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Efforts to combat racism seek to open hearts

Parish programs examine ways to implement aspects of U.S. bishops’ pastoral

Parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis are working to build relationships across racial lines, though they acknowledge it’s a long-term effort.

Representatives of three parishes and a deanery committee discussed their work at “Open Wide Our Hearts,” a program on implementing the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, which was approved in November. The program included a talk by Danielle Brown, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc Committee Against Racism.

“We’re working to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect,” said Joan Cleaveland of St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville. Her mostly white suburban parish hosted a deanery-wide conversation on the subtleties and insensitivities of racism in February with a panel of African Americans from St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Parish in north St. Louis.

Getting to know each other breaks down stereotypes and fear and shows how prejudices have affected individuals, Cleaveland said.

St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood began an effort 18 months ago with its Respect Life Committee, and within the community has had a dialogue with African-American families that revealed unearned advantages and unearned disadvantages depending on one’s race, said Bill Bommarito, a parishioner on the committee. He told of one African-American man who, as an adult, has been stopped by police 45 times without being given a reason.

The parish sought to raise awareness of the racial wealth gap by publishing statistics and other information on the cover page of its bulletins last August.

“We need to find ways to reach younger families,” Bommarito said. “The conversations have to take place there. We have more work to do.”

St. Francis Xavier (College Church) Parish in Midtown St. Louis has a racism and reconciliation committee. One of the first steps was to look at the reality of racism, said Christine Dragonette, director of social ministry at the parish. “We all have a stake in this work, and white people in particular have a responsibility to undo racism as people who benefit from the system,” she said.

The committee offers programs within the parish and builds relationships and shares programming with St. Alphonsus Liguori (Rock Church) Parish. The College Church also works within the North City Deanery and with Metropolitan Congregations United, a faith-based organizing group in St. Louis.

The North City Deanery Interracial Relations Committee involves nine parishes, six of which are predominantly African American. “We tackle issues of racism in a variety of ways,” said Cheryl Archibald, parish life coordinator of St. Matthew Parish in north St. Louis, pointing out events such as a walk across the Delmar Divide in St. Louis and concerts by the North City Deanery Choir. “We’ve become continual learners and comfortable talking about race and racism,” she said.

Joyce Jones, also a representative of the deanery committee and a member of the Rock Church Parish, noted that the pastoral letter states that racism arises “when either consciously or unconsciously a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.”

Jones cited efforts by her parish and Mary Mother of the Church Parish in south St. Louis County “to get to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

“We need to develop a sense of racial harmony, and we need to start in the Church.”

Moving ahead

Danielle Brown of the USCCB, noted in her talk that the pastoral letter states that to unjustly discriminate against another because of race or ethnicity is sinful and a violation of justice. It’s also wrong to fail to act or speak against racial justice, she said.

In an interview prior to the program, she said that the implementation of the pastoral letter is “very early in the process.” Racism and its effects, she noted, has impacted “both the witness of the Church and the ability of the Church to be fully what Jesus has called us to be.”

No effort is too small to counteract racism, Brown said. “People are still talking about the pastoral, they’re reading it, they’re getting their co-workers, their family members to read it.

“What wins hearts, what changes hearts is what hung on the cross, which was a Body that was absolutely brutalized and broken. A Body that needed help carrying His cross. What changes hearts is coming together under the cross of racism and figuring out how we get to the resurrection in this area of our Catholic, American life.”


Poverty rate in Missouri 2017

White — 9 %

Black — 21 %

Hispanic — 13 %

Multiple races — 16 %

Poverty rate in the United States

White — 8 %

Black — 20 %

Hispanic — 13 %

Multiple races — 16 %

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 2008-2017.


>> Economic “Cushions”

• The typical black family has about one-tenth as much wealth as the typical white family. Black families have $16,000 in net worth (all of their savings and assets less all of their debts), compared to about $163,000 for white families. That 10-1 gap shrinks to only 8-1 if you compare black families and white families who have the same incomes, education and family background. In other words, even black families who are making the same financial and educational choices as white families still only own about 20 percent of what whites do.

• 71 percent of white individuals and families own their homes, while only 41 percent of black individuals and families do.

• A white high school drop-out has about the same level of retirement savings ($19,000) as a black individual with a graduate or a professional degree ($20,000).

Source: Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances

>> Addressing The Racial Wealth Gap

St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood offered some advice on the “embedded” wealth gap system-wide by overcoming segregated schools and neighborhoods and making larger early childhood and educational investments. On a personal level:

1. Read to disadvantaged children, teach them to play an instrument, or play games with them. Anything to improve an early learning or childhood environment really helps.

2. Help families set up or get access to a rainy-day fund. Getting a family through a financial emergency saves them a trip to the payday or auto-title lender and contributes a lot to their overall stability.

3. Set up or contribute to college savings account for a lower-income child. Research shows that children with college savings accounts (even with small balances) are three to four times more likely to attend and complete college.

Source: Ray Boshara

>> Racial justice events

The Quest for Racial Justice and Harmony is a two-part series that will take place in May at St. Cletus Parish, 2705 Zumbehl Road in St. Charles. The first is a showing of “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness For Change,” from 7-9 p.m. Thursday, May 16, in the parish hall. The documentary shares story of a group of women religious, including the late Sister Antona Ebo, FSM, and their involvement with the civil rights movement and march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Small group discussions and prayer will follow.

The second event is a conversation with Father Art Cavitt, executive director of the St. Charles Lwanga Center, on Thursday, May 30, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the parish hall. Father Cavitt will address ways to establish racial justice and healing, particularly in St. Louis and St. Charles counties. He also will discuss the nexus between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Catholic Church. Group discussions, Q&A dialogue and prayer will follow. Both events are sponsored by the St. Cletus Peace and Justice Ministry.


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