Healing racial divide starts with dialogue, black bishops say

IMAGE: CNS/Nancy Wiechec

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The threat
of being pulled over by police and arrested for something that even “hinted
of going beyond the status quo,” was very real to retired Bishop John H.
Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, when he was growing up in segregated Baton
Rouge, Louisiana.

The African-American bishop, president
of the National Black Catholic Congress, said he and his friends “lived under
constant threat of being arrested” during his teenage years.

Now decades later, he said that “like
everyone else, I was very dismayed” by the recent fatal shootings of Alton
Sterling in Baton Rouge July 5 and Philando Castile a day later in suburban St.
Paul, Minnesota, by police officers, followed by the sniper shooting July 7 in
Dallas which killed five police officers.

After this surge of shootings,
he said, many people have been asking: “Where do we go from here and what
does all this mean?”

And Catholics are no exception.
He said black Catholic leaders in particular are looking for ways to address
the violence, racism and mistrust that were on full display during the early
July shootings.

“They’re asking the church:
‘Give us some direction; show us some leadership. Show us our concerns are your
concerns and that you are with us because we see ourselves under siege in many
ways,'” Bishop Ricard told Catholic News Service.

The violent actions served as a “wake-up
call for all of us, a jolt,” he added.

But he also thinks the Catholic
Church has a lot to “bring to the table” to bridge racial divides, pointing
out that it has a long history of speaking up for civil rights. “We just
have to recapture that,” he said July 15 in an interview at the Josephites’
St. Joseph’s Seminary in Washington, where he is rector. The order, formally known as the Society of St. Joseph
of the Sacred Heart, was founded to serve newly
freed slaves in the United States and now ministers in African-American

“We’ve got a lot of work to
do” to combat racism, he said.

For starters, people need to acknowledge
that it exists. The bishop said black people see racism everywhere but white
people often deny it exists.

Louisiana Bishop Shelton J.
Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux similarly said the first step is recognizing there is
a problem and a lot of “understandable fear, anger and hurt out

The African-American bishop, who
is chairman of the Subcommittee on African-American Affairs for the U.S.
bishops, noted realistically that it is “going to take a lot of time to
restore trust and bring healing.”

“As Catholics we know,
reconciliation is a process, there are no magic pills, as much as we might want

But he also said the Catholic Church,
with its diversity, can play a unique role in bringing about healing because it
can “remind all that racism is a sin.”

Moving on from that, he said,
requires basic steps of listening to one another and changing hearts and minds
or perceived attitudes.

Bishop Fabre said taking this
next step involves what Pope Francis describes as encounters — understanding
the crosses others carry and the gifts they bring which enriches us.

The bishop doesn’t see this as something
complicated but as part of a process that begins with people talking and
listening to each other about race.

As both bishops looked to a way
forward from the recent string of violence, their words echoed parts of a pastoral
letter on the racial divide in the United States, written last year by Bishop Edward
K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois.

The pastoral letter emphasized that
“renewed efforts must be made to re-establish bonds of trust and respect
between law enforcement, the judicial system, and local communities.”

“We know that it is almost
impossible for a family, a parish, or even a diocese to transform nationwide
social structures that reinforce the racial divide,” Bishop Braxton wrote,
calling Catholics to pray about the race issue and to begin talking about it.

“We are living through a
seminal moment that has the power to transform our nation,” the African-American
bishop wrote.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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