Parishioners from as far east as St. Bernadette Church and as far west as Immaculate Heart of Mary Church came together and started getting to know each other over pizza and conversation the evening of July 20 at the Catholic Enrichment Center, 3146 West Broadway.
The event, which brought these parishioners as well as a group from St. Frances of Rome Church together, was the first of a six-session process called Moving Towards Oneness — an initiative of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry to improve race relations through building relationships.
On that same evening, parishioners from St. William, St. Augustine and Our Lady of Lourdes churches held their final meeting to discuss ways they would move forward with what they’d learned over the last six weeks.
Annette Mandley-Turner, executive director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry, led the new group as they began their journey.
Mandley-Turner said that oftentimes, individuals “do not listen well” when they feel they don’t have anything in common. When she moved to Louisville years ago, she noticed that conversations often started with the question “ ‘Where did you go to school?’ ”
It was a way of finding common ground, she noted.
“The reason things are the way they are, especially surrounding race, is because we don’t know each other,” said Mandley-Turner.
Moving Toward Oneness aims to help Catholics from different parishes get to know one another and develop relationships, she said. It aims to help individuals understand the “history of racism and prejudice in our church and understand how we might remove those brick walls that keep us separated.”
To that end, the process brings parishioners from predominantly white congregations together with parishioners from predominantly Black churches to get to know each other over the course of six weeks. The groups share a meal, pray together and take part in group discussions where African American parishioners share their personal experiences with racism and white parishioners listen, but also share about themselves.
Moving Toward Oneness is not new. It was created in the 1980s to encourage Catholics to come together.
“We realize people were segregated by where they lived — south end, west end, east end,” said Mandley-Turner. “We wanted people to move beyond their area.”
A need to revive the program came last year following months of racial unrest in the city and the nation. The first group met this year in mid-June.
Following the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of a white police officer in May of 2020, Mandley-Turner said people’s “eyes, mind and heart are wide open like it’s never been before.”
Since then her office has had hundreds of conversations with individuals throughout the archdiocese about what can be done to heal the racial divide, she said.
“We have to become a little more comfortable. … We have to put on the shoes of another. You don’t have to keep them on, but you have to try them on so you understand,” said Mandley-Turner. “We’re not going to eradicate racism in six weeks, but what we can do is open up the doors so we can walk through and better understand.”
Vernessa Autry, a member of St. Augustine who just finished the six-week program, said she felt the process did “open the door” and it was a start at “opening minds.”
Autry said she’s usually hesitant to open up about her experiences as a Black woman and a Black Catholic because she’s concerned about how her stories will be received. Autry — whose group during the six weeks included members from Our Lady of Lourdes and St. William churches — said she felt her stories were heard and welcomed.
During the sessions, Autry, a native of Orangeburg, S.C., said she shared her family’s experience following the shooting of Black protestors by South Carolina Highway Patrol officers in Orangeburg in 1968. Her father worked as a chef on the campus of South Carolina State University, then South Carolina State College, where the shootings occurred. The family lived in fear that her father might be killed too, she said.
She also shared what life was like during segregation and having to enter shopping establishments, for instance, through a back door, she said.
“I heard people say they’d learned things they did not know about the African American community and are more aware now of differences and things they didn’t think were an issue because they never had to deal with it,” said Autry. “All we did was open the door and start opening minds. This is just the beginning to becoming more connected to one another and to the parishes and to get to know each other as people.”
Father John Burke, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, took part in the process with Autry’s group. He said the six weeks were “eye-opening and heart-opening.” “You can hear all the statistics in the world, but until you hear somebody’s story it’s not real,” said Father Burke. One of the things he took away from the experience is “how important relationships are and that we need to work hard to build relationships with people,” said Father Burke. “One of the problems with racism and racial inequality is that you can live in your own bubble and think that everyone is having the same experience. The real value (in Moving Towards Oneness) is the opportunity to share stories and hear from people whose experiences are radically different from yours.”
Father Burke said he learned that there’s “real inequity … a real gap” and that “we’ve got work to do.”
The group left with a promise that they’re not only going to continue to lobby and protest but that they’d stay connected, he said.
Members of the group exchanged contact information and intend to stay in touch, perhaps with a monthly meeting to learn what’s going on in each other’s lives and parishes and how they might be of support to one another, he said.
Two other groups of parishes are set to start the Moving Towards Oneness process in August and September.