As the Catholic Church we do not accept the ‘undignifying’ of human beings”: Catholics explore white supremacy

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Committed lay Catholics here, stung by the worldwide attention given their city by hundreds of white supremacists and armed neo-Nazis last August, are “grappling with the sin of racism” within the church and their community.

A daylong “exploration of racism and Catholicism” convened by the Casa Alma Catholic Worker community Jan. 20 drew nearly 100 to the Church of the Incarnation to pray, reflect and hear speakers challenge them to confront racism and white supremacy.

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Following the Aug. 11-12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally that left one person dead and 30 wounded, “a lot of people asked Casa Alma what was the Catholic Church response” to the overt demonstration of racism, said Catholic Worker leader Laura Brown.

Although many lay Catholics joined the counterprotest against the white nationalists, some have expressed concern about the absence of visible Catholic clergy on the front lines alongside several fully garbed Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders. “There were a lot of Catholics there, but no leadership,” said a participant who asked not to be named.

“I suspect that you have a lot of good Catholics struggling in Charlottesville,” said Greer Gordon, keynote speaker at the “Grappling With the Sin of Racism” event.

“If we are committed, some of us are going to have to be on the front lines,” said Gordon, retired director of the Office of Evangelization in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “All of us are called to rally together and witness to the value that we hold as church.

“But going out to demonstrate is not the hardest way” to combat white supremacy, she added. “The hardest way is sitting at that table, talking with your racist uncle.”

Gordon said the United States is “still dealing with the residual effects of slavery, manifested in the collapse of the black family … once you begin to see a lot of distress and destruction of the black community as a result of the collapse of the social system.”

Charlottesville has “a lot of cultural problems to sift through,” she said. “In this university town, how do we as a church begin to encourage people to begin to understand that as the Catholic Church we do not accept the ‘undignifying’ of human beings?”

Greer Gordon, retired director of the Office of Evangelization at the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, speaks to the "Grappling With the Sin of Racism" conference Jan. 20 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (James C. Webster)

Greer Gordon, retired director of the Office of Evangelization at the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, speaks to the “Grappling With the Sin of Racism” conference Jan. 20 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (James C. Webster)

Catholics “have to be able to stand in front of people and witness,” Gordon insisted. It may require courage, she said, but “we need to say respectfully to some of our bishops that we need to go back and revisit the Gospel story.”

“Like all those early Christians, we are called to do anything we can, including possibly be willing to put our lives on the line to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ — to take some stands that are going to challenge the powers that be.”

Catholics are called to “open our hearts to how we understand white supremacy and racial justice,” said Nichole Flores, an assistant professor of religious studies who teaches Catholic theology and ethics at the University of Virginia.

She described how a mostly black neighborhood in Charlottesville was affected when “homes were destroyed, people displaced and businesses closed in urban renewal led by whites.” City data shows that the African-American population in that area dropped by more than 12 percent between 2000 and 2012.

The first step to cultivate racial justice is to listen to the people affected, Flores said. “It demands a spirit of humility and receptivity. Racial justice requires paying attention, not dismissing them as whining, rude or uncivil.”

Describing Black Lives Matter and similar protests, she asked, “Do we have the heart to listen and the mind to listen rather than dismissing them as against police officers or against white people or against order?

Nichole Flores, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, addresses a workshop on racism and white supremacy Jan. 20 at the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, Virginia. (James C. Webster)

Nichole Flores, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, addresses a workshop on racism and white supremacy Jan. 20 at the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, Virginia. (James C. Webster)

The Catholic Church has “a rich, robust tradition of theology and practice that is directly related to racial justice or has the potential to do so,” she said. “The need for religious activism for racial justice continues today. The path is long and laborious but it has multiple fruits.

Casa Alma’s Brown was encouraged that many signed up to participate in follow-up action. “A great majority of those who attended are already active in ministries within the church and in service organizations in the broader community, so I know that their actions toward ending racism will ripple outward to inspire and engage others,” she said.

Many participants said they would “begin a more purposeful examination of their own biases and are now more empowered to open difficult conversations with family and friends,” according to Brown.

“We collected 41 written evaluations at the conclusion of the day,” she said. “Of those, 30 people indicated that they signed up for a follow-up action.”

