The Sluggish Pursuit of Racial Justice

(CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

(CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

The U.S. Bishops said it back in 1979 with “Brothers And Sisters to Us.”  Their words continue to have a powerful impact in the Catholic community:

“Racism is a sin, a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.  Racism is a sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race … it mocks the words of Jesus, ‘Treat others the way you would have them treat you.’”

Racial and ethnic strife have remained issues the Church has addressed from the very beginning. Now in our present day, in a climate of ever-expanding freedoms, every Christian is obliged to apply Christ-like critique to personal preferences and judgments in effort to steer clear of seeing others as somehow different.

“They are not like us” is something we hear commonly said.  So, we avoid their neighborhoods.  We avoid social interaction with those people.  We stand from a distance and imagine how bad they are in order to justify our lack of involvement with them.  And ‘because those kinds of people are different, they are not necessarily entitled to, or they don’t deserve, or are not interested in working toward what resourceful and otherwise people like me are entitled to or work for.’

Added to this is the fear of shortages, the fear that we are not treated fairly in comparison to others, the fear of foreigners entering our space.  Regular media reports about the encroachment of refugees and migrants seeking respite from war and conflict, religious or ethnic persecution typically stir fear in people.  While it is a human penchant to differentiate, differentiation acts counter the sensibilities of the Christian message of love of neighbor we received from Jesus Christ.

We look to the Christian template in Acts 2, which inspires mixed class, mixed race and mixed generational communities, and we see that it must translate to our faith communities, as well. Communities in which we would never aspire towards mono-racial parishes because we would recognize they are incomplete, admitting that we are responsible for the application, punctuation and scheduling the universality of God’s kingdom, which is always the higher rubric in the Christian dispensation.

Indeed, the social imperatives found in the gospel are some of the most challenging messages to get across in preaching and Christian formation. It is a genuine struggle getting these ideals across to people, even to sincere Christians.  Material wealth and well-being are deemed manna from heaven. People prefer to live this way – economic advantage and opportunity enable us to live this way. But as positive as advantage, free enterprise and choice are deemed in our democracy, they unwittingly work a divide in the human community.

The City of Chicago is often representative of some of the most glaring disparities in opportunity: housing, education and access to health care.  Disproportionate numbers of people of color live in misery, condemned to lives of desperation, fueled by depression, and crime chosen as a path by anti-social elements in the sub culture.  Adding to the challenge of the Christian task are the people on the other side who easily dispense themselves from indifference and numbness felt in the face of some overwhelming social inequities surrounding us.

Whereas our nation has addressed many legal barriers to ending racism with civil rights legislation, we must continue to be vigilant for we are now challenged to deal with attitudinal and economic barriers to ending racism. The Church’s voice, strong in instances, muted in others, has tried to break through social walls that divide.  We find that people listen and may even nod in the affirmative to what is preached, but certain stubborn social patterns continue.

Christian faith affords us opportunities to reach to the deepest recesses of our hearts to search out attitudes and dispositions and information from our rearing that need discarding if we would live as a redeemed people. For example: ‘From where do my impressions of others originate?  Do I tend to label people or place them in categories?  Do I tend to expect the worse or the best from others regardless who they are?  When are the numbers of minorities close by too many for my comfort level?

What attitudes and approaches are we leaving to the young in legacy so they can help eradicate this original and pernicious sin of our society called racism?

Most Reverend Joseph Perry is an Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago and Episcopal Vicar for Vicariate VI. Bishop Perry is the Diocesan Postulator for the Cause of Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton.

This blog post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version on the Catholic Chicago Blog.


This week, Catholics from all over the country are gathering to pray and learn about what it means to dismantle internalized judgments of our neighbor. The Social Action Summer Institute hosts a number of sessions to help bring about this clarity at Saint Xavier University on July 17-21st. For more information, visit: www.chicagopeaceandjustice.org/SASI. You can also follow the conversation on social media #SASI2016.

