By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

The Catholic Church has erred in the past in effectively addressing racism in the United States, but there are signs of progress and hope for the future, according to Bishop Edward K. Braxton, bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.  

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Bishop Edward K. Braxton, bishop for the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois and former bishop of the Diocese of Lake Charles, speaks to a full house at the Westerfield Center in Baton Rouge on Sept. 27 about the Catholic Church and the racial divide in the United States. Bishop Braxton was a guest speaker for the Diocese of Baton Rouge Commission forum on Racial Harmony. Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator


Bishop Braxton, speaking to a packed house at the Westerfield Center on the campus of the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge at a forum hosted by the Racial Harmony Commission of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, cited past examples of the racial divide with segregated churches; not allowing “people of color” to join religious communities; and how the Jesuit order sold almost 300 “enslaved free human beings” to construct buildings at Georgetown University.  

“Georgetown continues an ongoing aggressive program to acknowledge the fact that while this horrible past cannot be undone, the present and the future can be better,” said Bishop Braxton, who previously served as bishop in the Diocese of Lake Charles.  

During his one-hour talk titled “Listen! Learn! Think! Pray! Act! The Catholic Church and the Racial Divide in the United States,” the bishop said there is hope for the future and that hope lies in prayer.  

Adhering to the teachings of Jesus and listening to the word of God during Mass are the first steps to achieving racial harmony, Bishop Braxton said.  

“Ask yourself, ‘How does this apply in my daily life, especially the challenges of the racial divide here in Baton Rouge … and even all through Louisiana?’ ” he said.  

The bishop also encouraged listening to holy men and women, family members, community leaders, church teachings, Pope Francis and “the voice of conscious deep with you, nudging you to do what is right.” 

“When you listen, you learn at the deepest level possible,” he said. “Listen; learn; then, think critically.”  

He told those in attendance they must pray, including alone and with others and to meditate on the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. After listening, learning, thinking and praying, according to the bishop, then one is ready to act “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  

“Only then are you able to discern what you can and cannot do and what you should and should not do as a transformative agent here in the Diocese of Baton Rouge,” said Bishop Braxton.  

The bishop mentioned the “great effort on the part of the Catholic Church, priests, sisters and lay people, working and marching for racial integration in the north and in the south.” He also noted the “tremendous” impact of Catholic schools in urban communities to contribute to the “intellectual and moral formation of African-American youth.”  

He credited the Catholic Church for being at the “forefront of programs to confront the sources of poverty” and for providing health care, through hospitals, to serve “the poorest.”  

“In conclusion, everybody can do something,” said Bishop Braxton. “You choose to do nothing is to maintain the racial divide and to not cooperate with the vision of the Commission on Racial Harmony.” 

Dr. David Widden III, assistant professor of theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, which sponsored Bishop Braxton’s visit, said it’s important for FranU to be a part of the dialogue on racial harmony.  

“Our goal as an institution is to be the center of Catholic intellectual life of the Baton Rouge area which means we’ve got to be willing to talk about everything; the things that are good news, the bad news, difficult and so on. And, so we thought this was just the kind of thing the university should be participating in. We want our students to think about these issues, and we want to think about these issues as a university as well. This is the kind of dialogue we want to support,” said Widden.  

Bishop Michael G. Duca said Bishop Braxton’s talk was powerful and provided concrete ways to approach every issue.  

“He laid a pallet out of very diverse ideas all meant to try to dispel this kind of barrier we have within our culture between blacks and whites, of course, but Hispanics, blacks and whites; Asians, blacks and whites; and, all these ways in which we tend to separate ourselves and so I thought his model of approaching the issue in a way that moved toward action was good,” said Bishop Duca.  

“My takeaway was the realization of how language does make a difference, what we say and how we say it, the meaning behind it. That was an eye-opener for me,” said Betty Bickham, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Church in Baton Rouge.  

“One of the gifts of this particular talk was that the bishop inspired us all to do what we can do,” said Father Joshua Johnson, a member of the Racial Harmony Commission. “Everybody can do something to help heal hearts and minds and work towards a more just world. So, we’re grateful for the wisdom he shared with us, which hopefully will inspire many people in our diocese and our community in general to just collaborate with each other to build the kingdom of God.”