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Why Catholic? Meet Bishop Nelson J. Perez

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Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism

News of the Diocese

September 30, 2019

“You need to name the demon before you can tame the demon,” Bishop Nelson Perez told those gathered on Sept. 29 at John Carroll University for the Open Wide Our Hearts: Moving Toward a World of Racial Justice” program on racism. “And the demon is racism,” he added.

More than 250 people attended the daylong program that featured music by the Gospel Choir; a welcome by Michael Johnson, JCU president; keynote address by Bishop Perez; opening remarks by Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; a listening session with personal reflections by five people from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland; a variety of breakout discussion sessions and a wrapup to discuss the next steps.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
The program was presented by the Diocese of Cleveland, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland and the JCU Center for Service and Social Action. Diane Zbasnik, who heads the diocesan Social Action Office, and Cary Dabney, who heads the Office of Ministry to African American Catholics, coordinated the event. Among those serving on the committee were Pattie Batchtman, director of the diocesan Lay Ecclesial Ministry Office; Sister Josie Chrosniak, HM; Adrienne Curry; Toni Johnson, Our Lady of Peace Parish; Paula Miller, Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland; Misael Mayorga, director of the diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry; Lynette Saenz, assistant director, Secretariat for Parish Life and Development; and John Shields, chair of the diocesan Race Relations Committee.

Bishop Battersby and Danielle Brown, associate director of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, represented the USCCB at the program.

In his welcoming remarks, Johnson said sometimes it seems like we’re taking a step backward.

“We can’t give up. We can never give up,” Johnson said about the ongoing fight against all forms of racism. He said a new vice president of diversity and inclusiveness – a position that has been empty for some time – will be hired at JCU.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
In Christ, we can find the strength and grace necessary to combat racism, Johnson said.

“This is a heavy topic, but don’t lose sight of the task,” Bishop Perez said, noting the fight against racism is nothing new. “We all have our stories,” he said. Sometimes racism is institutional and we may not even realize it’s there. He recalled his first year in the seminary when someone slipped a piece of paper with a racial slur into his door, illustrating that racism can be found anywhere – even in the seminary. Sometimes racism is behavioral and other times it’s institutional.

He encouraged the group in the spirit of the Jesuits to reflect on where we’ve been. “The USCCB pastoral letter ‘Open Wide Our Hearts’ calls us to examine our conscience individually and collectively, personally and institutionally,” the bishop said. Listening sessions like the one on Sept. 29 will be taking place across the country. The pastoral letter was released nearly a year ago.

“Conversion is not easy. We need to recognize where we are and ask God to help us move to where we should be, both individually and collectively. We can’t do it alone. This has to begin with me – with each of us. It’s a tough, painful topic but we talk with rejoicing hearts because we know God is near,” Bishop Perez said.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
“We know it won’t turn back time or stop the stray bullets that shattered lives, but we hope it will help to end racism,” Bishop Battersby said of the USCCB pastoral letter against racism and the resulting programs across the country.

“We must raise awareness of the racism in each of us in order to confront and repair it. And we must remember that every one of us is made in the image and likeness of God. I hope that through listening sessions like this we will hear from people and help them wonder if they’re part of the problem. We hope these sessions will be part of the institutional decision of all dioceses to deal with racism. And I pray this will begin or be a continuation of a healing process,” he added.

Those sharing their personal stories during the listening session were Nahtia Stribling, an African-American young adult from St. Agnes/Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Cleveland; Rose Shinchung of the Asian community and a St. Andrew Kim (Korean) Parish; Father Bob Marva, OFM Cap, pastor, St. Agnes/Our Lady of Fatima; Fernando Hernandez, Hispanic community and parishioner at La Sagrada Familia; and Sister Juanita Shealey, CSJ, African-American community, St. Adalbert Parish, Cleveland.

During her emotional presentation, Stribling shared how she felt unwelcome in certain places – both public and in churches, with some questioning if she was even Catholic. She also wondered why African-Americans are not part of the planning process for large diocesan events.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
“It’s time for a change. Worship, praise and be engaged with people who don’t look like you,” she told the group. “Make an effort to greet those you don’t know wholeheartedly. Change starts today and it starts with you as a Catholic community. Open your hearts and minds,” she said, adding that racism is a sin.

