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St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles is taking a closer look at topic of racism through its Peace and Justice Ministry

Discussion of ‘Waking up White’ latest effortin raising awareness of racism

On the last evening of a four-week group discussion of the book, “Waking Up White,” Chris Unterreiner told those in attendance with him at St. Cletus Parish that he didn’t want the conversation to end.

“This book has awakened me to the inherent biases I have,” said Unetrreiner, who joined about 50 other people Aug. 15 at the St. Charles parish to discuss the book, which looks at the topics of race and white privilege from the perspective of its white author, Debby Irving. Unterreiner, who is white, encouraged them to share the book with others who haven’t read it, and “open up conversations based on what we’ve done here each week — but with the people who we are even closer to.”

Discussion of racism wasn’t the only goal of this gathering. At the last session, St. Cletus parishioners brainstormed next steps they could take in addressing the issue within their own parish and beyond. Rev. Laurie Anzilotti, an Episcopal minister and past project director of Faith and For the Sake of All who helped facilitate the Aug. 15 discussion, encouraged them to think creatively in addressing what she called their “circle of influence” — those that you’re closest to within your own community.

“Right here in front of you is (an opportunity) for opening other folks’ eyes to implicit bias,” she said. “If you’re aware of it, it’s not implicit. But if you have a bias operating in you that you don’t know is there … it doesn’t mean you’re bad — it means you don’t know. Waking up our own circle of influence to those pieces can be a very faithful response.”

Other suggested ideas included developing relationships with churches where the majority of members are people of color (St. Cletus already has a relationship with members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson); working on personal skills to speak up when another person makes racist comments; enhancing the school curriculum to teach students about race-related topics; hosting a poverty simulation exercise to learn more about racial disparities; and participating in We Stories, a local organization that uses children’s books on diversity to teach white families how to strengthen family conversations about race and racism.

“During the 1960s we made many laws as a nation against racism, and some things changed. But we never took the time, as a people, to really talk to one another about this issue, and a deep divide has remained. All people, regardless of race, should be treated with dignity and respect. All children, no matter where they reside, should feel safe in their environment and should benefit from quality education without having to travel out of their neighborhood to receive this benefit. We must do better.”

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson in an invitation to clergy to preach about racism at Masses in Lent 2019

Through its Peace and Justice Ministry, members of St. Cletus have brought the topics of racism and racial justice front and center in the past year. Inspired by Archbishop Robert Carlson’s invitation to clergy to preach on racism in Lent of 2019, and a subsequent letter on racism from their pastor Father James Benz, the committee has hosted events to discuss racism at the parish, and to look at next steps for confronting racial injustices.

Events have included a showing of the documentaries, “Slavery By Another Name,” and “Sisters of Selma,” and a talk by Father Art Cavitt from the St. Charles Lwanga Center on racial justice and the nexus between Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church. In February, the parish bulletin featured famous African-American inventors and accomplishments of other famous people of color, as well as a large poster in the parish gathering space highlighting Black History Month in February.

Additionally, students from St. Cletus School and Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Ferguson last year participated in “Teaching Tolerance,” a program that facilitated shared activities with a focus on race, immigration and other social justice topics. The program was funded in part through a grant from Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Margaret Toney, a member of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Ferguson, who has participated in several activities at St. Cletus, said she’s glad to see parishes having conversations and raising awareness of racism. “It’s comforting to me when a white person says” racism exists, said Toney, who is African American. “It gives you hope, because it says to me if a white person sees it, then perhaps it’s really true.”

More resources

To learn more about the work of the Peace and Justice Ministry at St. Cletus, email Bill Weisrock at [email protected].

Faith and For the Sake of All offers a liaison training program to deepen the community’s understanding of and response to racial disparities in education, economics and health: www.faithandforthesakeofall.org

Health Equity Works is an initiative at Washington University in St. Louis that works toward accelerating health equity in St. Louis. Read the reports, “For the Sake of All” and “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide,” both online at healthequityworks.wustl.edu.

We Stories uses the power of children’s literature to create conversation, change and hope for a more equitable and inclusive future for all: www.westories.org

Metropolitan Congregations United is a community organization that empowers religious congregations, community groups and individuals to effectively participate in political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives: www.mcustl.com.

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