According to the Aug. 1st New York Daily News, Juan Varela stood up during the 10:00 mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Fordham section of the Bronx, approached the altar, and addressed the congregation:
"This church hired a racist. This church does not like Hispanics and blacks," one police source quoted Varela as saying.
Varela was responding to Daily News report that Frank Borzellieri, principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School (the school attached to the church) in which significant numbers of non-white students are enrolled, has ties to white supremacist groups and allegedly promotes an anti-diversity philosophy in articles and books he publishes.
To my thinking Juan Varela may deserve this week's WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") award! His outburst recalls the image of Jesus upending money lenders' tables in the temple, but Varela, who is Catholic, though not a parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was arrested for disorderly conduct and weapons possession. (He was carrying a knife.)
So, is Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish racist? Unlikely.
Are those who knowingly appointed Borzellieri racist? Probably.
Is the New York City Roman Catholic Church racist? I think not.
In Catholic schools in New York City, Borzellier and his creepy ilk are the exception, not the rule.
I was born in New York City a little over 50 years ago. I was raised Catholic and attended both Catholic and public schools. Currently a practicing Catholic who has worked, for the past 15 years in Catholic Social Justice ministry. In this capacity I have witnessed up close how the most the conscientious and tireless advocacy on behalf of the indigent and immigrants in my city often seems to be conducted by people (of all faiths and no religious faith) working in conjunction with Roman Catholic parishes and agencies.
Having worked as an educator in both Catholic and public schools, I've seen how less pervasive institutional racism is in Catholic schools (as compared with the institutional racism in New York City Deparatment of Education schools). Although I lament that Roman Catholic leadership still clings to bigotry toward women and gay people, I marvel over the degree to which so many Catholic New Yorkers, seeing such efforts as almost unremarkable outgrowths of faith, devote so much time and talent to celebrating diversity and working to increase racial equality.
It is hardly a well-kept secret that white middle class and affluent Roman Catholic schools are too often bastions of conservative thinking out of which (unfortunately so, in my opinion) emerge homophobia, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. But in post-Vatican II New York City Catholic schools, that's now how it generally goes. New York City Catholic schools have high percentages of non-white students. Even conservative bishops like Timothy Dolan and Nicholas DiMarzio in New York City have good track records when it comes to supporting immigration reform and educating black and brown students, Catholic and otherwise.
The truth is that schools run by the Archdiocese of New York City and the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens succeed, to a great extent, where public schools fail: they graduate thousand of very poor students who can actually read, write and do math at grade level. And they do it at about one-third the (per kid/per capita) cost.
It's not a simple comparison, however. Parochial schools can expel "discipline problems" more easily than public schools can. Private schools have more freedom to discipline children during school hours. Poor families almost always pay some tuition to send their children to Catholic schools, and this suggests a level of involvement that is too often missing in some public school families. Private Catholic schools pay their teachers poorly, and this scrimping brings costs down. (The year I first taught full-time in a Bronx diocesan school I was eligible for food stamps.) Parochial schools often lack the costly arts programming, state-of-the-arts labs and computer equipment public schools are able to purchase.
In the early to mid 1980s I worked as a teacher in two Catholic schools located just a parish or two away from the two at which Borzellieri has been employed in recent years. More than half of my students at these schools (one elementary, one secondary) were black and Latino. Many were not Catholic. My best math student was a Chinese-born 11-year-old whose blue card indicated he was Buddhist. Several of my first-graders were non-English speaking, and one was a Jew. My two most accomplished students in a particularly strong Advanced Placement English class were a gentleman from Pakistan and a gentleman from Harlem.
Maybe things have gotten whiter and brighter up in the Bronx since I taught the "three Rs" three decades ago, but I doubt it. A principal who aligns himself with white supremacist theorists should not work anywhere near black and brown children.
As an educator, I believe he shouldn't be any child's principal. I can think of a few Catholic schools where a guy like Borzellieri might be welcome, but as a Catholic, I believe it's a sin to permit him to work in a Catholic school.
And as a parent of three school-aged children who refuses to give up entirely on the endangered notion that a teacher ought to be a kind of scholar -- I think Borzellieri needs to be dismissed.
According to the Daily News piece, Borzellieri wants to dispense with any literary gem of Western Civilization that might appear to collide in the least with his "I-love-guns-diversity-is-weakness-American-is best" message:
As a city school board member representing District 24 in Queens from 1993 to 2002, Borzellieri tried to ban literature he labeled "anti-American" from school libraries. One of the books he targeted was a biography on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ... He also introduced a resolution calling for students to be taught that U.S. culture is superior, and he advocated the removal of an openly gay teacher from the classroom at Public School 199 in Sunnyside.
I believe homophobia and racism are two aspects of the same sin, but the archdiocese won't fire him for the former if he's discreet about the latter.
As a teacher who's taught "Letter from Birmingham Jail" about ten times, I have a problem with cutting any book about Martin Luther King Jr. out of elementary or secondary humanities syllabi on the basis that it's not American enough. Anyone with the slightest expertise in American letters knows that there are few political tracts authored by Americans which so eloquently and dramatically extol and defend American freedoms as the text of the "I Have a Dream" speech or the aforementioned epistolary essay Martin Luther King Jr. scribbled in the margins of a newspaper in a jail cell. Appropriate commentary on the life of this man is part and parcel of studying these texts, and I know from my own experience as an educator that for many children (especially ones with reading delays) devouring biographies is a gateway to reading.
The worst thing about allowing this Borzellieri to continue as a principal is not that he might be a nasty racist. Nor is it his gun fetish or that he writes for a "white supremacy" journal that's on the Anti-Defamation League watch list. The worst thing about letting him stay in a job where he is charged with presiding over the education of black and Latino students in the Bronx is that he just isn't all that smart.
Lady of Mount Carmel, ora pro nobis. Show this knuckle-dragging palooka the door.