Since 1997, we at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Philadelphia have been engaged in a parish-wide racial healing process. Because of this, we know that differences in theology and religious practice are not the only divisions that can fracture common ground among Catholics.
Tensions between the races, especially between Blacks and Whites, also can be a potent cause of fissures. This is true even among people sharing the same worshiping community and beliefs. However, creative organizing, backed by prayer, love, and faith can create powerful energies to confront the ugly demon of racism and begin to cast it out. The purpose of this article is to share our experience in order to draw out insights and lessons that may be helpful to other parishes wanting to pursue racial justice and reconciliation.
HISTORY OF ST. VINCENT PARISH
First, here is some background on St. Vincent’s, a church which currently has about 1500 members. It was founded in 1851 and is located in Germantown, a poor and working class section of Philadelphia whose population is more than eighty-five percent Black. St. Vincent’s membership, however, is eighty-five percent White. One of the main reasons for this disparity is the history of racial prejudice and discrimination in the Catholic Church, both locally and nationally.
As was true with other parishes, Black Catholics for many decades were not made to feel welcome at St. Vincent’s. Similarly, few Catholics greeted or supported Black home-seekers when they moved into the neighborhood. Instead, the Blacks were met with hostility and rocks thrown through their windows. Their children could not attend the segregated parish school.
In 1912, when Black children were forced to stand at the end of the line to receive First Holy Communion, disheartened Black members, with the help of Mother Katharine Drexel, petitioned for and founded their own church, St. Catherine of Siena. When the archdiocese finally closed St. Catherine’s in 1993, the wound black Catholics had received in 1912 was only deepened, creating suspicion and resentment that has lasted to the present.
Ironically, another reason for the disparity is the exciting, Vatican II-style renewal in liturgy, lay participation, service to the poor and commitment to peace and justice that has transformed St. Vincent’s over the last two decades. St. Vincent’s has become a “magnet parish,” drawing participants from seventy different zip codes in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Many of these new members come from the suburbs and are White. Today, Black membership at St. Vincent’s is slowly growing, but given its history of racism and the magnetic attraction of the parish for White Catholics, it is no wonder that Black Catholics are in the minority.
Our African American Leadership Ministry (AALM) is an interracial group in the parish charged with keeping before parishioners the concerns of people of color. In the early to mid-nineties, it sponsored many parish workshops and speakers on race relations. However, these events reached only a small portion of the membership.
ARTICULATING THE GOAL
Desiring to have much wider impact, in February 1997 the AALM sent a detailed, written proposal to the parish council and staff, outlining a long-term process for racial healing. The goal, they said, was to bring into being: “A Christian community where all people find a safe enviromnent to examine and overcome their prejudices, and where those who suffer racial prejudice and discrimination feel truly welcomed and accepted, have their gifts and culture valued and included, and find solidarity in their struggle for equality.”
The proposal included a faith-based rationale, rooted in Catholic theology and social teaching. It also had a twenty-one step timeline, outlining the process the AALM believed would move the parish toward the goal. After much serious discussion with AALM (which brought some small changes to the proposal), the council and staff approved the process in April 1997. Then, they asked AALM to provide leadership for carrying it out.
I will never forget the meeting when we realized what we had gotten ourselves into. We had been somewhat busy with occasional speakers and workshops in the past, but this would take an enormous commitment of time and energy. We held hands around our meeting table and prayed hard for the wisdom and strength to see this through.
The first lesson we learned, therefore, was the importance of knowing what you want and articulating it clearly. In addition, it is important to have the patience to dialogue with the parish leadership and the humility to accept valid proposals for change. Just as vital is commitment—taking responsibility to set the process in motion and to oversee its implementation. Most important of all is to ask for God’s help all the way along.
AN EMERGING CRISIS
A crisis emerged almost immediately, which nearly prevented the racial healing process from even getting off the ground. Members of the AALM decided to meet together for a retreat, believing that we should “try out” the process before introducing it to the parish. The retreat was a disaster.
A large gap in views appeared between White and Black participants. White members made statements which came across to Black members as expressions of unconscious racism. At times, White members angered Black participants by seeming to casually dismiss their views. (“How can you be sure the store detective was being racist when he followed you around?”) Some White members were taken aback by the anger and vehemence with which some Black members spoke. At the planned “celebration” dinner after the retreat, Blacks and Whites sat in stony silence or tried desperately to make polite conversation.
In the week following the retreat, many AALM members, both Black and White, decided that it would be too painful to continue to work together. Rumors of resignations flew. Then some of the members recalled a paper that Anita Foeman, an African American diversity trainer, had handed out at one of her workshops at St. Vincent’s.
