Civil rights anniversary ties to dialogue on race post-Trayvon
Catholic News Service photo
Women pray during a July 15 service at the New Life Word Center Church in Sanford, Fla., led by a coalition of local ministers in an effort to move the community past the George Zimmerman murder trial and verdict. After Zimmerman's July 13 acquittal in t he Trayvon Martin murder trial in Sanford, attention has now turned to how churches and communities can help heal the societal wounds of racism.
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — The news clipping files from early August 1963 are full of articles about Catholic and interfaith organizations encouraging their members to take part in the Aug. 28 civil rights March here.
The National Catholic Liturgical Conference, the Archdiocese of New York and the Minnesota Committee on Religion and Race, for instance, urged their members to participate in the massive gathering at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech about racial harmony. One of the 10 chairmen for the event was the director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. Some of the prominent photos from that day featured Rev. King sharing the stage with clergy of various faiths.
The 50th anniversary of the march this summer comes at a time when unease about race is again in the news, and more for the work that needs to be done than for the progress made over five decades.
Since a Florida jury July 13 acquitted white/Hispanic George Zimmerman of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of African-American Trayvon Martin, organized protests around the country have sought to shine a light on the pervasive sense of distrust that African-American men, in particular, face on a regular basis.
In highly personal remarks after the verdict, President Barack Obama, Catholic theologian Father Bryan Massingale, a professor of theology at Marquette University, and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke or wrote about their own experiences of race-based bias.
In a July 30 column for HNP Today, newsletter of the Holy Name Province of the Franciscans, Father Paul Williams wrote of recently being carjacked at gunpoint outside a Delaware church by an African-American young man. Though Father Williams is himself African-American, he wrote that he struggled with fear when approached soon after the crime by another black young man.
"Racial profiling of minorities dehumanizes people who are basically good and law abiding, and instead are seen as criminals or potential criminals," wrote Father Williams. "It makes a mockery of our belief in blind justice. As an African-American male, I don't have the luxury of seeing all young black males in such a negative light. I know better."
What's been harder to find amid the Trayvon-related reaction is strong public responses from the Catholic Church, observed Sister Barbara Moore, a Missouri-based member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who participated in another famous civil rights event, the March 10, 1965, voting rights march in Selma, Ala.
"I don't hear anything, I don't see anything from the hierarchy, and I've looked," said Sister Barbara, noting that other religious leaders, particularly African-Americans, have raised the issue as a challenge Christians must face. Even in her St. Louis parish, where she said the pastor doesn't typically shy away from speaking up on controversial issues, the topic hasn't come up from the pulpit. "It's very disappointing."
Sister Barbara told Catholic News Service that the subject was a prime topic of conversation among participants in a recent joint meeting of organizations representing black sisters, priests, deacons and seminarians. While she didn't want to get into the specifics of a formal dialogue on the topic, she said, "the point was made that we haven't heard from anyone in authority."
Deacon Royce Winters, director of African-American Ministries for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, told CNS he thinks that the country has made great progress in combatting racism since the late 1960s, but that the subject has faded from a position of importance in the country and in the church.
"We in America seem to be pursuing our individual goals in life, but we have lost our sense of community, our sense of being connected to something greater than ourselves," he said. "We have failed to consider our obligation to bring others along with us."
Bishop Curtis J. Guillory of Beaumont, Texas, one of about a dozen active African-American Catholic bishops in the U.S., told CNS that the U.S. hierarchy has been clear that racism is a sin -- in a 1979 pastoral "Brothers and Sisters to Us," a statement marking the pastoral's 25th anniversary and recently in the context of supporting comprehensive immigration reform. But the topic is too easily avoided.
"I don't think race and ethnicity have been the subject of serious dialogue," he said.
"It's like you have a two-story house where the floor upstairs is weak in some spots and unstable, so you walk around those spots, or you go very lightly across them," said Bishop Guillory. "This is where the church can make a tremendous contribution. But you have to work at it. It's not just going to happen."
He said he wrote about the topic for the upcoming edition of his diocesan newspaper, the East Texas Catholic. And he regularly has to deal with racial hostility in parishes around the diocese, he said, typically when a parish predominantly made up of one race begins to get an influx of new parishioners from another race or culture.
Bishop Guillory in his article and in the interview with CNS drew parallels to the current unease over race and St. Paul's admonition to the Corinthians to think of the diverse parts of the church as the intrinsically connected pieces of the body of Christ.
"Paul uses the image of the body with its many parts to show that the body of Christ -- the church -- is one," he wrote in his column. "Christ is the head of the body -- the church. Certainly that image of Paul can assist us in healing our own divisions."
In Cincinnati, Deacon Winters' office has organized an observance of the March on Washington anniversary. It's also hosting an October workshop on "intercultural competence" for archdiocesan ministers. A second such workshop next March is planned for leaders of the Cincinnati and Louisville, Ky., archdioceses and the dioceses of Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.
He said one approach he's trying to encourage in the archdiocese is to stop thinking of programs of ministry to various ethnic groups as only being for the people of those groups. Instead, he said, "we have recognized we need to minister to everyone."
Retired Bishop John E. McCarthy of Austin, Texas, was also at the Selma voting rights march in 1965 and was active throughout the era in working for equal rights for laborers and other segments of society. He told CNS "it pains me to say there's been a very obvious and slow retreat by the Catholic Church in the United States from direct involvement in the social justice issues of this time."
He lamented that the 25th anniversary of the bishops' 1986 pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All," passed "unnoticed," and that the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council went by "without any type of national celebration or major programs to discuss it."
Bishop McCarthy said he believes part of the reason for the institutional church's lower profile on issues such as racism is that "the church has been so badly wounded by its own internal problems."
"My hope is that as we come to grips with scandals, whether about sex or banks or butlers, we will regroup and remember our commitments to each other," he said.