Church leaders urged to be pioneers in addressing systemic racism

know about Church leaders urged to be pioneers in addressing systemic racism

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As deadly racially motivated violence erupted at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a Pittsburgh synagogue, a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and more recently in Buffalo, New York, Catholic Church leaders responded .

These high-profile reminders of the tragic carnage of racism prompt women religious, deacons, priests, and bishops to condemn the violence and gather people in prayer, not only to beg for God’s mercy, but also to raise awareness of a culture of hate.

But racially inspired mass shootings, like the May 14 killing of 10 black people in a Buffalo grocery store, are only the most visible aspect of racism, and many Catholics believe church leadership has a responsibility to help. society to find a way to eradicate racism. scourge of intolerance.

“This is an evolving process,” said Charisse Smith, chair of the diversity committee of Lawrenceville, New Jersey’s Notre Dame Catholic High School school board, noting that there are many approaches to leading this issue that can help in a area, but not in others.

“It’s strategic, it’s planning, things come up and things have to be handled carefully,” Smith told Catholic News Service. “Sometimes things need immediate action and we’re not always going to get it right.”

Systemic racism is seen by many to be woven into nearly every system and institution in American society, some of it blatant, but much of it subtle. There are also many white Americans who do not believe that systemic racism exists.

“I don’t think any institution in the United States is adequately involved in addressing racism,” said Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, who delivered a 2021 speech called “Why Black Lives Matter: A Perspective.” Catholic on racism”. “

“I don’t think the church in the United States has given it enough of a priority, nor do I think we have convincingly taught our members what our catechism teaches, that racism is a sin,” Bishop Stowe said in an interview with CNS.

“And I don’t think we understand the concept of systemic racism yet,” he added. “Both how we operate off of that and, God forbid, you use a phrase like ‘white privilege,’ because that’s even more controversial than talking about systemic racism.”

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Raising awareness about racism and white privilege and how to discuss it without further alienating people may be one of the areas where church leaders can be most effective, said Robin Lenhardt, a law professor at the University of Georgetown and one of the founding teachers of the new Georgetown Racial. Institute of Justice.

The huge megaphone that the church has in parishes, service groups, diocesan schools, diocesan centers, universities, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops really embrace racial harmony and equality, Lenhardt told CNS.

Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer, and the subsequent nationwide protests that followed, led Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez , to establish an archdiocesan Commission. for Racial Healing to address systemic racism within the church and society at large.

“Just being uncomfortable with uncomfortable is what I’d like to see in church,” said Azzeiza Beadle, a 2017 graduate of Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville who was a leader in that school’s Shades Club, a group that helped address racism on campus.

“Being aware that there are people in your (church) community, there are things that they see that they may not like, and it’s okay that they don’t like those things,” he said, referring to pastors and bishops in the US who listen. of people of color in their dioceses.

“Listen to them, try to understand where they’re coming from, and try to see how you can change a little bit to make sure the community you have is good for everyone in it,” added Beadle.

This is something Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, has been trying to do within his diocese in recent years.

Bishop Burbidge has held listening sessions throughout his diocese to listen to the life experiences of people in his region, especially those of racial minorities.

He said this has been especially important to him, acknowledging that as a white male he is not subject to discrimination or systemic racism and that the signs are not organic in nature to him.

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“You have to listen to the experience of those you serve, work with or colleagues,” Bishop Burbidge told CNS in a 2020 interview. “You might think in good faith that, ‘no, this is not the reality in my diocese. This is not the reality in my parish, or in my company’. Until you start hearing some stories… and maybe you weren’t aware of that.”

He said this is why the bishop’s 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Opening Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” encourages U.S. bishops to hold these sessions of listen so they can better understand how racism affects their diocese and all of society. .

“You are hearing directly from people whose experience may be very different from your own,” Bishop Burbidge said, “or even very different from what you perceive reality to be.”

It’s also important for church leaders to let facts, research and statistics guide them in addressing racism, he said.

Ongoing racism in the US appears to be on the Vatican’s radar and several recent episcopal appointments by Pope Francis have placed more black bishops to lead dioceses in regions with historically notable racial tensions, particularly in the South.

“I think Pope Francis is sending a very strong intended message,” said Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, the only black cardinal in the US, “that if we, like the United States, are an immigrant community. … the episcopate should reflect that diversity. I think Pope Francis is being very intentional with these appointments.”

“He wants men who are compassionate, generous and accessible pastors, servants of the church,” Cardinal Gregory told CNS in an interview in May. “I think he wants them to reflect the face of the church in the United States.”

Church leaders can be champions in helping society at large confront systemic racism in the criminal justice, education, housing, health care, seminary, and parish systems, but more importantly, they can help people understand what white privilege is and how it affects society. Bishop Stowe said.

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The topic of white privilege is sensitive, often misunderstood, and often puts white Americans on the defensive, especially when they don’t identify any kind of privilege in their own lives.

“The reality is that there is a social structure that privileges white people over people of color and the church has benefited from that, not always consciously, but the church has certainly benefited from that,” Bishop Stowe said.

“If we want to promote unity, if we want to promote reconciliation,” he said, “if we don’t want to have to march in the streets and see the kind of violence that comes when people are oppressed, then we need to pay attention to what is being said.” .

“We have a significant African-American Catholic population that we always refer to in the church as ‘those people,’ as ‘other,'” Bishop Stowe said. “We don’t even recognize them as members of the church. We do it subconsciously, but it’s the ‘black church’ as ​​if it’s different than black people who are part of our church.”

To that extent, Oblate Sister Marcia Hall suggests that church leaders begin teaching in US seminaries how systemic racism reaches all levels of society, including the church, to better prepare priests from the future.

Sister Hall told CNS a story about black friends who attended a 2020 mass in Richmond, Virginia, and when it came time for the peace sign, the three white seminarians in the pew across from them turned around. They looked at them and then turned. back facing the front of the church without ever extending a peace sign.

“This is not something that happened in 1960, 1970, 1980, this was in 2020,” he said. “So I think church leaders have to be more forceful with the people they’re ordaining, or bringing into religious life, about race, being more upfront and honest about the impact it’s had on the church and the impact continues to have in the church and that we, all of us, need to address it.