Faith-based Groups Leading Efforts for Racial Equity

Rich WoodPope Francis, on his recent visit to the United States and in his customary hopeful tone, remembered “the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.  This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed” (Sept 26, 2015).

Many Americans—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—remain inspired by Pope Francis’ visit. Yet America also struggles to live up to his hopeful vision of eliminating racism and prejudice. Racial controversies roil our universities, incidents of racialized policing lead to deaths, and mass incarceration curtails the life chances of too many young black and brown men. We have failed to build racial equity into the fabric of our society. That task remains urgent three decades after the U.S. bishops diagnosed it thus: “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it means an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979).

The bishops and Catholics in the United States have been putting money into that struggle for decades through the annual collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), which takes place in many parishes throughout the United States in November. CCHD’s systematic investment in faith-based community organizing in dioceses and archdioceses around the country represents perhaps the Church’s best investment in fighting racism and working for racial equity in America. These groups fight poverty by empowering people in poor and working class communities to work for social policies in line with Catholic social teaching—often collaborating across racial and ethnic lines.

Many CCHD-funded groups have come to focus on explicitly working for racial equity. One such group is Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild (POWER).  POWER brings together Philadelphians across lines of race, income level, faith tradition, culture, and neighborhood. More than 40 congregations from every section of the city have actively participated in the building of POWER, which works to address racism and promote policy changes to improve communities in Philadelphia, such as fair funding for education, economic dignity through fair wages, and access to affordable housing.

The work of POWER in Philadelphia is but one example of how CCHD-supported groups are realizing the hopes Pope Francis expressed during his visit to the United States. There are hundreds of groups carrying out this work throughout the United States. These kinds of local faith-based organizing efforts offer Catholics a chance to be part of answering those questions.

Answer Pope Francis’ call. Learn more about what CCHD-supported groups are doing in your area and get involved!

Richard L. Wood serves as a consultant to the CCHD Subcommittee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of the just-published A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy, and works as a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico


Learn more about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the state of poverty in the United States at PovertyUSA.org.

During the month of January, don’t forget to celebrate Poverty Awareness Month using this printable calendar (en Español), longer daily reflections (en Español), and our daily emails.  These resources provide food for prayer and action to address poverty in the United States. 

Let the People Vote!

Donna GrimesThe 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is August 6, 2015.

My heart rejoices when I see images of the ink-stained fingers of new voters, particularly in countries where the right to vote has been suppressed or denied.  This symbolism has greater significance when, despite much apprehension, the process proceeds peacefully.  Thus, achieving the right to vote signifies more than full citizenship.  It affirms the human dignity of a people; recognizing that they, too are created in the image and likeness of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1700).  In reality, justice reaches beyond court decisions, legislation and policy changes.  Rather, habitually doing what is right and just yields a conversion of hearts . . . eventually.

This year, we celebrated the relative success of the March from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago, which resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  While not the first effort to protect voting rights of African Americans, the legislation is a significant milestone in the quest for human rights and full citizenship for many groups in this country.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 confirmed terms of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, which established that “the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  Much progress has been made, but there is still far to go, as debate continues around voter ID laws, legislative redistricting, and other practices which many perceive as limiting the ability of minority populations to vote.   As the saying goes, we take one step forward and two steps backward.

There are also many signs of hope. In March of this year, prior to traveling to Montgomery, AL to participate in the Archdiocese of Mobile’s observance of the anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, I witnessed the ordination of Most Rev. Fernand Cheri OFM, in New Orleans.  Bishop Cheri is the 25th African American bishop.  African American Catholics traveled near and far for the ordination and for evening vespers and a reception at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family.  This community, comprising mostly African American women religious, was founded in 1842 by Venerable Henriette Delille, whose struggle for religious freedom and human dignity in the United States still inspires us today.

When I arrived in Montgomery, AL, I noted the small crowd and minimal press coverage—in contrast to coverage for the Selma leg of the march earlier in the month, as President Obama, numerous dignitaries and busloads of ordinary citizens flocked to the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge to retrace the steps of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of civil rights foot soldiers.  Rev. Dr. Bernice King delivered her father’s speech from the steps of the State Capitol in her own similar oratorical style.  Barred from speaking at that location, her father spoke from the bed of a pick-up truck.  To the question, “How long?” both crowds responded, “Not long!”  Also noteworthy among the speakers in Montgomery 2015, was the daughter of former Alabama Governor, George Wallace.  She highlighted her father’s transformation after a failed assassination attempt landed him in a wheel chair for the remainder of his life.  Those present caught a glimpse of redemption.

