Marches, protests, legislative action — the results of George Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25 can be seen everywhere you look.
But what does the Catholic Church have to do with any of this?
Everything, said Fr. Michael Bertram, OFM Cap.
“This is a great opportunity for our Church leaders to promote substantive change in our society and in our Church that addresses the sin of racism in our lives,” said Fr. Bertram, who is the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict the Moor Parishes in Milwaukee. “Given our present state of social life, the Church has an opening to be truly prophetic.”
Confronting and deconstructing racism — in our institutions, in our government and in ourselves — is part of our duty as followers of Christ, said Anne Haines, executive director of UrbanInitiativeMKE, a project of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that works to enact Catholic Social Teaching.
“The very foundation of Catholic Social Teaching is the protection of the life and the dignity of the human person. We are also called to be in solidarity with those who suffer,” she said. “We are called to participate in our communities to make them more reflective of the Kingdom.”
But where to start on such a mammoth project? Leaders in Milwaukee’s Black Catholic community acknowledge it’s a daunting task to deal with the issue of systemic racism — that is, the structural realities that exist in all of our societal systems that impact an individual’s ability to access resources that include well-funded school districts, quality and affordable healthcare, fair-paying jobs with upward mobility, mortgage approval and much more.
But all agreed that no matter how intimidating it is to talk about racism, silence simply makes it worse.
“People are afraid to say how they really feel. It’s on both sides — it’s on the white community’s side, and on the Black community’s side, when the two come together,’” said Janat Davis, a member of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a parishioner at All Saints Catholic Church. “But I don’t think change can happen if we don’t confront that uncomfortableness.”
All agree that statements like the USCCB’s and by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference following Floyd’s death are appreciated, but the words have to be taken to heart and translated to action among the faithful.
“I’m guessing the vast majority of white Wisconsinites would have to admit to coming out of Sunday Mass, or sitting at a fish fry, or some other Catholic cultural event and being part of a conversation where someone says, ‘I’m not a racist, but …’ and then proceeds to advance a racist observation,” said Jim Piatt, president of Messmer Schools. “As long as that gets accepted and unchallenged, the newest message that our Catholic Bishops articulated is invalidated.”
Casual racism on the part of white people has to become unacceptable, Piatt continued. In the same way that Catholics rightfully condemn the increasing prevalence of pornography in our society, he said, we also have to work against racism, which shares with pornography the sins of “inherent objectification, degradation and dehumanization — especially of women and children.”
“Most practicing Catholics would admit to find it troubling to see an open purveyor of sexually degrading material or businesses at Sunday Mass. Yet I suspect that racist online content gets gentler treatment,” he said. “Somehow it’s still OK to perpetuate racially demeaning and insulting content under the cover of politics or humor, and then show up at Mass with a ‘that’s just how the world works’ shrug.”
“I think as a Church we should do more to emphasize our Catholic Social Teachings and to avoid empty words,” said Fr. Peter Patrick Kimani, administrator of St. Sebastian and St. Catherine Parishes in Milwaukee. “I have seen many incidents happening and only a statement is released but not much follow-up. We should not be reactive, but proactive.”
Attitudes of casual racism are prevalent today even in Catholic circles, Fr. Kimani said.
“I remember last year I was looking for a parish to be assigned, and I visited a couple of them. One priest, who is white, told me to consider parishes within Milwaukee City rather than suburban,” he said. The logic of the priest was, he said, that parishioners in an urban setting would be more receptive to a priest of color than suburban parishes (Fr. Kimani is from Kenya). “What does that say to us? Racism is real, even in the Church.”
White Catholics can begin by educating themselves on the lived experiences of their Black brothers and sisters, said Fr. Bertram.
“Dioceses have created priorities in the life of the Church depending on given circumstances, — pastoral plans, diocesan synods, evangelization initiatives, capital campaigns and the like,” said Fr. Bertram. “I believe that our present circumstances call for a like prioritization of the needs of African Americans not only in the Church, but in our wider society.”
Haines said that the Office for Urban Ministry at the archdiocese has been working for several months on a workshop that parishes and organizations can host called “Open Wide Our Hearts: Overcoming Racism and Hate.” The workshop will seek to introduce the 2018 USCCB pastoral letter addressing racism and explore “the science and history of racism, the history of intolerance toward people of different nationalities and faith traditions, racism in the 20th century and racism in Milwaukee.”
“We are hoping we can offer this in a format that is adapted, given the COVID-19 issue,” she said.
Another opportunity for prayerful growth, said Haines, is the monthly Prayers for Reconciliation and Healing from Racism at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. “But this is just the beginning,” she said. “We know that all things begin with prayer.”
All community stakeholders interviewed for this article also joined in calling on priests to address the sin of racism in their homilies.
“I want my priest to help me understand that it’s not all about me,” said Davis. “It’s about my neighbor. It’s about what’s going on in the world and how we relate to that. How we confront issues. How we make things better. I sometimes need help with that. I look to my faith for it and I look to my faith leaders.”
For more information about the Prayers for Reconciliation and Healing From Racism, visit http://www.tinyurl.com/healracism.