I don’t know how I feel . . .

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Today, as usual, I stopped by my local coffee shop where the friendly, courteous barista asked me, as she does every day, “How do you feel?”

I blurted out my routine, perfunctory, usual, everyday customary response: “Fine, and you?”

I walked out and pondered the lie. . . . I wasn’t fine. In fact, I don’t know how I feel. I returned to the coffee shop and spent an hour talking with her. Neither of us was “fine.”

After the recent killing of those sworn to protect and serve in Dallas AND the killing by  those sworn to protect and serve in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many other cities… I honestly don’t know or understand this feeling. It has gone beyond sadness, gone beyond disgust, gone beyond anger, beyond sorrow, beyond fear. This feeling for me and for so many others is new, yet to be defined or given a name.

Angrily, I am prepared to answer the standard litany of questions from folks about the victims:

“Why didn’t he just not resist?”

“Did he have an arrest record?”

“Did he have a job?”

“Was he married to his children’s mother?”

“Why aren’t you as upset when it is ‘black on black’ murder?”

“If the officers are guilty, why are there never any convictions?”

“Were the officers white?”

“Was the sniper black?”

“Was he connected to any ‘terrorist’ movements?”

ENOUGH!

Sadly, more people are killed. More people not going home for dinner tonight or ever again.

Police officers who overwhelmingly help us sleep comfortably at night and are often times underappreciated were senselessly killed as they protected folk who voiced displeasure and concern about the killing of young men around the country.

Earlier this week, we witnessed yet again young African American men killed at the hands of a system that is paid for and sanctioned by our tax dollars or by society. Young lives and children of God also taken too soon. Lives that have dignity, persons who by U.S. legal standards are innocent until proven guilty. And yes, the lives of those shot dead in inner cities are just as valued, just as precious. Life matters. For urban youth, for law enforcement, for us.

… I don’t know how I feel . . . perhaps a bit guilty for still being here, as an African-American male who has also, like so many other persons of color, looked down at an un-holstered revolver during a traffic stop. For some reason, I and the persons traveling with me were spared. I don’t know how I feel.

… I don’t know how I feel as I joyfully celebrate progress while simultaneously sadly lamenting regress. Poverty, crime, unemployment, environmental racism, and despair flourish throughout the country, yet disproportionately in black and brown communities.

…I don’t know how I feel. I have so many good friends in law enforcement, mostly in North Texas, including Dallas, who are experiencing intense pain, and feeling vulnerable and exposed as they protect and serve with dignity and professionalism.

… I don’t know how I feel when folks still find comfort in asking the same old, tired questions that seem to comfort and appease their consciences and not address the problems.

I feel confused as we chalk this one up and wait for the next one, and then the next one, and then the next one. The next government sanctioned, gang related, rage-filled, terroristic, domestic violence, or mental illness caused- killing of another of our brothers, our sisters, our children . . . and then wait on the next one.

There will be vigils, prayers, protests, and screams of anguish, trials, and tons of tears but will there be change?

I don’t know how I feel . . . hopeless, in despair, weak, I just want to just sleep, but can’t. Because to use the mantra of the new movement, I have to “stay woke”. To heed the words of Pope Francis, “Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armour’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!” To heed the words in Matthew 26:52: “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

I don’t know how I feel, but I feel like there has to be a better way.

A retired prison warden friend of mine reminded me that on most prison yards, there are no guns. Prison guards don’t have them and yet they figure out a way to take down the most hardened criminals without shooting or killing them.

Sometimes I feel like giving up but then I remember that anti-violence and restorative justice efforts are steadfast and aren’t giving up despite overwhelming odds. Fr. Michael Pfleger and the faithful around St. Sabina’s Catholic Church in Chicago are not giving up. The California Catholic Conference is not giving up. Rev. Michael McBride and the dedicated folks in the Live Free Movement aren’t giving up. Despite all, folks aren’t giving up!

