Like so many people around the world, I feel a personal connection to Notre Dame de Paris (literally “Our Lady of Paris”), so when I heard on Monday that the centuries-old cathedral had been ravaged by a fire, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I remembered stepping into the sanctuary, looking up at the vaulted ceiling, and feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. It’s easy to understand why centuries of visitors and parishioners have felt a connection to something bigger than themselves in that place.

As I sat with my memories and my sadness on Monday night, I noticed that voices I respect when it comes to matters of social justice had another take entirely. Here’s an example.

 

The truth of this stung, but it also got me thinking: maybe Westerners can use this disaster as an opportunity to gain empathy.

Those of us with primarily European ancestry have just watched one of our sacred places burn. In the aftermath of that, perhaps it will be easier for us to imagine how the people our ancestors colonized felt as they watched their sacred spaces destroyed or remade to serve invaders from another place.

So as we process our feelings about Notre Dame over the coming days and weeks, let’s also take the time to ask ourselves:

  • How must the Aztecs, or the Yoruba, or the Wampanoag have felt when the places that were sacred to them were razed or repurposed by our ancestors?
  • How must their descendents feel now, to see us grieving Notre Dame?
  • How might their experience be different if we took the time to acknowledge the reality of what their ancestors faced?
  • In the same way that so many people have raised money to rebuild Notre Dame, how might we pool our resources to bring about reparations and lasting change?

If we do this, then we can transform the senseless burning of a sacred place into an opportunity to do the most sacred thing we possibly can: empathize with one another and seek lasting change.

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