Speakers at assembly offered direction on parishes learning about, addressing racism


It cannot be done without God’s help and grace.

But since that grace abounds, there’s no excuse not to begin the uncomfortable process of fashioning anti-racist parishes throughout the United States.

“It’s true that we can’t do this on our own, but God’s grace never gives us permission not to work,” stated William Critchley-Menor S.J., a Jesuit scholastic at Saint Louis University in St. Louis. “We must recognize that God is always calling us to more, and try to respond to that.”

Mr. Critchley-Menor and Katie Jansen Larson, parish administrator at St. Francis Xavier “College Church” parish in St. Louis, led an afternoon workshop titled “The Love of Christ Impels Us — Becoming an Anti-Racist Parish,” at the Missouri Catholic Conference’s (MCC’s) 2019 Annual Assembly in Jefferson City.

The event was held Oct. 6 in the Missouri State Capitol.

About 35 people — including Auxiliary Bishop Mark S. Rivituso of St. Louis and Hermann native Franciscan Father Edward Mundwiller — attended the interactive session.

It was one of several workshops offered during the assembly.

MCC Public Policy Committee member Joyce Jones, program director of racial harmony for the St. Louis archdiocese, served as emcee.

“Welcome to an uncomfortable conversation,” said Ms. Jansen Larson. “That is what you’re getting into, as a room of mostly white people talking about race.”

“The only thing that I can say with any certainty is that I need to be uncomfortable,” she stated. “And if I’m not uncomfortable, then I’m not in the right headspace for this conversation.”

She noted that racial prejudice generally refers to a belief that some racial groups are better or worse than others.

Structural racism describes the way in which institutions and societal structures create and maintain racial inequality.

“Anti-racism goes beyond simply avoiding racism and is an effort to oppose and dismantle racism and to promote racial equity,” Ms. Jansen Larson stated.

“To be anti-racist means to look for places where racism exists and try to stop it,” she said.

Her parish, which includes the Saint Louis University Campus, is mostly white, although there are many people living nearby who are African American.

She said that when her pastor, Jesuit Father Daniel White, challenged the parish to work toward becoming an anti-racist parish, the issue of colorblindness quickly came up.

“The color I think most of us are truly blind to is white,” Ms. Jansen Larson asserted.

That’s important to keep in mind when working to become a community that is at odds with systemic racism.

“The focus is actually on us, more than it is on people of color,” she said. “Specifically, it’s our relationship with people of color.”

“A third rail”

A recent online statement from St. Francis Xavier parish said its efforts to become an anti-racist parish “are based on the realization that we are bound intimately to institutional racism, and that this is not of God. To do nothing in the face of great sin is itself sinful.”

The parish began the process by inviting parishioners to gather for prayer and discussion.

At each meeting, participants would agree to abide by a set of principles, including openness, respect, forgiveness, personal responsibility and a willingness to listen in order to understand.

Each meeting would include small group or one-on-one discussions in which people could speak candidly about their understanding or personal experiences of racism.

This part of the process known as “illuminating dissatisfaction.”

Mr. Critchley-Menor acknowledged that discussions about race and racism are like “a third rail” in American culture.

“There’s an inability to name the fact that there’s a problem — the problem being racism in our country, in our neighborhoods, in our Church,” he said.

“So we want you to be able to talk about: Do you see that there’s a problem? How do you see it? How do you experience it?” he stated.

Ms. Jones pointed out that race relations in the United States are often framed in terms of black and white, “because that’s the model that our country has been built on.”

But racism actually refers to all discrimination against whoever the “other” is, she noted.

Cleansing and forgiveness

Mr. Critchley-Menor is a member of the leadership team for the Jesuit Midwest Province’s Anti-Racism Sodality.

He called to mind a passage from the First Letter of St. John: “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, (God) is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from every wrongdoing.”

Mr. Critchley-Menor became conscious of racism in the Church by hearing from fellow Jesuits who are Hispanic or African American, about how they had been marginalized in their own religious community.

