Nearly 90 people joined a Zoom conversation on June 4 to hear perspectives on racism and the Church. They heard Father Don Oleksiak, diocesan administrator, pastors of the four parishes that serve a large segment of African Americans in the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and leaders in the African American Catholic community share their thoughts in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests that spread across the country and around the world.
A second Zoom session, “Combating Racism in the Church Through our Youth, Education and Evangelization,” will take place at 6:30 p.m. June 17.
Cary Dabney, director of the diocesan Office of Ministry to African American Catholics, said the program will continue the conversation from the first session. “On this call we will discuss how to develop a concrete plan to combat racism through our parochial schools, our houses of formation and in our evangelization process,” Dabney said. He again will serve as moderator of the discussion.
In his opening remarks during the first session, Dabney reminded the group of something Archbishop Nelson Perez said during a listening session in the diocese last fall for “Open Wide our Hearts,” a pastoral letter issued in 2018 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to address racism.
“If this becomes just a conversation, we’ve already lost,” Dabney said. “These deaths (African Americans killed recently by police) remind us there are deep-seated problems in our communities both locally and nationally. This evening is the first in a series of conversations,” he said, noting the plan is to move from implementation to action.
“We’re dealing with unfortunate, inexcusable and unnecessary deaths, a waste of sacred life,” Father Oleksiak said. The Zoom program was a way for the Cleveland African American Catholic community “to come together, be creative and find some ways to put this behind us. I feel for you with what’s going on,” he said, adding he is “hurt and outraged at the senseless taking of life for no reason. I don’t live in it but I feel for you and I pray for you.” He urged the participants to be a voice. “As a country, we have to do better.”
Father Oleksiak recalled how when he was in the seminary – old Saint Mary’s Seminary on Ansel Road in Cleveland – he sometimes went across the street to attend Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church (now closed). “I enjoyed the liturgy. You bring the strengths and experiences of your culture and life to build up the kingdom of God. I am grateful for the work you do – for what you do for the Church, for your deep faith. We walk with you during these challenging times,” he added, noting it is particularly challenging because the diocese is without a bishop.
“We pray that our new bishop will be a man filled with courage, wisdom and insight who can speak for what’s right, just, good and holy so we can find the presence of God in one another,” Father Oleksiak said. He expressed his appreciation for the four participating pastors: Father Bob Marva, OFM cap, pastor of St, Agnes + Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Cleveland; Father Gary Chmura, pastor of St. Adalbert (Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament), Cleveland; Father Mark Hobson, pastor of St. Aloysius-St. Agatha, Cleveland; and Father Dave Nestler, OFM cap, pastor of Holy Spirit, Garfield Heights. “They are good, dedicated, holy men and it’s a great honor to work with them and support them in their ministry for all of you.”
Father Hobson said he is saddened by the way the country is divided and by the force used on some of the protesters. But he was encouraged by the diversity of the crowds in every city.
“This is clearly a human injustice; when one suffers, we all suffer. It affects all of us,” he added.
But like the coronavirus pandemic, Father Hobson this is not something that will disappear. “It will take hard work. We must speak out against the injustice done to African Americans in our cities and be willing to express our outrage.”
Father Chmura said he is part of the most privileged group of pastors in the diocese “because we’re called to serve among you.” The Church is needed more than ever now, he said, pointing out the political system can’t heal itself without God’s help.
“We, as pastors, want you to know that we love you. Your lives matter to God and to each and every one of us. When you hurt, we hurt; when you’re afraid, we’re afraid with and for you. We promise to be with you,” he added.
Father Nestler said he is happy to have the faithful back at Mass, but he feels weighed down by what has been going on, adding it is important to speak out about injustice. “I am overwhelmed at how a little bit of evil does such damage. Folks in our community have taught me that when we don’t see the way, God finds a way. We shouldn’t be in the way but on the way with him.”
Father Marva, whose parish is in the Hough neighborhood, reflected on how much hurt that community has endured, recalling the riots in 1966 that caused such destruction. The community has worked to rebuild and renew itself, he said.
