The newly formed diocesan Commission on Racism and Social Justice listened to parishioners from Brooklyn explain their views, experiences and suggestions regarding the sin of racism at its first public event June 16.
The four-hour listening session at St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise parish center in Crown Heights began with a prayer service prepared by Auxiliary Bishop Neil Tiedemann, C.P., chair of the commission.
It cited wording from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ newly formed Committee Against Racism: “Racism has rightly been called America’s original sin. It remains a blot on our national life and continues to cause acts and attitudes of hatred, as recent events have made evident.”
At front and center throughout the day was the image of Servant of God Msgr. Bernard Quinn, a priest of the diocese who spent his life defending the equality of all human beings.
“He kept building and the KKK kept destroying,” said Father Alonzo Cox, secretary of the commission, during the prayer session. “Father Quinn’s holy perseverance won out in the end.”
The opening prayer service concluded with an examination of conscience read by Judge Robert Miller, a member of the commission, which included the questions: “Is there a root of racism in me that blurs my vision of who my neighbors is?” and having witnessed the sin of racism, “I did or said nothing, leaving the victim to address their pain alone?”
After the prayer session those present were invited to eat lunch at assigned tables where they were asked to discuss and record their answers to questions prepared by the committee.
The facilitator for the day was Dr. Ansel Augustine, the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, La. He told those present that the day was about them. The diocese wanted to hear what they had to say and give them the space to state the truths they are living with.
“We are not here to do the easy thing,” he said. “We are here to do the right thing.”
He also asked the 50 people in attendance about their backgrounds to get a better sense of who was represented. About half were raised in the diocese and half emigrated from another country, a few came from other parts of New York or other states. Nearly all were above 50 years of age, which Father Cox explained was in part due to an academic conflict the teens who were invited had for that day. The vast majority of attendees were black.
After the working lunch, representatives from each group summarized their discussions. The first task was to define racism.
“Racism is the treatment of the equal as less than equal,” said Jane Pescod.
“Racism is ignorance,” said Mary Raid, an immigrant from Montserrat and England. She said it affects all people who divide themselves into groups and the gossip about the other. She said dialogue is the cure.
Pescod agreed with Raid’s statement, recounting how she had witnessed a congregation’s outrage at a priest speaking Spanish during Mass and reporting the incident to the diocese, when in fact the priest was praying in Latin.
“Racism is aggression,” said Dolly Kazanjian, who said it tore her at the very core to see those who stand in for Christ at Mass and offer His Body and Blood to the people partake in the sin.
She explained that in her parish, the white majority was not happy that a black priest with an accent was assigned to minister to them. So they began a letter writing campaign to the diocese aimed at getting rid of the priest. She said they succeeded and the pastor did not stop them or come to the aid of his fellow priest.
During her presentation, another member of her group attested that this story was a familiar scenario in other parishes, while many nodded at the sentiment. At Kazanjian’s own table, having heard her story, another woman said that she too experienced the phenomenon, however in reverse. In her experience it was the white priest who was not wanted by the black majority.
“Racism is a sin against God,” Kazanjian said. “And the Catholic Church has failed to witness against it.”
Joan Davenport said that the path forward is for the Church to own up to its bias and transgressions, see and hear it clearly, and move forward accordingly.
“People are leaving the Church and going to other churches,” Jennifer Diaz said. “They might not be better, but are more accepting.”
Carla Forbes said racism within her congregation has triggered her to change parishes. Thankfully she said, there are many churches to choose from within the Catholic Church so she was not forced to choose between her faith and her unease at being around racist worshipers. However, during her presentation to the larger group she said that the closing of churches and worship sites is not necessarily a bad thing as it forces all of God’s people to be united.
Another point brought to the floor was the image the Church presents of itself. Two presenters from one group maintained that DeSales Media Group, the parent company of The Tablet, needed to improve its representation of black Catholics. They claimed that programming on NET-TV is usually European-oriented and that the people shown in the pages of The Tablet are predominantly white. They also charged that cultural festivities presented in The Tablet tend to be that of European and white American celebrations.
After each group had its chance to present the results of its discussion, Bishop Tiedemann gave a short reply thanking the people for their participation and for suggestions, saying that this is only the beginning of the commission’s work.
“Sometimes we see racism as a black issue,” he said. “Racism is not a black issue. It is a real issue.”
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq gave the final blessing. He also acknowledged the problem at hand, but said there is hope.
“Racism is part of every community,” he said. “The Gospel is there to help us overcome.”