Participants at a diocesan listening session on racism in Columbus spoke about hurtful experiences both inside and outside the church, but also expressed optimism about efforts to recognize the problem and respond to it.
The June 19 session at the Pontifical College Josephinum was sponsored by the Catholic Ethnic Ministries office in the Columbus Diocese. It was the seventh such event conducted nationwide in response to the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” Other sessions were in St. Louis; St. Petersburg, Florida; Cincinnati; Philadelphia; Schriever, Louisiana; and Baltimore. More sessions are planned.
About 150 people attended the Ohio session, which featured brief reflections from 15 speakers who spoke about how racism has affected their lives and about the Catholic Church’s response.
Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, attended the gathering and was joined by Columbus Bishop Robert J. Brennan.
Devin Jones of the Catholic Ethnic Ministries office was one of several speakers whose reflections offered a mixture of disappointment and hope. He spoke about attending a nearly all-white Catholic boys prep school in Chicago and said that although he grew up in an all-white Chicago Baptist church, he never heard the most familiar racial slur until his first day at school.
He also said that at a Mass in Florida where he was the first to receive the blood of Christ at Mass, the woman who gave him the cup immediately took it back to the sanctuary after he drank from it and poured the contents out.
A priest once told him to stop evangelizing black people because “they were not intellectually capable” of understanding Catholic teaching.
Jones, 33, said such incidents were not enough to deter him from recognizing the truth of the church’s message. He challenged members of his age group to spread that word to others.
“If we truly believe this is the church Jesus Christ founded, we should feel empowered and energetic and be excited to evangelize,” he said. “Until this becomes ingrained in the culture of the church, we will never see an end to racism and the sins that result from it. ”
Several African American speakers mentioned times during the sign of peace at Mass when they felt unwelcome because whites seated near them appeared to be making a conscious attempt to avoid recognizing them.
Grace Neely, wife of the late Deacon Bob Neely, who served St. Dominic Church for 25 years, said her husband also was often asked when he joined the Catholic Church and his response was always: “When I was born.”
“People just had no clue a black person could be a deacon,” she said. This was particularly noticeable during one experience early in her husband’s diaconal service when he went to a parish in a rural area of the diocese to deliver a talk. The Neelys arrived early “and the woman at the door started asking, ‘Who are you? What do you want? When does the program start?’ Once he said, ‘I’m Deacon Neely,’ then her whole attitude changed,” Grace said.
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