“If we’re all called to be one in Christ, how can we turn a blind eye?” she asked.

Shinchung expressed similar feelings, noting that as a Korean, people had questioned if she was Catholic or Buddhist. “I am proud to be Korean and proud to be Catholic,” she said. Shinchung said she also felt blessed to be able to worship in a Korean parish in her native language.

But she also noted that she didn’t think she had exhibited racist behavior until she realized that she had questioned why some non-Koreans attended Mass at St. Andrew Kim. “I realize that was wrong. At American churches, I felt eyes looking at me and wondering if I am really Catholic. So I learned all the prayers in both English and Korean and I just sing and pray louder at American churches,” she said, drawing laughter from the gathering.

Hernandez, a native of Costa Rica, talked about the difficulty he encountered with language. He knew English but struggled with an accent. Even after becoming a teacher in the Cleveland public schools he said colleagues “made faces at my accent. I speak with an accent but I don’t think with an accent,” he quipped.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
Hernandez also shared that at one parish some Spanish-speaking parishioners asked if they could have Mass celebrated in their language and they were told they could – in the cafeteria – not the church. Also, he recalled one time asking about doing a reading at Mass. “I was told the Spanish reading was taken,” he said, noting that he wasn’t considered for the English reading.

Father Marva, who ministers to a primarily African-American parish, said the fact that he, as a white priest, was the one talking about ministering to African-American Catholics speaks volumes. He also pointed out some bishops allow and support the incorporation of culture into the liturgy, while others do not.

“One way of worship is not more pleasing to God than another kind,” he said, adding, “There is room for spiritual preaching, dynamic music and generous hospitality, all of which are hallmarks of the African culture.” He also talked about how some resources are not available for African-Americans and the “whiteness” of religious art, as well as why young African-American men can’t see themselves in ministry. Instead, they choose things like sports and music. Even young couples at pre-Cana classes have reported being asked if they’re Catholic because those running the program have not encountered a black Catholic, Father Marva said, further illustrating the work that must be done.

“The Church must look like all of us – not just one. There is plenty of room. It’s time to move over and make room, to take a seat,” he added.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
Sister Shealey talked about how as an educator, she loves children. “Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. Children are full of God until someone shows them something else,” she said. As a teacher, she said she never considered the skin color of her students. “It dawned on me years later that they were all white,” she said. Sister recalled how one boy’s mother asked him what his new teacher looked like and he described her as wearing glasses – not by her dark skin color.

She credits her parents with raising her and her siblings to teach, love, forgive and pray for all people.

“I’ve got friends in high places and so do you. You’re all in my will,” she said, adding, “I will pray for you.”

After a lunch break, attendees were invited to choose two of the breakout sessions to attend. Topics focused on doing justice, walking humbly and loving goodness. There also was a track in Spanish and a session in which Bishop Perez met with the diocesan lay ecclesial ministers.

Zbasnik and Dabney wrapped up the day of reflection and learning, posing the questions of what’s next and where do we go from here?
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
Zbasnik, who lived in China for three years, encouraged everyone to read the pastoral letter on racism. She also invited the group to think about the types of books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, inviting them to become more diverse.

“I encourage you to attend Mass at a parish in a different language – go beyond your comfort zone,” she said.

Dabney said the information collected at the program, including personal stories from attendees and others will be shared with the USCCB. He said a committee is forming to follow up with the next steps and there will be other programs.

“What did we hear today?” asked Bishop Perez, eliciting responses of hope, pain, injustice, the beginning of a journey, truth, we can all learn to be different, a call to action, witness, working together, there’s a lot of work to do, and God is with us.
Daylong program begins process to ‘Open Wide our Hearts’ and combat racism
Sister Shealey offered the last word: “Joy.”

“Do not let discouragement creep into your heart,” Bishop Perez said before offering a final blessing.

Anyone interested in sharing a personal experience or story about racism can send it to Dabney by email at or mail it to Cary Dabney, Office of African American Catholics, Diocese of Cleveland, 1404 East Ninth St., Third Floor, Cleveland, Ohio 44114.

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