Seeds of racial harmony sprout in Slidell parishes
The archdiocesan discussion series based on Archbishop Alfred Hughes’ 2006 pastoral letter “Made in the Image and Likeness of God” asks some compelling questions at the end of its probing into participants’ personal experiences of race and examination of church teachings related to Christ’s command to live as one body:
What is God specifically calling me to do to bridge the racial divide?
How can I be an instrument of reconciliation, justice, forgiveness and healing in my church and wider community?
Over the last seven months, at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell, at least part of that response has been to pray for racial harmony during monthly gatherings that combine prayer, Mass and fellowship.
On the third Monday of the month at 6 p.m., parishioners of St. Margaret Mary and surrounding Northshore churches gather inside St. Margaret Mary’s perpetual adoration chapel for a social justice-oriented prayer service before attending the 6:30 p.m. daily Mass together.
Guided by Our Family Prayer
“Most of us have a time that we go to adoration chapel anyway – and that’s also where daily Mass is held – so we thought if we met before Mass and prayed, and then went to Mass together and had fellowship together, it would help us answer that last question: What is God calling me to do? You just can’t answer that question from your head,” said Sharon Edwards, St. Margaret Mary’s racial harmony liaison.
Significantly, the prayer service begins with Our Family Prayer, which asks for God’s help in ending our area’s triple scourges of violence, murder and racism.
“I feel like it guides us,” Edwards said. “It’s at the bottom of everything we’re discussing. There is this history of economic disparity that is at the bottom of all those problems.”
The heart of the prayer service reflects on the scriptural underpinnings of each of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching, with prayer leaders taking turns at the pulpit to read short, relevant passages from the Old or New Testament.
For example, to show the scriptural origins of the “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable,” the prayer service leader read Acts 2:44, which describes the communal spirit of the early church that has largely been forgotten over the centuries: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”
After the passage was read aloud, all recited together a statement, listed in their prayer guide, summarizing just how the church expects Catholics to treat the marginalized: “A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”
Social justice-themed Mass
Following the Litany of Mary and a short period of eucharistic adoration, participants remain in the chapel for St. Margaret Mary’s usual 6:30 p.m. Mass. To extend the social justice theme into the prayers of the liturgy, Father Copping, St. Margaret Mary’s parochial vicar and celebrant of the group’s monthly Mass on Feb. 20, used the Votive Mass for the Progress of People, a Mass format approved by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (the Votive Mass for Peace and Justice is used in alternate months).
During the homily of the monthly racial harmony Masses, Father Copping and Father Edward Grice, St. Margaret Mary’s pastor, always connect the Gospel to some struggle related to Catholic Social Teaching. At the Feb. 20 Mass, Father Copping used Jesus’ miraculous healing of the demonically possessed boy to illustrate how faith and prayer can “move mountains” – and even heal America’s seemingly hopeless racial divide.
“Sometimes people will look at the injustice in life and just say, ‘That’s just how the world is. There’s nothing I can do to change it.’ They turn a blind eye and do nothing at all,” Father Copping said. “(Whereas) some people perceive the danger in their midst and seek answers – when they look at the situation they know that the world isn’t going change by itself, that something has to help it to change.”
After Mass, all are invited to gather inside St. Margaret Mary’s Evangelization Center to continue their Scripture-based study of Catholic Social Teaching over coffee.
At the February fellowship, which explored the “Call to Family, Community and Participation,” eight attendees discussed how people at social get-togethers tend to self-segregate along racial and cultural lines.
Edwards brought up an observation voiced by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Men often hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they cannot communicate. They cannot communicate because they are separated.”
“Through this ministry, we have been able to bring people together – to cross this separation – to try to break down this fear,” Edwards said. “When people experience racism in the church, what happens is they leave the church and they don’t realize that the church doesn’t condone what they’ve experienced. And that’s what these teaching brings into focus,” she added.
St. Margaret Mary parishioner Wayne Marx theorized that people of various races act angrily – and sometimes violently – out of a fear of having something taken away from them.
“To other people (that fear) may be irrational, but to them it’s rational and very real, this great fear that they have of being left out or ostracized,” Marx said. “Maybe they don’t have friends or somebody they can open up to, so they get closed off and they think the only way is to attack or do harmful things.”
Attendee Elias Simpson, who heads the racial harmony ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Slidell, said he always makes an effort to introduce himself to strangers at social gatherings. Simpson, who is African American, has noticed how racial barriers come down at parish hospitality events where food is involved.
“Someone’s always going to come into that kitchen to thank you and tell you how they appreciate you,” Simpson said. “You may have never seen that person before, but they don’t look at your color.”
Spreading the word
The northshore racial harmony prayer warriors, who have numbered as many as 20 at the monthly meet-ups, didn’t come together overnight. After St. Margaret Mary hosted the racial harmony series – sponsored by the Office of Racial Harmony and available to any parish that requests it – in January 2015, St. Genevieve Church in Slidell decided to host one and also invite members of the St. Margaret Mary’s racial harmony ministry to help facilitate it. The series will be held at Our Lady of Lourdes in April (see details below).
The response to the discussions have been so positive, there are now racial harmony-related ministries not only at St. Margaret Mary, but at three other Slidell parishes: St. Genevieve, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Luke the Evangelist.
All ministries can benefit
The Slidell-area discussions on race have also drawn fallen-away Catholics and adults of other denominations and faiths, said Edwards, adding that St. Margaret Mary’s youth group recently completed its own racial harmony series, modified to accommodate teenage participants.
The ministry has caused additional ripples within St. Margaret Mary itself. Animated by Ninth General Synod goals under the cluster of social justice, racial harmony leaders want to invite other parish ministries, such as St. Vincent de Paul and Respect Life, to attend the monthly prayer service, Mass and fellowship and trade ideas on how to achieve the synod goal of ending racism.
“We really hope that people will bring the racial harmony series to their own parish and encourage their ministry leaders to take it,” Edwards said, offering some advice.
“Every church where (the series) has taken root, there has been a deacon who’s attended,” she noted. “Deacons truly can help the priest to facilitate this ministry.”