BROOKLYN HEIGHTS – If the nation is to move forward, racism in the U.S. has to be fought on two fronts – institutionally, with the adoption of laws protecting the rights of minorities, as well as personally, with Americans being willing to confront racism they witness – according to one Brooklyn man who has been leading a series of discussions on the topic.
Tevin Williams, a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo Church, Brooklyn Heights, has been leading a series of town hall events over Zoom for fellow parishioners to engage in honest, forthright talk about racism and their own attitudes toward race.
“For our country to grow, we have to tell these stories very frankly,” Williams told The Tablet.
Americans can fight racism one-on-one, said Williams, who is an African-American.
“Be willing to talk about it. Be willing to tell your neighbor he’s out of line when he tells a racist joke,” he said. “Be willing to be a little uncomfortable in your everyday encounters.”
The St. Charles Borromeo town halls start off with prayer services featuring the readings of Psalms specifically selected to help parishioners reflect on issues like justice and equality. After the prayers and readings, the floor is open to discussion.
At the end of one of the prayer services, parishioner Josephine Dongbang interviewed Williams about his experiences with racial injustice. Many of the parishioners could be seen on Zoom crying as Williams spoke, Dongbang told The Tablet.
“Tevin was frank and that’s the key,” Dongbang said.
Dongbang and Williams, who are active members of the parish’s Young Professionals group, came up with the idea to hold the town halls and worked together to organize the sessions.
The town halls are informed by the deep faith of the participants, according to Dongbang. “Racism is against what Jesus taught us,” she added.
The killing of George Floyd, and the massive protest demonstrations that followed, provided a chance to examine racism and to come up with ways to fight it, according to Father Bill Smith, the church’s pastor.
“This was a golden opportunity and I wasn’t going to lose it,” Father Smith said, adding that the town halls “are just the first step.”
The town halls at St. Charles Borromeo are just one of the recent discussions regarding race that have begun in the Diocese of Brooklyn in the aftermath of the Floyd tragedy.
The Catholic Telemedia Network, a service of DeSales Media (the parent company of The Tablet), hosted a webinar on June 9 for Catholic school teachers and administrators to offer advice on how to talk to students about racism and racial divisions in the country.
“Teachers have been getting questions from students … even the youngest students. Students are aware of what is going on,” said Gina Krainchich, director of Educational Media Services for CTN. “We wanted to make sure the discussion was diverse. Many of the students in our Catholic academies have parents who are civil servants — cops and firefighters.”
The webinar centered on faith. “Our Catholic faith has the answers on how we should behave toward one another,” Krainchich told The Tablet.
The session was organized and led by Father John Gribowich, priest assistant at DeSales Media Group. “It was a way of helping teachers dealing with the emotions of students. Teachers did not feel up to handling sensitive subjects,” he said.
The webinar was just the beginning, according to Father Gribowich: “Teachers told us they need more practical steps” but those practical steps need to be based on an underlying understanding of racism.
Honesty is the key, Father Gribowich added.
“Every person has a racial blind spot. We have to open up the discussion of what it means to be a racist. That’s the first step in fighting racism,” he said.
However, there are some Catholics who think the diocese isn’t doing enough to combat racism.
“I’m just wondering why they’re so silent,” Vernice Chambers, a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, told The Tablet. “They need to be more vocal about it. Other churches are,” said Chambers, who converted to Catholicism a few years ago.
Williams is doing his part to change that perception and open discussions.
“We’re going to keep talking. It’s not going to stop,” Williams said.