I feel encouraged by this new movement of young folk of all races that seem to have more energy, more clarity, and more optimism than movements of the past. For the most part, they are peaceful and determined.  They are not giving up.

I thank God that I can still feel … feel for Dallas AND Minnesota AND Baton Rouge AND…

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.


 

Great is Our Faithfulness: Why Celebrate Black History Month

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Why do we celebrate Black History month? What does it mean to us as black Catholics?

Black people have experienced the faith in the context of enslavement, civil war, Jim Crow, separate and un-equal, the civil rights movement, and the post civil rights movement era. All the while, we for the most part have stayed true to our Catholic faith and to the stated beliefs of the United States of America. Our leaders, well known or not, have held on to the belief in the notion of the American experiment in equality of persons.

St. Pope John Paul II while addressing 1,800 African American Catholics in New Orleans on Sept. 12, 1987, encouraged African American Catholics to contribute the gift of who they are to the wider Church. That is good citizenship in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

From the first, we hoped that there was a place for us here as members of the Church and society. We had to invent and re-invent ourselves many times over the years and we did. We believed what we read or had read to us from sacred Scripture, that Jesus came to save ALL God’s children. We kept that notion always as an anchor of our lives. Even in the dark days of enslavement, we had the kind of sustaining faith that allowed us to survive even the racism inside the Church and within the hearts of our white brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom owned us as property. Even in these worst of conditions, black people “knew” that community is the foundation of the soul of all people especially for us. We have always worked to make things better for ourselves and our children. There are no areas of endeavor that have not benefited from our participation.

There are examples of brave black people who distinguished themselves in the secular society, like Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first African American to reach the rank of General Officer in the United States Military; Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress; and Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best actor. These are some who help us to celebrate our achievements as good and productive citizens of this country.

We, black Catholics, can also be proud of others who lived up to not only the social creed of this nation but also to the spiritual creed as well. This includes people such as Daniel Rudd, a black Catholic layman, activist, journalist, and publisher of the American Catholic Tribune “the only Catholic journal owned and published by colored men.” He also founded the Lay Catholic Congress movement. We recall Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first identified African American man to be ordained a priest for service in the United States. He had to go to Rome for his formation because no U.S. seminary would admit him. He persevered and braved discrimination inside as well as outside the church. He believed in and lived a life that considered all people as creations of God and are, therefore, good. He is an inspiration for all.  We also recall Mother Mary Lange, OSP who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community for women of African descent.  She also founded a school that educated immigrant and enslaved children in Baltimore, Maryland when it was still illegal to educate black children. That school became St. Frances Academy, which is still in operation today as a co-ed High School.

These are just a few of the reasons we black Catholics should celebrate this month.

We are part of the heritage of this country. Our faithfulness in the belief that all men are created equal is a testament to our faithful citizenship. And, that is something to celebrate.

Deacon Al Turner, MTS, is the former Director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington and is currently assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Largo, MD.  

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. 

Archbishop Kurtz on Charleston

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), responded to the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, with “grief and deep sadness,” June 19. He said the Catholic community “stands with all people who struggle for an end to racism and violence, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities and in our world.” He made this statement:

It is with grief and deep sadness that we learned of the tragic murder of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. There have been far too many heartbreaking losses in the African-American community this year alone. Our prayers are with all those suffering from this heinous crime.

We join our voices with civic and religious leaders in pledging to work for healing and reconciliation. Our efforts must address racism and the violence so visible today. As the U.S. Catholic Bishops said in our pastoral letter on racism, “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 demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society.”

The Catholic community stands with all people who struggle for an end to racism and violence, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities and in our world. We must continue to build bridges and we must confront racism and violence with a commitment to life, a vision of hope, and a call to action.

Racism, Inequality and the Right to Vote

Adkins-Jason-head-shot-605x818

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.

McCloud headshot

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.