The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops began looking at racism in earnest several years ago, according to Bishop Shelton Fabre, who heads the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana. He also chairs the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
And when the USCCB approved the pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” at its fall meeting in November 2018, efforts to combat the issue ramped up.
Bishop Fabre said the work continues as his committee is charged with implementing the document.
He and attorney Danielle Brown, associate director of the ad hoc committee, were special guests at a July 1 Zoom Conversation with the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism, hosted by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Office of Ministry to African American Catholics. Cary Dabney, who heads the diocesan office, hosted the session which was the third in a series of ongoing programs focusing on racism in the Church.
According to the pastoral letter, “As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue. Accordingly, we will not cease to speak forcefully against and work toward ending racism. Racism directly places brother and sister against each other, violating the dignity inherent in each person. The Apostle James commands the Christian: “show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” ( Jas 2:1).”
Bishop Fabre said it’s important to note that the document is from the entire USCCB. Also, although the bishops’ organization created the subcommittee on racism after the 2017 incident in Charlottesville, Bishop Fabre said they saw racism as a concern before that. Their hope is to spur people to encounters that will end racism, he said.
After the USCCB issued the pastoral letter, Bishop Fabre said the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism began a series of listening sessions across the country with two purposes. By putting a face on the story, the bishop said they hope to move hearts. Also, he said they are providing resources for people, schools and others, including seminaries.
“We want to assist the bishops to attack the sin of racism in their dioceses and to provide resources,” he said.
No document or letter, including “Open Wide Our Hearts” can capture everything, Bishop Fabre said. “We respond with a challenge: to take the pastoral letter, to take it further to where you want it to go in order to understand racism; to go with it and build on it,” he added.
This is the first time some people are really looking at the sin of racism, the bishop said. He encourages them to read the pastoral letter and to take advantage of the many resources available to help them understand the problem and work to resolve it.
“Help us by your own actions, discussions and faith to lay the foundation for the next pastoral letter,” he said.
Brown, who works with Bishop Fabre as associate director of the ad hoc committee, said the listening sessions have been helpful in sharing best practices. In some cases, the diocesan bishop appointed a team with a point person responsible for coordinating the response and implementation of efforts to combat racism.
The pastoral letter and resources are available in both English and Spanish, Brown said.
“We are most proud of our study guide,” she said, noting it contains many robust questions.
She shared slides and a synopsis of what some dioceses presented during their listening sessions. Unfortunately, the coronavirus health crisis forced cancelation of several sessions in recent months.
In Memphis, she said resources were developed for children. Although the Diocese of Omaha didn’t have a staff to address the issue, Brown said a group of volunteers was tasked with developing a response. She said several universities and colleges, including John Carroll University, which hosted the Cleveland listening session last fall, are supportive of the efforts to end racism.
Other ideas culled from dioceses include taking a road trip to a place of cultural significance, hosting ecumenical dialogues, coordinating staff brown bag lunches with a discussion period, addressing legislation and other multi-faceted approaches to address, confront and eliminate racism.
In the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Brown shared an exercise for children in which they received eggs of different colors. “They looked different on the outside, but when they cracked them open, they were all the same inside,” she said.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Brown said several people agreed to be photographed and share their stories, which were portrayed on banners as part of a traveling exhibit.
Dabney said the July 1 session was recorded so others could view it on the African American Ministry’s YouTube channel. A link is available in the resource section on the AAM page. It is one of several dozen resources that have been added to the page in recent weeks. Dabney said there are resources for parents, articles to read, videos to watch, books to read, articles from Catholic media and webinars to watch, as well as statements and articles from the USCCB on the topic of racism.
“We are working to develop a race relations committee in the diocese,” Dabney said. The team will assist Father Don Oleksiak, diocesan administrator, and will be a resource for parishes in the diocese as they continue the dialogue on racism.
The AAM Office also produces a monthly newsletter and is working to develop a video with voices from throughout the diocese talking about racism.
Father Oleksiak said he was moved by the testimony of those who spoke at the first Zoom session in the series and shared the information with his fellow clergy.
“There must be a greater awareness of the sin of racism. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to address the issue. We must work together to change one another with hope in our efforts to address and combat racism. I hold on to the hope and promise of the Lord getting us through this,” Father Oleksiak said, “as we recognize and work to eradicate the sin of racism.”
For more information, visit the Office of African American Ministry web page at dioceseofcleveland.org/African-american-ministry or contact Dabney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-696-6525, Ext. 3020.