The paper describes three basic stages in the development of community and collaboration across racial lines. The first stage is superficial pseudo community—polite niceness, where no one steps on anyone’s toes or raises difficult issues. People want to avoid conflict or the perception by others that they are prejudiced or overly angry.
Stage two, and this was the most important insight, is chaos and emptiness. This comes when people determine to break through the superficiality, voice their opinions, and face the real issues that racism raises. Conflict emerges. Emotions of anger and trepidation come out. Participants feel that they are going backward, away from loving community. The problems raised seem overwhelming or unsolvable. But if people can hang on through the “chaos” stage, undergo self-examination, share fears and vulnerabilities, admit prejudices, express willingness to change and speak the truth in love, chaos can give way to stage three—real community.
As we reminded each other of this insight, we began to say, “Hey, we’re making progress! We’re right where we should be, in the ‘chaos’ stage!” We met again, prayed together, committed to one another and went forward.
Thus, an important second lesson was that seeming chaos can be a way to real community. It was an insight that we carried over into our broader work with parishioners. It brought hope (and humor!) to what might have been despair. It also made us add retreats, potlucks and other social activities to our schedule of regular AALM business meetings so we could get to know one another more deeply beyond our tasks.
We also learned a third lesson from this experience—the importance of drawing upon the expertise of people outside the parish who are experienced in diversity training, conflict resolution and the like.
As our process began, we frequently reviewed our initiatives with an interracial couple from New Jersey who had long worked in these fields. Later on, an experienced diversity trainer, Barry Cross, curious to learn about a faith-based approach to racial healing, actually joined the AALM and worked closely with us.
ENGAGING THE PARISH
After careful preparation during the spring and summer of 1997, we kicked off the racial healing process in the broader St. Vincent community. Our priests gave homilies on racial justice and reconciliation at each Mass on a chosen Sunday. After the homilies, interracial teams of AALM members shared with the assembly their own experience of racism.
Our fourth lesson derived from these latter talks. The Black team members, whom most people in the assembly knew at least by sight, described the reality of racism and its painful, limiting impact on their lives. The White speakers, rather than presenting themselves as great fighters for racial justice, admitted their own racial prejudices, how bias was ingrained in them at an early age and how the stereotyping “tapes” still play in their heads. They also shared what was motivating them to move beyond guilt, to overcome their own racism, and to join the struggle for justice and healing.
PERSONALIZING THE MESSAGE
This personalizing of our message had great impact on parishioners. After hearing the Black speakers, it was hard for anyone to pretend that racism no longer exists or that Christians have no obligation to fight it. The White speakers’ humility and admission of their own racism made it possible for many White listeners to say, “I don’t have to pretend that I’m free of prejudice; maybe I can bring my prejudice out into the light and be part of a movement to eliminate racism.”
As worshipers left church that day, AALM members greeted them warmly at each door and politely handed them two of the best short articles we could find on race relations: “The Black Tax” and “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” We also set up a permanent literature table in the church foyer which we supplied continuously with copies of articles and other information pertinent to racial justice and healing.
A few weeks later, we circulated an extensive questionnaire to every parishioner. The thirty-plus questions probed the following:
(1) What do you think we are currently doing pretty well in the parish to create racial healing? (2) What more can we do to deepen racial healing? Two sociologists (members of St. Vincent’s) analyzed the returned questionnaires and reported the results to the whole parish.
Our fifth lesson, then, highlights our relationship with the parish membership. We asked their opinion about the process and drew them into it, rather than acting as though we had all the answers. We tried to approach the other parishioners with love, not judging them or making them feel guilty. At the same time, we sought to educate and challenge them with the best contemporary material we could find on the reality of racism and how to overcome it.
Answers to the questionnaire brought out parishioners’ strong interest in being part of small groups in which they could feel safe enough to discuss honestly the issue of racism and what to do about it. The AALM responded by agreeing to organize such small groups. One AALM member, drawing upon the group’s ideas, reading widely and consulting with outside experts, worked all summer to develop a 122-page Guidebook for Small Faith Groups on racial healing. This outlined a process for eight sessions to probe racism at deeper and deeper levels. It also was filled with resources and readings, group process suggestions, and ideas for group Scripture study and prayer. AALM also organized a team to train small group facilitators, realizing that the groups could bog down if they were left entirely on their own.
AMAZING RESULTS IN SMALL GROUPS
The results were little short of amazing. Thirty small groups formed with 128 parishioners participating. As the groups got going, ripples spread out to others as the 128 shared the new understandings that came from small group discussions and exercises.
