and solidarity will reign in this city and in every time and
Our Lady of the Heights, intercede for the precious victims of
the Tulsa Race Massacre and for all those murdered for the
color of their skin, that they may rest in peace and rise in power
in that glorious city where Christ reigns eternally as the Prince
of Peace with God the Father of All Humanity and the Spirit that
ever calls us to resurrection life in that kingdom that has no end.
Rev. Joshua M. Shawnee, SSM
Pastor, The Parish Church of St. Jerome