As the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s urban initiative evolves, more than 60 Catholics and non-Catholics met at St. Martin de Porres, Milwaukee, Friday, Oct. 9, to discuss problems the city faces and how the church could respond to them.

Coordinated by Fr. Tim Kitzke, the archdiocese’s vicar general for urban ministry, and Rob Shelledy, coordinator of the

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Recommendations from the urban initiative gathering regarding poverty, violence and unemployment are available by calling (414) 758-2286 or emailing The next meeting is set for Friday, Nov. 6, 9 a.m., St. Martin de Porres, 128 W. Burleigh St., Milwaukee..

archdiocese’s social justice ministry and the office for the dignity of the human person, table discussions focused on poverty, housing, violence, racism and unemployment.

Shelledy told the gathering to focus on the “two feet of social action – direct charitable work and social justice structural issues.”

“We are looking for solutions to problems,” he said.

Confronting racism

 Sandra Melcher, a member of the archdiocese’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission, said there must be awareness that racism exists and that “we ourselves may have racist attitudes.”

“We need openness to look into our hearts to look at our attitudes toward others,” she said.

Jesuit Fr. T. Michael McNulty, scholar in residence at the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, recalled teaching a course on contemporary ethical problems, and discussing racism with the students, 95 percent of whom were white.

“White kids don’t know they have a culture,” he said. “They don’t know that they’re not everybody. They’re not conscious of their color as they walk across campus, whereas students of color are acutely conscious of their color as they walk across campus.”

Fr. McNulty said the education needed about racism is “massive.”

“It needs to be done not just with the students; it needs to be done with their parents,” he said. “If we could have anti-racism workshops in the parishes directed at the parents of the students who are in the school, that would be amazing.”

‘Intentional experiences’

Rev. James W. West Jr., pastor of Trinity C.M.E. Church and executive director of Repairers of the Breach, related his experience of being an African American at Whitnall High School in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“There were people who had never seen a black person in their lives. They got to know me and got to know that I was just a kid like their kid,” he said of the parents with whose children he attended school and played sports.

Rev. West said “intentional experiences” for children and adults are important in educating people about different cultures and races. Citing a meeting at Repairers of the Breach, he recalled a night when a parish RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) group came to meet with members.

“We’re in a circle after they gave their experiences (of being homeless) and people asked questions and tried to relate. But what ended up happening is everyone in the room started sharing shortcomings in their lives,” he said.

“Just being in the room and feeling each other’s position and what happened to them just brought us together as people … it helped us heal. But we had to make that experience.”

‘White privilege’ remains

Rosemary Murphy, outreach coordinator at All Saints, Milwaukee, referencing a point made by Fr. Bryan Massingale, an archdiocesan priest and theology professor at Marquette University, in his book, “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church,” said, “We’ve come to a point where, after all these years, we’re respectful of one another, we can have dinner together, we can be in public together, but what has not changed is the culture underneath this. While we can do a lot of things together, white privilege is still here.”

Murphy, who noted she has five grandsons who are children of color, continued, “We’re moving in a direction that is good, but also we haven’t really gotten underneath to address the white culture.”

She recommended the book be read throughout the archdiocese, and that an archdiocesan forum be conducted to discuss it.

Archdiocesan involvement

In giving a report from another table discussion about racism, Cecilia Smith-Robertson, director of faith formation at All Saints, Milwaukee, noted the role of the archdiocese.

“We’d like to see a task force developed at the archdiocesan level in regards to racism and culturalism,” she said. “Also a task force on white privilege by those of our brothers and sisters of a European background – them discussing themselves and exactly what that means and how do we change that ownership of it.”

Smith-Robertson said “universal concepts of who we are and whose we are” warrant discussion.

“When people see us, who do they see? They do not necessarily see people of African descent. Every now and then they will give kudos to our Latino brothers and sisters,” she said. “But the church is universal. And we need to take ownership, as an archdiocese, to let them know that perception is not true. Whatever we do needs to include all of our brothers and sisters.”  

Smith-Robertson reiterated a recommendation that had come from another table discussion.

“We (African Americans) do have to have a presence, an (archdiocesan) office, to work with the whole issue of inclusiveness,” she said. “Racism has an impact – an underlying impact – on all the discussions we’ve had today.”

Unused church property as housing

During a discussion on housing, Minnie Linyear, a member of St. Martin de Porres, Milwaukee, noted that her brother, an AME pastor in Albany, Georgia, has a housing complex right near his church.

“It also provides a way for evangelization, for bringing people into the church,” she said. “We’ve got to do more as a church in terms of housing.”

 Capuchin Fr. Mike Bertram, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee, agreed.

“I’m going to come across as very simplistic, very naïve, very idealistic but we’ve got a lot of empty convents sitting around on our church properties,” he said. “Maybe we need to take a more serious look at our church properties and say, ‘What can we do in terms of making these spaces available?’”

He noted that the Capuchins were exploring the possibility of converting St. Anthony Hospital on North 10th and West State streets into apartments for the homeless.

Andrew Musgrave, director of social justice ministries for SS. Peter and Paul, Three Holy Women and Our Lady of Divine Providence, Milwaukee, said when it came to unused church properties, “It is our obligation, as people of faith, to do this, and if we have the capacity, at least the beginning capacity with having a place, to work toward that, then it’s a good first step.”

Melcher asked, “How does that become a conversation?”

Synod connection

Fr. Bertram suggested making it part of the implementation of the Archdiocesan Synod.

Musgrave said the synod’s social justice committee had addressed housing as it was developing a three to five-year plan on social justice priorities. It was also looking at immediate needs.

“On a short term basis, we want to come up with more warming rooms – maybe one or two places,” he said. “There are far fewer beds than there are people who are homeless. There are far more homeless men, but there are far more beds for homeless men. But the number of beds for women, and families is just abhorrent, awful.”