Those actions include studying black liberation theology, anti-racism book study, examining racism in mixed Anglo-Hispanic parish communities, and exploring local Catholic history.

“Many indicated that confronting their own biases or feelings was the most difficult” challenge of the day, she said.

The national Catholic group Call to Action worked behind the scenes and helped finance the gathering as part of its own anti-racism initiative.

Zachary Johnson, Call to Action’s executive director, was encouraged that laypeople took the lead in organizing and promoting the event. “This was a good beginning [because] this has not happened yet in the Catholic community,” he said. “So many said that it was the first time they had contemplated these issues.”

He said that Call to Action has “feelers from six or seven places” about holding similar anti-racism events, but noted that “it takes courage and time” from local leaders to succeed.

Johnson said he has been troubled to discover that white supremacist organizations, through their websites, have identified conservative Christians, including Catholics, as potential allies to spread their ideology of anti-Semitism and white superiority.

Last November, Call to Action held an online webinar to give its members an opportunity to reflect on and resist the impact of white supremacy in their parishes and communities. More than 40 members from across the United States participated, according to Call to Action, which says on its website, “We are currently in the process of forming resources for CTA chapters committed to dismantling racism and white supremacy.”

James C. Webster is a freelance journalist based in Arlington, Virginia.

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 9-22, 2018 print issue under the headline: Charlottesville Catholics explore racism .
CTA 2012 feature series. View the full series.
LOUISVILLE, KY. — Against a backdrop of a banner with the word “Aggiornamento!”, speakers at Call To Action’s national conference spoke of the Second Vatican Council’s new way of being church in today’s world.

For Call To Action, that new way cannot ignore racial justice work.

Since 2005, the church reform group based out of Chicago has been working at combating racism in facets of church and society, included its own organization.

Noted civil rights activist Diane Nash gave the keynote address Nov. 9 night here, speaking on “agapic energy,” a term that goes beyond nonviolence, she said, and is derived from a Greek word for “love of humankind.”

“People are never your enemy,” said Nash, who was a leader of the sit-ins in the 1960s civil rights movement.  

Attitudes, systems and “-isms” (sexism, racism, etc.) are enemies, but the person is not, said Nash, who related her experience desegregating in the South.

“One of the problems with using violence to bring about social change is that you often kill individuals and leave the oppressive system, which is the real problem, untouched,” she said.

Oppressors are not the only ones perpetuating the broken systems, she said. “Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. If the oppressed withdraw their cooperation from the oppressive system, that system will follow” and fall, she said.

About 1,500 people from across the country registered for the conference and more joined once the conference got under way. This year’s conference had more than 400 people who had never attended a Call To Action conference before.

“There’s the saying that there is no justice without racial justice,” Rose Elizondo told NCR. Elizondo presented a workshop about issues of institutional and internalized racism.

“So if everyone is not at the table as we are speaking about reform, as we are trying to collaboratively bring reform in our church, then we are not going to have a powerful reformation movement,” said Elizondo, who does restorative justice work at San Quentin State Prison in California.

“It’s part of our call to follow Jesus in creating justice, peace and love in the world,” said Myra Brown, a member of Call To Action’s anti-racism team along with Elizondo. “We can’t really step over oppression and feel like we’re really doing that to the best of our abilities.”

During her keynote, Nash recalled that people participating in the nonviolent actions in the 1960s sometimes got frustrated, but others reminded them of the importance of the work and that they were doing this “for generations yet unborn.”

“And I’d like for younger people to know that we had you in mind and even though we had not met you, we loved you, and we were trying to bring about a society that was the best one we could shape for you to be born into and to come of age in.”

Young adults are another focus of outreach for Call To Action and another focus of the conference. Matthew Fox, creation theologian and Episcopal priest, praised the “wisdom of the Occupy generation” and put his faith in the youth during his keynote.

He also spoke of the darkness of both religion and society today and the good news that comes out of the darkness.

“Church is a verb. It is where the Holy Spirit is at work,” he said. Whether you work inside structures or outside, you have a call to embody the Holy Spirit to put your energy and talents into something — don’t be an ecclesial couch potato, he said.

“The Holy Spirit does not retire,” Fox said.