“It’s things like who gets a voice at the table, who is invited to things, who is listened to and has credibility,” he stated.

Lauding the U.S. Catholic bishops’ November 2018 pastoral letter on racism, called “Open Wide Our Hearts,” he quoted an excerpt:

“We, the Catholic bishops of the United States acknowledge the many times when the Church has failed to live as Christ taught us to love our brothers and sisters.

“Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church, by bishops, clergy, religious and laity, and by Church institutions.

“We express deep sorrow and regret. We also acknowledge those instances when we have not done enough or stood by silently when grave acts of injustice were committed.

“We ask for forgiveness from all who have been harmed by these acts, in the past or in the present.”

“The water you swim in”

Ms. Jansen Larson noted that in “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. bishops call on priests, deacons, religious brothers and sisters, lay leaders, parish staff members and all the faithful to see themselves as missionary disciples, “carrying forth the message of fraternal charity and human dignity.”

“We ask them,” the bishops state, “to fight the evil of racism by educating themselves, reflecting on their personal thoughts and actions, listening to the experiences of those who have been affected by racism, and by developing and supporting programs that help repair the damages caused by racial discrimination.”

Ms. Jansen Larson said this is a helpful but daunting order, because racism isn’t always easy to notice.

“We’re not looking at really overt things as much anymore,” she said. “Not that they aren’t there, but that’s not really where racism is so powerful.”

She said it’s easy to condemn something as blatant as burning a cross in someone’s yard, “but there are structures in place that we don’t even notice anymore, much less question, that also enable continued racism.”

For white people, she likened it to “recognizing the water you swim in.”

That’s why St. Francis Xavier parish sought guidance from Crossroads Ministry, a national organization that works to help institutions identify racist structures.

“Because it’s not much about people in your institutions who have racist thoughts or feelings,” she said. “Assuming you have good people in your institutions, it’s about identifying the structures that unintentionally enable racism.”

She referred to a detailed chart provided by Crossroads Ministry that outlines a six-stage transformation from an exclusionary institution to an anti-racist, multicultural organization.

“We’re not trying to make everyone the same,” she stated. “When we talk about racism, what we are talking about are power and structures: Where is the power? What are the structures that give that power? Who’s in those roles?”

She pointed out that as much work as her parish already put into becoming anti-racist, “we have a very long way to go, and I’m still not sure how we’re going to get there.”

She said a group of 12 people continues to lead the process in her parish, and it’s important for the pastor to be a part of that group.

The process is long and requires a sustained commitment, “and we figure it out one step at a time,” she stated.

She said people who have not experienced racism must not be intimidated by their lack of understanding of the experiences of people who have.

“All you have to know is how to start a conversation,” she said. “You just say, ‘Do you think there’s a problem? I think there might be a problem. Do you want to talk about it?’”

Mr. Critchley-Menor pointed out that no parish has to embark on this journey alone.

“There are tons of anti-racism organizations that help communities work through trying to become anti-racist,” he said.

“So find a mentor. Reach out to other groups in your diocese who are doing this work, to try to learn about it,” he stated.

Heightened conviction

Bishop Rivituso said it was a blessing to participate in the workshop.

“It was inspiring to see so many who care about raising the awareness of racism and our Church and societal need to address this evil,” he stated.

He said the recent peaceful protests as well as the violence of civil unrest surrounding the tragic circumstances of George Floyd’s death have shed light on this perennially relevant subject.

“All people are challenged to heighten our conviction and efforts to eradicate racism from our communities and nation and work together to uphold the equality and human dignity of every person,” Bishop Rivituso stated.

“Jesus calls us not to be complacent with racism in our midst but work for true justice to assure all be treated according to their God-given dignity,” he said.

For information about beginning this process in your parish, contact Katie Jansen Larson at katie@sfxstl.org or Joyce Jones at JoyceJones@archstl.org or (314) 792-7596.