Church called to lead the difficult work of overcoming structural racism

By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service

Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, is seen in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Irving Johnson III, courtesy Xavier University of Louisiana)

CLEVELAND (CNS) — As the guilty verdicts were read April 20 in the trial of a white former Minneapolis police officer in the death of George Floyd, Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, “could hear the rumble of a collective exhalation” across the New Orleans campus.

Verret admitted that he, students, faculty and staff at the historically Black Catholic university felt apprehensive about the trial and whether Derek Chauvin, the former officer, would be found guilty of multiple charges in Floyd’s death.

Such apprehension existed, he said, because Black people feel marginalized in American society.

“The feelings that are unspoken about being otherized, about this country that sees me as different, those feelings that have been internalized are very damaging,” said Verret, who came to the U.S. from Haiti as a child.

While welcomed, the verdicts do not mean that equality for Black, brown and other people of color in society and within the Catholic Church has been achieved, however, Verret continued.

“In some ways, we have dirty hands and are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said.

Other Black and brown Catholic leaders echoed Verret’s sentiment: that the work to overcome structural racism is monumental and must begin immediately — in the Catholic Church as much as in society.

They called on church leaders, pastors and parishioners to prioritize confronting racism, as painful as it might be.

“We must pray together, we must stand together and we must speak out against the sin of racism and hatred,” Deacon Mel Tardy, president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, said.

“We cannot pretend we are a Catholic Church when we cannot bring people together. We are Catholic when we bring people together. We can have these different dialogues, we can have those dialogues with love, and somehow have people see the humanity of others,” said Deacon Tardy, who ministers at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend, Indiana.

Catholics are also called to act, he added.

“We can’t just talk,” he said. “We need to come up with steps that we can take into (the) culture and into society, as agents of change. Some might call that evangelization. We need to be able to do that. We cannot do that with anger and hatred. We can be angry about injustice, but we have to love people.”

Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., of Washington, who is president of the National Black Catholic Congress, also called for dialogue and action to address racism and said a greater openness to the “Gospel of Jesus’ love and salvation to all” can guide that effort.

“If we are able to talk among ourselves as Catholics, as residents of the city or state and citizens of this country, if we can honestly talk about our feelings with one another, Black and white, Hispanic and realize that all of us have our own prejudices,” Bishop Campbell said.

Just as importantly, he explained, church leaders working with parishioners can foster action to overturn racism. “Sometimes that means that those who we look to lead us, like myself and others, we have to take a visible stand when we see an injustice, to say, ‘This cannot be,'” he said.

Gloria Purvis, a Catholic commentator and former radio host, suggested that such action can flow from undertaking an “inner examination” as part of daily prayer life to understand how racism is perpetuated.

Such reflection, she said, can help people understand their individual responsibility to bring about change.

“We all have to be committed to having these discussions from our bishops, our priests, our deacons, from within our family,” Purvis told Catholic News Service.

Deacon Joseph Connor, president of the National Association of Black Catholic Deacons, said the church must become more vocal in addressing and exposing the sin of racism that exists in criminal justice, health care and the overall economy.

“The church is the people. It’s not a building,” said Deacon Connor, who is on the staff of Immaculate Conception Parish in Seattle and a chaplain with the Seattle Police Department. “If we’re not taking care of our people and helping them to meet their needs, then what are we here for?”

He called upon parishes and dioceses to prioritize the implementation of “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” by the U.S. bishops. He lamented that the document has received scant attention in the church since it was approved in 2018, but expressed hope that the events of the last year would spur more attention to it and lead to reflection on how racism remains even within church structures.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement following the Chauvin trial, the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious recommitted “to end institutional racism in every aspect of our society.”

“We believe that we are at a crucial moment in race relations in this country. We must acknowledge and work to eradicate the sin of white privilege that seeks to affirm the false superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture and way of life,” the statement said.

Sister Josita Colbert, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, told CNS the two organizations have held a series of conversations about racism and innate feelings of white privilege within religious congregations.

“We need to begin to model how we can best work together as equals, not one over the other and respect diversity,” she said.

Dominican Sister Elise García, LCWR president, said the conversations are meant to form “that deep level of relationship” and to “begin to put a racial equity lens in the way we do things.”

Both women religious urged church leaders to model actions for the rest of the church and society to follow. Acknowledging racism is painful, they said, but must become part of church life.

“We must change that which is causing such harm to our brothers and sisters. This is and must be a fundamental part of who we are and what we are about as we go forward,” Sister García said.

“As women religious, we feel we have a special obligation,” she added. “This is a question about the integrity of our lives and what it means to be followers of the one who called us to a kind of radical love. It’s foundational.”

All of the leaders said the road ahead is not easy. Purvis in particular said peace will not occur without plenty of hard work on behalf of justice. And Deacon Connor said working for justice is the call of Catholics if they want to follow Jesus.

“Prayer is good. We know that God moved mountains, but he also gave us a mind and brain to utilize and gifts to use for the betterment of all people no matter what they look like,” Deacon Connor said.

“We can’t be discouraged. There will be barriers and roadblocks. People don’t want to listen. But we have to be like broken records.”

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