By Ruby Thomas
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CNS) — When it comes to matters of racial justice, there’s not a need for the church to say more, but a need for the church to do more, retired Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, told pilgrims gathered at the Catholic Enrichment Center in Louisville.
He told the group of about 30 individuals that he was aware “the backdrop for this gathering today is the sad and tragic story of the death” of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed during a police raid at her home in March.
While his presentation would not solve that “urgent local crisis,” he said, he hoped it would contribute to conversations with neighbors, friends and fellow parishioners.
“The racial divide will not be bridged unless people of goodwill speak person to person and heart to heart about what is probably the greatest crisis facing the United States,” he said.
Bishop Braxton spoke on the final day of “A Cry From the Mountain: A Pilgrimage for Racial Justice,” which took place Oct. 15-17.
Following the deaths of Taylor and later George Floyd — an African American man who died during an arrest by Minneapolis police in May — the use of the term “racism” has become more common, Bishop Braxton said, but he has found it more helpful to speak of the “racial divide” instead.
“It’s a broader expression of which racism is the most egregious example,” he said.
The racial divide first started when the “first free men and women were brought from West Africa in chains to the U.S. in 1619 to provide free laborers to maintain this country’s economy by working as beasts of burden in sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations,” said the bishop.
The divide continued with events such as the Civil War; the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which ruled that people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not United States citizens and therefore had no right to sue in federal court; the Jim Crow laws; and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he said.
And it continues to the present day with the deaths of Black men and women during altercations with members of law enforcement, said Bishop Braxton.
This divide is evident in systems that leave Blacks at a disadvantage, making it difficult for them to obtain a good education, meaningful employment, decent housing and good health care, he told the pilgrims.
While all those are examples of racism, the bishop noted that doesn’t mean all Americans or Catholics are racist.
“It’s possible for people to live with unconscious, or barely conscious biases, prejudices and stereotypes that influence their attitude toward people of different races. This is racial prejudice, but not necessarily racism,” he said.
Bishop Braxton said the Catholic Church was on the “wrong side of history from the very beginning of the racial divide.” This has led to churches and schools still being racially segregated. However, there are a growing number of individuals in the church — both members of the faithful and the clergy — who are aware of the racial crisis and have a desire to change things, he said.
“They believe their responsibility is to work to remove prejudice and even racism from their hearts and their Christian community,” he said. “They know that as members of the body of Jesus Christ all Catholics are called to learn their faith, love their faith and live their faith and when they consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ at Mass they must truly believe they become what they eat.
“This is critical. … He (Christ) needs your eyes to continue to see, he needs your hands to continue to serve and he needs your heart to continue to love.”
Bishop Braxton said he’s often asked if the church should be saying more and speaking more about racial prejudice and racism?
It’s always important for the church to “raise its voice in the name of justice,” he said. Pope Francis does, retired Pope Benedict XVI and St. Pope John Paul II did, but the urgency now is not for the church to say more, but for the church to do more, he said.
“They must translate their words into specific actions,” Bishop Braxton said.
Some questions the church should ask when thinking of promoting racial justice are:
— How many people of color are on the staff of a parish school or parish office?
— How many people of color are working in the diocesan chancery or educational offices?
— Are bishops and pastors making sure the companies they hire have truly diverse work forces?
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, gave a talk on Pope Francis’ new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” at a day of reflection during the pilgrimage. Bishop Stowe also celebrated a closing Mass Oct. 17 at St. Martin de Porres Church.
The pilgrimage — which was originally planned to start with a two-day walk to the Abbey of Gethsemani — was organized by the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry and the Office of Youth and Young Adults in collaboration with Modern Catholic Pilgrim, a nonprofit based in California.
The pilgrimage to the abbey was canceled due to health and safety concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 70 individuals gathered over the course of the three days starting Oct. 15 with a Pilgrims’ Blessing Prayer Service celebrated by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville at the Cathedral of the Assumption.
On Oct. 16, a group of about 15 people, including parishioners from St. Margaret Mary Church, St. William Church and the Cathedral of the Assumption, gathered for a community prayer service at the Maloney Center and walked to a nearby park to pray and reflect.
During his homily at the Pilgrims’ Blessing Prayer Service, Archbishop Kurtz said the church often talks about the “sin of commission and sin of omission.”
“It’s easy to see sins of commission … when someone acts out of hatred toward another human being and robs that person of dignity and robs the hater also of dignity,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
“But it’s sometimes harder to see sins of omission,” he said, “where we’ve missed the opportunity to give someone that chance that every human being deserves … the chance of equal footing … the chance of being honored with dignity.”
He told the congregation a pilgrimage is not for spectators. “It’s for people who say, ‘In my heart I want to change, but I can’t do it by myself. I need to be part of something greater. I need to walk with others.'”
Deborah Wade, a member of Christ the King Church, attended the day of reflection and said Bishop Braxton’s presentation was “encouraging and enlightening.”
“The call to justice and the call to truth needed to be heard,” she said, adding that she felt “reaffirmed of who I am as a Black Catholic and what is called forth in me.”
“The most important part of any experience is the sharing of a relationship with the person next to you,” Wesley Hudson, who is white, told The Record, Louisville’s archdiocesan newspaper.
“I’m hoping to stand with the Black community in solidarity and support them as they are expressing their faith,” added the member of Holy Spirit Church.
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Thomas is a staff writer at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.