Racial harmony can begin with small steps
Even great ideas can die on the vine.
A deep desire to put some great ideas into action prompted Archbishop Gregory Aymond to ask local Catholics to spend the month of October revisiting Archbishop Alfred Hughes’ 2006 pastoral letter on racial harmony, “Made in the Image and Likeness of God.”
In response, 280 people convened at seven sites across the archdiocese to prayerfully reflect on the original letter, assess the current state of racial unity within the local church and, most importantly, to offer concrete ways in which individuals and parishes might more effectively bridge racial divisions.
“This pastoral letter on racial harmony will only be as effective as we make it. The ball is being handed to us. It’s up to us to carry it,” said convener Walter Bonam, speaking Oct. 28 to about a dozen tables of participants at the final session of the discussion series held inside Brother Martin High School’s cafeteria.
While earlier installments of the four-part series had explored participants’ personal encounters with racism and Christ’s teachings on the dignity of each human person, the fourth and final gathering challenged attendees to use their new insights to cobble together tangible action plans to foster racial harmony in their parishes.
High on the suggestion list at Brother Martin was the establishment of parish delegations of whole families that would occasionally visit parishes racially different from their own.
Attendee Karen Stoehr said such visits wouldn’t even have to be organized; spontaneously showing up at another church for Mass also has the power to debunk myths. Stoehr recalled the time she found herself visiting a parish she had never heard of – St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh in Marrero – because it was listed on a religious education curriculum.
“I did not know that it was a Vietnamese community, and I am so blessed for not knowing because I might have shied away, thinking, ‘They don’t speak English. I might not be able to connect,’” Stoehr said. “I can’t wait to take my children (to St. Agnes) because their Mass is so profoundly beautiful.”
Stoehr said the horizons of her teenage children were similarly broadened when the youth director at her family’s home parish of St. Pius X took the CYO to Mass at St. Pius’ twin parish of St. Mary of the Angels.
“My kids were so touched by the Holy Spirit; they had never seen worship that way before,” said Stoehr of St. Mary’s African-American-infused liturgy and Gospel choir, adding that it was now up to her and her fellow parents to continue the practice.
Other ways to enhance inter-parish collaboration might include blending the choirs and other ministries of two churches for an occasional Sunday Mass. Bonam, whose grandfather co-founded the Knights of Peter Claver at a time in which people of color were not welcomed into the Knights of Columbus, said the two men’s groups and their wives could gather more often for socials and special events.
One of the youngest discussion participants, Holy Rosary High senior Semaj DeBose, said multiple parishes easily could come together to do community service. DeBose also shared her personal dream for creating a world that is more respectful of the dignity of each human person: a non-profit called “Freedom Outlook” that would offer a safe meeting place for bullied children and teens.
“I want to move the world forwards and not backwards,” DeBose said, to a round of applause, “because we are the next generation after you guys!”
A Catholic identity on race
Aisha Briscoe, a parishioner of St. Peter Claver, urged the laity to be a better model of racial harmony, beginning with the messages it passes down to young Catholics.
“Kids come to the world innocent and pure – they don’t have the issues that we may have with other people, but we press it on them,” Briscoe said. “So we have to be, as a church community, a little bit more cautious of the things we say. If we pass (positive messages about race) to the children, then that will inspire the rest of the community.”
Catholics also could be “more visible and more demanding when injustices happen,” Briscoe said, noting that priests could be encouraged to speak more often on the topic of racial harmony in their homilies, whether prompted by current events or the wealth of Scripture that speaks to our common heritage as God’s children. The laity could do its part by thanking priests for such homilies.
Marianite Sister Janet Bodin wondered if past efforts to foster a more racially harmonious faith community had been hampered by the notion that they had to “begin with something big.” As an alternative approach, Sister Janet proposed a movement in which Catholic families of different races and cultures could get to know each other in their respective homes for a monthly meal.
“If we could get enough families doing that, after a while we’d know each other better, and then maybe we could have that larger block party,” Sister Janet said. “It seems to me if we start small and build relationships, we do better when we get to something big.”
Local DVD on racial wounds
Those who attended the series held at the archdiocese’s Northshore Pastoral Center in Covington proposed that each parish hold a daylong retreat on racial harmony for all parish leaders. Schools could get into the act by setting up an interschool pen-pal program, like the one that ran for several years between Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville and St. Rita in New Orleans.
After hearing the personal stories of the people at their table, the northshore discussion group also proposed the production of a DVD in which local Catholics shared the pain they had suffered as a result of racism. The group’s exchanges were so fruitful, past participants and newcomers are invited to a follow-up meeting on Dec. 3, said Sister of the Holy Faith Teresa Rooney, the archdiocese’s racial harmony liaison.
Sister Teresa said she was touched by “the tremendous goodwill” of the participants as she floated around the archdiocese to observe the discussions at the seven sites. She said her office would continue to coordinate studies of the pastoral letter at different locations.
“The people involved had a deep desire to make relationships right and that’s a real sign of hope for me,” Sister Teresa said. “Many people told me it was an eye-opening experience. I was pleased with their openness in working with each other, in revealing their feelings, in telling their stories so honestly. And I’m pleased that people are looking at this as just a beginning step.”
The action plans, recorded by each site’s convener, will be compiled by Sister Teresa and given to her office’s 16-member implementation committee, composed of clergy, religious and laypeople, at their Nov. 14 meeting. In addition, the Office of Racial Harmony sent Archbishop Aymond weekly progress reports on each session.
Call Sister of the Holy Faith Teresa Rooney at 861-6272.