Responsibility to talk about racism

Henry Fortier, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Orlando, recently participated in an important panel discussion, “The Responsibility of Catholic Schools and Churches to Talk about Racism,”  facilitated by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). The message is clear. As Catholics, we must have intentional and consistent conversations about racism and even subtle discrimination happening in our communities.

The idea of the hour-long NCEA webinar on January 10 was born out of the pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts– the enduring call to love,” published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in November 2018. The bishops write, “too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered” (p. 4).

“The letter goes to the heart of who we are as believers in our faith,” explained Fortier. “If we believe in God and Scripture that is tradition of our Church, then we are called to love our brother.” Fortier encourages Catholic educators to enter the dialogue with compassion and an open mind, realizing that some parts of the conversation will be uncomfortable.

Hosffman Ospino, Ph.D., associate professor of Hispanic Ministry and Religious Education at Boston College, also joined the panel to dissect different levels of these conversations. “Something I like about the USCCB letter is the title says it is a letter against racism, not just a dissertation of why racism is bad,” he noted. “It takes a prophetic stance for every Catholic and Christian who stand for good, what is right, what is just… and says racism is a sin.”

Racism is a sin of which everyone may be guilty due to his/her upbringing or surroundings. Tabari Coleman, Anti-Defamation League Heartland, suggested, “Racism can be found in our hearts, placed there unwillingly and unknowingly by our culture. It isn’t just some folks down South or our government… everyone is participating in this. So many people can say I have black and brown friends, but who do we invite into our homes to break bread with? Are our interactions in the professional space only?”

Superintendent Fortier agrees. “The realization that we may be part of the systemic issues of racism or oppression in our society is difficult to accept, but we cannot push off our responsibility to change by blaming it on political correctness, overly sensitive people, or any other excuse.”

Fortier also pointed out Catholic schools are some of the last few places where space for truth and freedom exist. He calls on teachers across the Diocese of Orlando to reflect on this pastoral letter, audit classroom materials and look for resources that expose students to all of God’s people. “We are not teaching tolerance,” he said. “Is that what Christ calls us to do with our brothers and sisters? We are teaching love and full inclusion.”

Both the USCCB and the NCEA offer these strategies for teachers wading into these challenging lessons. For example, educators are encouraged to help students understand learning about race and racism is a process and the goal is not to be colorblind. Teachers should also help students accept discomfort and uncertainty while providing opportunities to learn about others and foster empathy.

Danielle Brown, associate director of the ad hoc committee on racism for the USCCB, weighed in, “This one exhortation is a call upon every sector of the Catholic Church to dig deeper and discover areas we may have overlooked… missed opportunities for the conversion of hearts.” The bishops write in Open Wide Our Hearts, “Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all is even more challenging. However, in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey” (p. 7).

Professor Ospino admits it takes courage to spark the conversation, but it may be as simple as sharing our own stories, “where we experienced racism ourselves or when we embodied some racist attitudes. Growing in awareness takes intentionality and it takes time. We believe racism happens somewhere else… not me, not my church, not my school.”

Superintendent Fortier further reflects, “it is our responsibility to address issues as they arise; otherwise, we fail in the formation process of our students and we fail to model just behavior. Ignorance is not an excuse for not educating yourself. When we see something wrong, we must stand up and say this is not acceptable- to have courage even if you are the lone voice calling out in the darkness.”

To read the entire pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts- the enduring call to love” and for more educational or parish resources on this topic, please visit usccb.org/racism.

By Jennifer Drow, Special to the Florida Catholic – January 16, 2019