Collierville, TN – The home of a Catholic priest was the last place one would expect to be denied work.
LaShundra Allen (who is African American) arrived with her white colleague for what was supposed to be her first day cleaning Reverend Jacek Kowal’s rectory at the Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, Tennessee. The colleague from the cleaning company who accompanied her, Emily Weaver, was quitting this cleaning job, and came along to introduce Allen as her replacement. The secretary of the church stopped them, and said she would have to go ask the reverend if the new arrangement was OK.
The secretary soon emerged and said “I’m sorry, we are not trying to be rude, but the dog doesn’t like black people. Allen said she was baffled at what she just heard.
Allen, remarked, “I was just supposed to clean the church and I was supposed to go to the pastor’s house and clean as well. They were just like, “Well, I’m not really sure how to say this,” kind of like in a joking way, “But Father Jacek doesn’t want black people cleaning the house because his dog is racist.”
Allen and Weaver sent a racial discrimination complaint to the Diocese of Memphis on July 3, seeking a “settlement and compromise.” The Diocese of Memphis said in a statement that it found that what happened at the priest’s rectory “simply was not a case of racial discrimination,” and that Reverend Kowal “did nothing wrong.”
In the church’s version of events, the secretary’s words were: “Father Jacek’s dog is kinda racist”—although in the eyes of the diocese, the statement did not stem from any racial discrimination.
“Although the parish staff member’s choice of words was highly unfortunate and imprecise, they were not motivated by racial animus. Rather, the concern by all involved was the safety of these women, one of whom was a stranger to the dog; they knew that attempting to crate the dog would be dangerous when its owner was not present. Bishop Talley further said that “Kowal’s dog could be somewhat more agitated initially around strangers with darker skin, until the dog gets to know them.” He said the dog, a German shepherd, had once been threatened by a person who “happened to be African American.”
Allen’s lawyer, Maureen Holland, said she was disappointed in the bishop’s finding. Allen said she feared the diocese was not taking her complaint seriously, especially because the church did not respond for weeks to her letter.
“Blaming a dog for racism,” she said, appeared to mask underlying discrimination. She felt both discipline and training for the priest and his staff should have been required, “because he needs to know that it’s not OK to say something like that to people.”
“I took it to be that he was using [the dog] as an excuse,” Allen said. “Dogs can’t see color. Dogs can only be taught who to be around and who not to be around.”