Listening session on racism ‘first step’ to healing 

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

Catherine Moore vividly remembers the first Mass she attended in an all-white church.  

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A Gospel choir made up of choir members from St. Paul the Apostle Church, Immaculate Conception Church and St. Francis Xavier Church, all in Baton Rouge, were stunning as they sang songs of inspiration during the “Open Wide Our Hearts Listening Session on Racism in the Church” on June 29 at the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge.  Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator  

 

A native of Bertrandville who was raised at St. Benedict the Moor Church, Moore admitted she was a bit reluctant when she initially walked over one of the most significant thresholds of her life.  

“There was not hostility but you could tell there was a cold chill that went through the group,” she said of her reception.  

Twenty years later Moore, 83, has become a welcome attendee of the River Parish church. The ushers eagerly welcome her, she was a choir member and even now prays the rosary monthly in the home of a white parishioner.  

“Times, they are a changing,” said Moore, who also recalls hearing stories from older ancestors about being spit upon, targets of vile comments or having their heads knocked against a concrete wall when they were forced to attend an all-white parish before St. Benedict, the oldest African-American church in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, opened in 1911.  

“They might not be changing fast enough because that’s a lot of years we are talking about.”  

Moore was one of nearly a dozen people who shared their experiences of racism in the church during a listening session on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter Against Racism. The letter, titled “Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call To Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” was approved by the USCCB in November 2018.
The listening session, presented by the Office of Black Catholics, attracted an estimated 150 people of many ethnicities to the Catholic Life Center on June 29. 

Bishop Shelton J. Fabre, a New Roads native and chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, delivered a thoughtful perspective on the pastoral letter he helped co-author. Bishop Michael G. Duca delivered opening and closing remarks, as well as the opening and closing prayers. 

“Today we are going to do the most difficult thing there is: listen,” Bishop Duca said. “Unity in the neighborhood will happen if just one person goes next door and talks to their neighbor. Listen and be those instruments as we go forward but also take what we hear today to building policies and actions we need to do to make that a reality.” 

ill be heard.  

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The listening session brought together nearly 150 people of varying ethnicities.  

 

Bishop Fabre, shepherd of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, said the listening sessions he has been attending around the country are necessary first steps. He said during the past several years, citing incidents in several cities including Baton Rouge, the USCCB witnessed the country’s racial tension growing at an alarming rate.  

In August 2017, USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo called for the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.  

Bishop Fabre was appointed chair of the committee in May 2018. 

“The events around the country have revealed and sparked racial tensions, and this is something that very much is in the hearts and minds of our country, in the hearts and minds of the bishops and in the hearts minds of the church,” he said. “We know that a pastoral letter, or even a prophetic voice, will not turn back the hands of time, nor will it undo the trauma communities across our nation have had to survive. Nor will it stop the stray bullets that have shattered lives.
“However, this pastoral letter is a necessary step toward bringing this issue into the light of the consciousness of the laity and God willing as a unifying statement to mark the efforts to end racism in the church, heal divisions and to bring peace to our communities.” 

Written in the style of the letters of St. Paul, Bishop Fabre said the letter conveys the bishops’ grave concerns about the rise in racism expressions in society, in public discourse and on social media. He said the letter not only condemns racism but encourages honest self-reflection, both by individuals and by the church.  

“It focuses on fraternal charity and highlights the Catholic teaching on the human person and that each and everyone one has been created in the image and likeness of God,” said Bishop Fabre.  

He said the letter is firmly structured, from inspiration to action, and the hope is the bishops can grow in the ongoing understanding of the pain of the communities affected by racism.  

“It is our prayer the church will not listen without being changed, and we will no longer see without being called to action,” he said. “Through your stories, we hope to call the church to a renewed reflection on these harms, reflection that will lead to forgiveness and ultimately reconciliation; a rejoining of the body of Christ within the church so that we may function together in the way the Lord has always intended.”  

Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant parishioner Jennifer Monette Greenup, in her testimony, recalled difficulties she encountered as a creole.  

“Learn from each other while striving to find a common good,” she encouraged the crowd. 

Holy Rosary pastor Father Joshua Johnson, the lone African-American priest in the diocese and a native of Baton Rouge, recalled how even today he is often followed in a grocery store or other establishments when not wearing his collar.  

“Racial discrimination still happens,” Father Johnson said. “We must make distinctions between racial prejudices and discrimination behavior, which are not good and are sins, and the policies and written rules that still accommodate one people because of the color of their skin (but) discriminate and oppress other people because of the color of their skin.”  

He said those practices must be reformed and transformed “in our own hearts so that we can be disciples of Jesus Christ. Let’s be real disciples of Jesus and make justice happen.”  

Following the talks, Bishop Fabre thanked those who “were courageous” to share their stories.  

“I think the Holy Spirit speaks to us through experiences, and I know that the Holy Spirit is speaking to us today very loudly that we must do something to address racism in our church, racism in our country. This is what dialogue does, it brings about change.”  

Bishop Duca closed the gathering by asking those in attendance to reflect on their experiences,  “If anybody was up there today and you were forming opinions about whether you agree or disagree, then you stopped listening,” he said .”Every point of view is a piece of the puzzle, a piece of the message.”  

Those in attendance were able to fill out a form detailing their experiences of racism in the church. The forms were collected at the end of session and presented to Bishop Fabre and Bishop Duca, each of whom promised those who participated that their voices w
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Bishop Shelton J. Fabre