Since I was an African American Catholic school girl during that era, my emotions and moral compass vacillated throughout the trip – propelled by memories, maturity, reflections on present day speeches and homilies; and the simmering reality of current news events reminiscent of the violence and struggles of the past.  The 50th Anniversary Mass at St. Jude Catholic parish also generated a plethora of emotions.  City of St. Jude was Campsite #4 in 1965, the final rest stop before ascending to the Capitol.  Today, we honor the victory of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, cognizant that this 50th anniversary is our modern day Campsite #4, a rest stop on the road toward justice.

Donna Grimes is Assistant Director – African American Affairs in the USCCB Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.

Racism, Inequality and the Right to Vote

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Jason Adkins

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation enacted in this country’s history, more work needs to be done to ensure that racism and other inequities do not inhibit anyone from fully participating in community life.

For example, racial inequities in our nation’s criminal justice system impact voter participation.   Many states disenfranchise persons with a felony conviction who have completed their time of incarceration but have not completed their full sentence, including periods of supervised release.  In other words, even those who have left jail or prison and are living and working in the community and paying taxes cannot vote if they have not finished their period of probation or parole.

Disenfranchising felony offenders disproportionately impacts minorities.  In Minnesota, for example, approximately 7.4 percent of African-American and 5.9 percent of American- Indian Minnesotans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, as opposed to only 1.1 percent of white Minnesotans.

Catholic social teaching encourages greater attention to disparities that impact voting participation.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of democratic life.” (no. 190.)

Our justice system has changed

Historically, a felony conviction resulted in what is called “civil death”—a concept dating back to ancient Roman jurisprudence.  By committing a crime, one had offended the peace of the community and, therefore, rightfully lost the privileges of participating in civil society.  Yet, when these rules barring the restoration of civil rights until the full sentence is completed were instituted, the criminal justice system looked a lot different than it does today.

In 1858, when Minnesota became a state, there were 75 felony crimes enumerated in statute.  Today, there are 368 (and the list continues to grow).  Only 30 people were in prison in 1858, and there was no probation system.  Today, there are approximately 16,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota, and 75 percent of felony convictions result in probation.  47,000 Minnesotans are on some form of supervised release and unable to vote.

Yet, there is no evidence that losing the right to vote deters crime.  It is merely punishment for punishment’s sake.  Fortunately, a rethinking of the punitive criminal justice policies of the past is occurring across the ideological spectrum.  In Minnesota, legislation that would restore the vote to those on supervised release has obtained broad bi-partisan support and hopefully will be signed into law soon.

Responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration

Solidarity, a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching, is defined as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Solicitudo rei Socialis, no. 38).  In their document, “Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Responsibility” (2000), the U.S. Catholic bishops declared that in matters of criminal justice, “solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.”

The bishops encouraged lawmakers to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

In fact, the premise of supervised release programs is that an offender and society are better off by re-integrating people back into our communities.  If offenders continue to be reminded, however, by the collateral consequences of a conviction that they are not like everyone else, how can we, as a society, have expectations that they will act as responsibly as everyone else?

Restoring the vote to those who are out of prison and living and working in our communities under supervised release can promote successful reintegration into the community, as voting can be a powerful, concrete, and symbolic way to contribute to one’s community and to feel invested and empowered to play a positive role. In other words, it serves the common good. Fuller integration of people into their community and involvement in civic life logically results in stronger ties and feelings of empowerment, which can help to lessen feelings of disconnection and frustration that can contribute to future crime.

The Church should continue to be at the forefront of providing a policy framework that cuts through the false “either/or” rhetoric of criminal justice debates.  It should emphasize the need to integrate the policy goals of restoration, rehabilitation, and responsibility—not just retribution—and highlight the themes of justice and mercy for the disenfranchised and others on the margins of society.

Jason Adkins is executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

It Ain’t the First and It Ain’t the Last

“It ain’t the first and it ain’t the last!” That was the response of Avery, an elderly man who is always at my barbershop (though he never seems to get a haircut) when he was asked about the current unrest in Baltimore.

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Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Indeed, many of us said after the Ferguson turmoil, polarity, and finger-pointing that it could happen anywhere. We acknowledged that issues in many of America’s inner cities were at a boiling point. Twenty-three years since Rodney King and twenty three days since Freddie Gray.  From the west coast to the east coast and countless cities in between, lives have been lost and reduced because of racism, classism, unjust laws, oppressive systems, and benign neglect. From coast to coast we have seen a rapid rise in hatred, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, inattention, and abandonment. Impressions of our sisters and brothers have been reduced to what is reported by the ever so selective evening news, or discriminatory twitter or latest Facebook feed.

Yes, another straw has broken another camel’s back and another spark has been fanned into flame as the ever so elusive peace continues to avoid our cities. It is important to note that there are always many straws and many sparks long before the camel’s back is broken or the fire erupts.

Exclusion and marginalization continues to plague communities and manifests itself in often violent protest. In the words of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel: “The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility” (no. 59).