Perhaps the greatest learning was on the part of White participants who, often for the first time, grasped that American racism has conveyed to them unearned “White privilege.” White parishioner Carroll Clay testified that “racism had seemed nebulous to me before, but the process gave me a much more concrete understanding, especially about ‘white privilege’ and how it impacts everything.” Her husband Joe said that he learned for the first time about “systemic racism” and how it benefits White people. During the process, the Clays moved from their predominantly White suburban community to a thoroughly integrated city neighborhood.
Lesson six, then, was the importance of creating well-organized and skillfully facilitated “safe spaces” where parishioners could delve deeper into racial healing.
An event that helped our process along was the January 6, 1998 publication of a forceful pastoral letter, ”Healing Racism Through Faith and Truth,” by our bishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. In it, he named racism a sin and a contagious moral disease that can and must be eradicated. He called upon all Catholics to “renew our efforts to end the evil of racism.” This provided a fitting prelude to the next stage of our racial healing process—making a long-term commitment.
REVISING THE TIMELINE
The “timeline” in AALM’s initial proposal had outlined a two-year process plus some follow-up. Church members are accustomed to such time-limited “programs,” after which we move on to something else. As we confronted the demon of racism, however, we came to see that no “program” would be sufficient to cast it out.
On a Sunday in the spring of 1998, our pastor, Fr. Aidan Rooney, c.m., announced from the pulpit that addressing racism is a long-term process. In fact, he said, it is part of our very identity as Christians.
Lesson seven, then, was the need to make an open-ended commitment to uproot racism, a sin so deep in American society that no short “program” could expect to bring justice and healing.
The St. Vincent racial healing process has sparked many other initiatives. Our priests mention racism in some way in nearly every homily. Our liturgy is more inclusive of the cadences of spirituals and gospel music. AALM teams have taken educational materials on the subject to our children’s Sunday classes. AALM has a permanent column in the parish bulletin called, “What Can I Do for Racial Healing?” Plans are afoot to add more multicultural “visuals” (art, banners, statuary, etc.) inside the church, so that people of color at worship will see more than white faces staring down at them from windows, niches and walls. We are about to embark on a six million dollar campaign to restore our ancient parish hall to make it useful for both the parish and the neighborhood.
In addition, a St. Vincent’s group collaborated with a local Jewish synagogue and traveled to Mississippi to help rebuild Black churches that had been burned to the ground bv arsonists. A very effective workshop called “White People Working on Racism” has been held several times. Letters have been written to protest racial disparities in the city’s criminal justice system.
An AALM member has initiated a long-term “apostolate of listening” to reach out to Black Catholics hurt by the tragic events surrounding St. Catherine of Siena Church (described above). An interracial book club, theater group and movie club are building deeper personal relationships across racial lines. Parishioners viewed “The Color of Fear,” a challenging film on race relations, followed by a workshop (again with AALM-trained facilitators) to learn from it. Also, a great deal of outreach has been made to other churches, both Protestant and Catholic, who have expressed interest in starting their own racial healing process.
What are some of the other challenges and insights that have come to us through this work? One is that racism in the post-civil-rights-movement era has taken a more cunning form. It is still persistent and poisonous, but its demonic power has metamorphosed into more subtle shapes than the time when signs proclaiming “Colored Drinking Fountain” abounded. This makes its elimination more difficult, though no less urgent. It underlines the importance of providing parishioners with well-written information and verbal encouragement to recognize and combat the new forms racism has taken.
We know we are nowhere near the end of our racial healing process. At least one parishioner has gone to another parish because of objections to the process. In spite of all that we have done, some of our White parishioners are still blissfully unaware of (or try to overlook) today’s racism and the maddening frustrations people of color still face. Others, used to time-limited programs, keep asking, “When will this be over?”
At an even deeper level, some parishioners, whom we all regard as good people, just don’t get it. “I’m not prejudiced,” they say. “I wasn’t around during slavery. I’m not responsible for racism. I don’t see any need to get involved.” We are still perplexed about how to reach these good people. How can we help them become aware of their prejudices? How can we help them see that it is not enough to be just a “good person,” a non-racist. You must be actively anti-racist if racism ever is to be overcome.
Some of our White parishioners have recognized their prejudices and their unearned “white privilege,” but this recognition has made them feel guilty and immobilized. They have not yet developed a new and positive anti-racist self-image in which unjust White privilege and power is renounced and built-in privilege and power is used to make them allies of people of color in their struggle for equality. It’s a great journey, but we have a long way to go.
Richard Taylor and LaVonne France co-chair the African American Leadership Ministry of St. Vincent de Paul Church, Philadelphia. Richard is the parish Coordinator of Ministry Development; LaVonne, a parish member, is a poet and professional chemist.