There was a peaceful protest across from St. Agnes + Our Lady of Fatima on June 4 to pray for peace and healing. “But we can’t just march; we have to find ways to truly transform the system, Maybe we’ve aligned ourselves more with politics than with Jesus in the Gospel,” he said. “As a Church, we have much work to do. We do lots of talking, but how much action do we accomplish? We need to – as a Church – look at things that are hurtful; look at institutions from generations ago that need to be changed,” he said, adding that we must pray and be engaged in constructive conversation to find a way forward for the good of the community.
Community leaders Greg Clifford from St. Aloysius, Rhonda Abrams of Holy Spirit, Philip Clipps of St. Adalbert and Tia Stribling of St. Agnes + Our Lady of Fatima also offered their insight on what’s been happening.
“Even our beloved Church has been infected with racism,” Clifford said. “We have to end structural racism, the oppression and inequality that permeates society,” he said, adding that racism is a social health crisis. “We’ve tried, but the pandemic of structural racism still ravages our society.” Clifford said the diocese could “be the moral compass needed to help end racism in America – if it’s the desire of those in power to really end it. Change is never easy. Are you willing to take affirmative action or just keep talking? What would Jesus do?” he asked.
Abrams said she was speaking from the perspective of an African American mother, wife, sister and daughter raised Catholic and who attended Catholic schools. She said she’s seen and experienced racism but “now it’s so heightened it’s almost stagnated.” The recent killings of African Americans were the straw that broke the camel’s back, she said, adding that she also was disappointed at how long it took for Church leaders to speak out. In the future, she asked for an immediate response. She said resources exist but they need to be linked to the appropriate people.
“As Catholics, we always adhere to prayer. We should turn to our faith in God and that he will provide solutions to overcome obstacles. With God, nothing is impossible. This battle is not over, but we’re in it,” Abrams said.
Clipps told the group, “I’m not your black brother or your yellow brother – I’m your brother. There’s only one race: the human race. Other identifiers only work to divide people”
To be part of the solution, Clipps said “sometimes you have to get out from behind the desk and be visible.” The coronavirus pandemic may have been a blessing in disguise, he mused, noting that without it, perhaps there wouldn’t have been so many people ready to protest. “There are millions of people out of work with nowhere to go,” he said, and social media serves as a way to connect and inform them.
“The hopeful thing is that this is a rainbow coalition – you have people of all colors, backgrounds standing together against injustice,” he said, noting that it is important to plan for the future. “We have to anticipate the next steps. This is the first step – to have this dialogue. It is important to take this time and make the best of it,” Clipps added.
Stribling said Caucasians can’t understand the struggle of African Americans. As a nurse, she works to make people feel better but it’s difficult to do that with what’s happening around the country now. “Everyone needs to speak up, to step up to the table. Leaders must give an example of what it is to be a leader and others will follow,” she said, adding that it’s time for all to come to the table and “get this done.”
Jason Lewis, who works in consolation ministry for the diocese, said he was overcome with emotion during the conversation. “I feel like I’ve been wandering in the desert. It’s my job to minister in cases of grief, loss and pain. I stand in solidarity with you,” he said, adding that he is “struggling with realizing that there are racist structures in our Church. It is painful to me.” Lewis wondered aloud where was the voice of the Church, adding he wants to offer his support. “I’d like to be here to continue the agenda and action plan of these conversations.”
“As Catholics, we must continue Christ’s work of reconciliation,” Dabney said.
He thanked the speakers for allowing themselves “to be vulnerable and transparent.” and invited the community to submit questions to him at email@example.com.
The June 4 session can be viewed Diocese of Cleveland Parish Life Facebook page, the Office of Ministry to African American Catholics Facebook Page and the African American Catholic Ministry, Cleveland YouTube channel.
Join the June 17 discussion by computer at walsh.zoom.us/j/8321715185
or by phone at 312-626-6799. The meeting ID is 832 171 5185.