Other keynoters included Mohamed Abdul-Azeez, an imam who is the religious leader of SALAM Islamic Center in Sacramento, Calif., and Patricia Fresen, a member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests from South Africa who assisted the development of that organization in North America. Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of the social justice lobby NETWORK and of “Nuns on the Bus” fame, gave a homily at the liturgy on Sunday.

The 2012 Leadership Award went to Franciscan Sr. Pat Farrell, currently past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She was president in April when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its doctrinal assessment criticizing parts of LCWR.

Presentation speakers Nov. 10 included Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, an all-volunteer organization that advocates for human rights and immigration reform with a focus on the border between the United States and Mexico.

When people are dehumanized, others find it acceptable to attack them, he said.

“We are all supposed to love our fellow man, and it is important that we practice what we preach,” he said.

At another session, Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle told stories of the former gang members he works with in Los Angeles at Homeboy Industries, the largest gang member rehabilitation and reentry program in the nation, and spoke of the “exquisite mutuality in kinship.”

“How do we seek to obliterate once and for all the illusion that we are separate? Where there is no us and them — there’s just us?”

Other presentations included talks on a Catholic transgender narrative, stories of women in Latin America, violence and nonviolence in the Middle East and Central Asia, and numerous caucuses.

This year’s conference, called “Justice Rising,” was created to focus around racism. The first time the conference addressed racism directly as a theme in 2007, attendance was down from other years.

Anti-racism has been on Call To Action’s agenda from its beginning in Detroit and Chicago, but there was no strategic plan on how to go about breaking systematic racism. In 2005, the anti-racism initiative went into play, said Amy Sheber Howard, who is on Call To Action’s anti-racism team.

It was a tough decision to have a conference on a sensitive topic such as race in 2007 and know that there would be a financial loss, especially in an economic time in the U.S. when many nonprofits were losing money, said current Call To Action board co-president David Saavedra.

But they went with it, Sheber Howard said.

It spoke as a sign of a directional shift for the organization

This year, the decision to hold the conference in Louisville is a continuation of the group’s commitment to changing “business as usual” and reaching other people to engage in the conversation and see how the organization is transformed by that, Sheber Howard said.

The conference will be back in Milwaukee, its common host, next year, but will make its debut in Memphis, Tenn., in 2014.

Part of what moved Call To Action members to follow this anti-racism initiative more forcefully was something members of Pax Christi imparted to them: that if they did not do the work of anti-racism, every other thing they did on behalf of peacemaking and justice — the “very heart of who-we-say-we-are things” — would be done in a racist way, Sheber Howard said.

The groups training Call To Action in anti-racism skills told members that it would shake their organization. But after struggling with discussions of mission and direction, the board ultimately decided to adopt the anti-racism initiative into their identity as Call To Action.

“Some people would wonder, ‘Well, why would an organization want to embark on this kind of journey?’ ” said Saavedra, who is also on the anti-racism team. “Because the bottom line is that it’s going to look very different at the end hopefully, wherever the end is. That could be 15, that could be 20 years down the road.”

Part of the group’s plan is to look at institutional racism in the world, structures of power and of what makes the lack of diversity exist in its organization.

Years ago, “we used to assume that we did things in an inclusive way because we value justice and we’ve got good hearts,” Sheber Howard said. From their anti-racism work, she said, they’ve learned that those things aren’t enough because of privilege, perpetuated systems of power, and ingrained habits that are beyond an individual’s desire.

Saavedra said that it is a sensitive topic for people, including those Call To Action members who value justice, because “no one wants to be called a racist” and that can be the implication with discussions like this.

But these discussions of how people are different and what that means, sharing experiences, talking honestly in conversation — those are the beginning steps, he said.

“It’s not an easy thing because it challenges us personally, and at times we may feel like we’re being attacked.” The key, though, is to stay in a relationship, to speak respectfully with each other about differences and feelings, he said. “So it’s hard to do. You’ve got to have that environment to be able to do it in that’s a safe space.”

Saavedra said he thinks this will change the makeup of the organization, but it will be a long process. “It’s not going to happen in two years, five years or 10 years. It’s probably going to be longer.”

[Zoe Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her email address is]

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