Confronting Absurdity: Slavery and Racism as Historic Disruptors of Our Mission

In my studies of philosophy, I learned that several existential philosophers, including Albert Camus, asked how we can face and reduce suffering when we ourselves often cause it for others. This profound contradiction is what they call absurdity. Please note that I will be using this existential understanding of profound absurdity throughout this text.

In the context of our Vincentian history, we are now firmly confronting such an absurdity in our complicity in causing, instead of reducing, people’s suffering. Instead of helping people and communities to overcome it, as Vincent de Paul did in his life, we became a significant cause of their pain. The absurdity of Vincentians’ involvement in enslaving human beings and of DePaul University’s engagement in institutional racism needs to be learned, researched, recognized, and confronted with determination. Today we, the Congregation of the Mission, and DePaul University, ought to become partners in the human quest to overcome the systemic harm of racism and discrimination while investing the best of our human, structural, and financial resources to confront all causes of humanity and our planet’s unbearable suffering.

Racism is an affront to humanity. In our current sociopolitical context, the strengthening of racism becomes a specific element of the radical polarization through which minorities are ostracized and blamed for all evil without reason. The white supremacy culture perceives the sociopolitical and economic oppression and disappearance of people of African descent and other minorities as the triumph of the symbolic order of a nation that builds its memory by discursively annihilating others, flatly denying essential elements of their historic collective identity. Slavery and racism dehumanize us partly because they illustrate the absurdity of our human experience. The dehumanization of its victims happens through symbolic, existential, religious, and socioeconomical violence, exclusion, and oppression.

In solidarity with those in the African American community, we must advocate individually and institutionally for their freedom, defend their rights, support their organization, and ally ourselves in constructing a society that makes systemic inequities and racial discrimination increasingly impossible.  This is a concrete and effective way for us to confront our history and contribute to overcoming absurdity in our own institutional identity.

Over the past two years as the liaison of the DePaul task force to respond to the legacy of Vincentian slaveholding, I became strongly convinced that we need to institutionally support an awakening of the Black consciousness that is so present in our midst, in organizations and individuals that fight to rescue the identity and existence of all African American communities. Our commitment calls for supporting the liberation of a denied identity and, simultaneously, invites us to become members of a project that makes explicit and confronts the absurdity expressed in so many forms of racism from a national and globalized perspective.

As a DePaul task force, we have been working with people who bear witness to centuries of enslavement and oppression, and we have been encouraging people to fight so that such inhumanity will not be perpetrated on anyone again. The history of slavery inflames us with the necessary conscience to understand that everyone in our society is also responsible, by action or inaction, for the inequities that continue to disproportionately affect Black people today. We all collectively have the duty of historical reparation and to make real the justice that has not yet arrived.

I have learned during my life as a Vincentian missionary that God’s love for the oppressed is a core element of our Vincentian vision and mission. From this perspective, I again apologize on behalf of my community for our absurdities and moral failing, our sinful participation in enslaving other human beings, and the historical and contemporary bias and perpetuation of racist systems and practices that have denied the very heart of our identity and mission in our relationships with African Americans in the United States of America.

On May 18, at 10:30 a.m., we will rename Room 300 in the Richardson Library and the Belden-Racine residence hall to honor Aspasia LeCompte, a woman formerly enslaved by Bishop Joseph Rosati, C.M., one of the first Vincentian missionary priests in St. Louis. This woman represents the enduring centuries-long resistance and resilience of African American communities. Naming prominent places on campus after her will perpetually lift up the life of an incredible Black woman whose legacy deserves to be known. Through Aspasia LeCompte’s story, the realities of Vincentian participation in enslaving people will continue to be remembered as new people join the DePaul community, and our community will forever be reminded that we need to continue to name and confront racism at our institution and in society.

Join us to continue this journey together and to find new ways to structurally design DePaul for equity.

Reflection by: Fr. Guillermo (Memo) Campuzano, C.M., Vice President of Mission and Ministry

We, The Fortunate Ones

As we move from celebrating the Feast of Sr. Rosalie Rendu, D.C. (February 7th), we turn our attention to the life and example of Saint Josephine Bakhita, F.D.C.C. (February 8th), a Sudanese woman, freed slave, Canossian Daughter of Charity, patron saint of human trafficking survivors, and someone we might consider a member of our extended Vincentian Family.[1]

Born in 1869 to the Dagiu ́people of Darfur in western Sudan, she was raised among a family of cattle and sheep herders until she was kidnapped (several years after her older sister suffered the same fate) by trans-Saharan slave-traders who mockingly named her Bakhita (meaning “fortunate or lucky one”). Over the course of her adolescence and early adulthood, Bakhita was sold to several enslavers, who treated her with varying degrees of cruelty and kindness, until she finally found a community of support among the religious of Italy. They assisted her in securing emancipation and supported her journey of religious formation. Bakhita spent the remainder of her life living in community among the people of Schio, Italy, serving as a cook and a doorkeeper at the convent.

Few of us in the United States know firsthand the horrors and degradation of slavery; however, we know its terrible legacies of structural, systemic racism, dehumanizing poverty, and environmental degradation. Much like Bakhita, we can at times feel powerless in the face of such forces, which seem immense and beyond our individual control. Although Bakhita had limited control over the what of her life, we can look to her as an example of courage, fortitude, and hope in shaping the how of our lives; that is, the infinitely creative ways in which we can respond to the Vincentian question, “What must be done?”

As you move through today, consider how you can respond to the personal, institutional, and societal injustices that we encounter in our daily life, work, and study. How can you, like Saint Josephine Bakhita, respond to the call for social and environmental justice in your life?

We invite you to contribute your brief response by sharing a thought, a quote, an image, or a combination of these to our communal reflection at our Bakhita Mission Monday Jamboard as a sign and symbol of hope and solidarity within our community.

Reflection by: Rubén Álvarez Silva, M.Ed. (He, Him, His), Associate Director for Just DePaul, Division of Mission and Ministry

Photo credit: Marcin Mazur at Creative Commons License:

[1] The following sources were used in writing this post: M. Shawn Copeland, “A Woman of Courage, Fortitude and Hope” in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie, ed. Susan Perry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009) available at; and “St. Josephine Bakhita,” Catholic Online (website), accessed February 3, 2022,