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Online event looks beyond current race relations

A lament shared June 11 asks God to ‘make something new from the scraps of our pain’

The path beyond the discouragement of race relations calls people to lament, repent and be sent, an Episcopal priest told an ecumenical online gathering on the topic June 11.

“Living Beyond Discouragement,” a listening session to give a voice to people affected by COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was sponsored by the Archdiocese of St. Louis Peace and Justice Commission and Office of Racial Harmony and co-sponsored by the archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate.

The program, which had 212 participants, included presentations by several panelists and responses to questions.

Rev. Steve Lawler, director of the Walker Leadership Institute at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, said racism is similar to a virus in that it is infectious. It is not what God intends for people, he said. While people need to repent, they also need to recognize that the economy and way of valuing people are disordered, he added.

“It’s time to listen and be led,” Rev. Lawler said, urging people to act as God’s eyes, ears, hands and feet and work to repair the world.

Danielle Harrison, a diversity and equity inclusion consultant who is a parishioner of St. Joseph in Lebanon, Ill., said the death of Floyd is just one example of people who were killed and their skin color was a factor. “It leads some people to question where God is in this moment,” she said. If “we cry directly to the Creator, we know our Creator can handle it,” she said.

In a lament that Harrison authored and read, she addressed God, asking Him to “make something new from the scraps of our pain.”

Father Chris Collins, assistant to the president of Saint Louis University for mission and identity, said he is discouraged by recent events after working the past few years on access to education, workforce development and economic inclusion. But he was encouraged by Harrison’s push to make something new happen. “The grace of God is moving all the time in our lives,” Father Collins said.

Grace is real, he said, and it’s easy to feel God is not working, but that’s not true. He urged listeners to get close to the pain and feelings of hopelessness “and let God’s Spirit move us.”

Father Collins urged people to support Catholic education in poor neighborhoods, helping to increase enrollment and support students. “There’s massive potential” to help African Americans and immigrants, he said, calling Catholic education “a powerful engine in the Catholic world” and an asset with potential to improve neighborhoods.

His call to support education gained a response from listeners, who wrote in comments of support, some also citing a need to strengthen public schools. Harrison agreed with the opportunity to assist neighborhoods through education, calling on people to look for a new way of delivering education, offering “hope and academic success in a different way.”

Rev. Charles “Chuck” Norris, pastor of St. James AME Church in St. Louis, said COVID-19 raised the “ugly scourge of racism” because of its far greater impact among African Americans. “Racism is so embedded in the fabric of our society, which continues to oppress and repress black people,” he said, citing a lack of access to employment and acquisition of capital as well as educational and environmental disparities.

It remains a force, he said, because “it’s difficult to give up something so others can have.”

He urged people to listen to each other and move forward from there.

Rev. Gabrielle Kennedy, director of Faith and For the Sake of All, said racism has left a marginalized community burdened by abuse of power and authority. “Is it not time for people of faith, for Christians, to be upset, to be angry without feeling guilty?” she asked. “In the face of injustice, we must resist.”


>> A definition, changed

Kennedy Mitchum treasures her Catholic education in St. Louis but said she never would have taken action to change the definition of racism if not for a different atmosphere she faced in college.

In college, people evoked the Merriam-Webster definition of racism to justify their attitudes.

A 2016 graduate of Nerinx Hall High School who attended St. Roch School for her elementary education, Mitchum attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, after receiving several scholarships. Earlier, as a nonCatholic in a Catholic school, Mitchum said, “they accepted me for who I was, they didn’t treat me any differently.We were still brothers and sisters, loving each other no matter what.” In college, people disregarded her opinions and treated her unequally at times, however.

She felt Merriam-Webster’s definition lacked the historical perspective of systemic oppression in defining racism. After a series of emails with dictionary editors, Mitchum did not give up the fight despite editors saying they never made changes due to request or petition. On June 4, an editor wrote, “A revision to the entry for racism is now being drafted and added to the dictionary soon, and we are also planning to revise the entries of other words that are related to racism or have racial connotations.”

Changing the definition will “make for a better community, make for a better way for people to really understand each other’s experiences because we’re all different but at the end of the day we’re all brothers and sisters, we’re all human beings and everyone needs to be treated like one,” Mitchum said.

People of color face structures that inhibit them, so changing those structures will create a better world, she said, one where people aren’t discriminated against or killed in confrontations with police.

Looking back, she said, it was hard for her in college but “everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t have that experience in college I wouldn’t have tried to reach out and get the definition of racism changed.”

People from privileged backgrounds, she said, have to acknowledge that, get to know others who are different from them and “love each other for who they are and not for what their background may look like.”

Mitchum recently received a bachelor’s degree with double majors in journalism/mass communications and in politics. She’s back in St. Louis, job-hunting and considering the pursuit of a master’s degree or entering law school.

Her only advice to Catholic educators, she said, is to teach more black history and the achievements of people of color.

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