It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of people who struggle with poverty or marginalization do not show their disgust in violence. Rather they participate in peaceful prayer services, marches, and demonstrations. A far greater number do nothing at all but find themselves paralyzed trying to figure out what might do the most good.

It would be unwise to assume that the problems are only one dimensional, that it is only racism, or only classism, or only family structure, or only urban, rural or suburban. The issues are complex and require a complex and diverse response. No response only fuels more smoldering embers.

Avery continues to lament with grief, “it ain’t the first and it ain’t the last!” Have we given up on Baltimore? Ferguson? New York? Etc.? And what of the ones who would be husbands or fathers? Scholars? Role models? Stewards and caretakers of inner cities?  Is it totally impossible to dream that Baltimore could be “the last”? Is it possible that enough courageous faithful people could rise and say, “Enough!” Could it be that folk will call racism the sin that it is and commit to doing whatever needs to be done to eradicate and dismantle it? Can decent affordable housing shelter people in all neighborhoods? Why can’t we ensure education that provides a path to college and then a path to employment? How can we reform the criminal justice system so that it doesn’t target and oppress people of color?

Numerous questions, and frankly, I don’t have a good answer for any of them, but I am certain apathy and indifference doesn’t maintain the status quo; it only makes matters worse.

“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.”   (1 John 4:16)

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD and follow on Twitter @EndPovertyUSA.

Straddling History and Hope in Selma

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Like tens of thousands of others, I went to Selma to recall a historic struggle. A struggle that continues today for those who refuse to bow down to bigotry and hatred.

Thousands came to re-enact an act of public defiance to laws and impediments that denied them full citizenship.

I went at the invitation of colleagues and friends, but I must admit I felt a profound curiosity. I had learned about the civil rights struggle; I had seen the movies, heard the songs. But I felt called to go, for two reasons. First, I wanted to honor the historic value of the Selma March; what it has meant over the last 50 years. Second, and most importantly, I went because of what it can mean for our future.

Ambling across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, I played a mental game of “Ping-Pong”. “Pinging,” my thoughts honored with gratitude the six hundred brave souls who courageously walked the same journey 50 years prior. They had no way of knowing what awaited them some 54 miles and 50 years later. I sensed a growing appreciation for that time in our history when a door was opened to change, not just in the United States but worldwide. Then my mind “ponged” back to the present, to the recent Department of Justice report on police misconduct in Ferguson, MO. I remembered the high rate of child poverty in our country—1 in 3 children live in poverty—and even worse for communities of color. I recalled the lingering abject poverty I had just seen that very morning during a tour of modern day Selma. 40% of Selma residents live in poverty. I thought of the high incarceration rate of black and brown people, subjected to unjust sentencing guidelines, living without hope. Then I “pinged” again as I recalled “Neek,” a man I met who had journeyed on the Selma March 50 years ago when he was just 13. He and his best friend were given permission by their parents to march in a demonstration that was both unsafe and uncertain. Their parents wanted to go, but feared losing their jobs if they were identified as being part of the “movement”. I “ponged” again, amazed that those parents still organized, planned and sacrificed, knowing they could be fired anyway if it was discovered that their children had participated.

Bloody SundayI was inspired as I heard Thomas Rodi, Archbishop of Mobile, preach at a Mass concelebrated by three African American bishops; Bishop John Ricard SSJ, Bishop Sheldon Fabre and Bishop Martin Holly. Archbishop Rodi spoke of the Catholic Church’s outsized historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke of Catholics participating in the Selma to Montgomery March, not just as walkers, but in healing and housing.

Catholics healed the beaten, bitten and bruised at Good Samaritan Hospital (appropriately named), the only hospital that would see African American patients. Catholics housed, giving folk respite and lodging at the City of St. Jude organization (also appropriately named), which welcomed sojourners arriving in Montgomery.

I looked around at the enormous crowd, young and beautifully diverse. We would take a few steps and stop, a few more steps and stop. I thought of what it must have been like… to be battered by clubs, bitten by dogs, disrespected by police officers and onlookers. I could not help but wonder if I would have had the mettle and courage to do this 50 years ago. I came to no conclusions, but I was convinced that my parents and ancestors would have definitely walked, despite the danger, fear and uncertainty. Then the march stopped suddenly; the end of the bridge was still a long ways off. We all began to wonder what was going on. The folk at the head of the march realized that it would be impossible to continue because of the huge number of people gathered. They passed word back, which spread quickly among us along with no small disappointment. But there was a symbolism to it… the march is not yet finished. The march toward justice continues.

We who seek justice must not be content with merely making it to the other side of the bridge, or even getting all the way to Montgomery. We must not stop our stride toward freedom until justice surges like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development.