VILLANOVA, Pa. (CNS) — Educators and consultants working with children in Catholic schools and parishes on the front line of multicultural change are urging administrators, clergy and parents to proactively address the issue of racism with young people.
That means bringing up the topic in classrooms, religious education classes and even within social groups, educators and other observers told Catholic News Service.
“Children live in a world in which race structures every part of their day, from where they live to where they worship and go to school,” said Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University. “It’s hard to make a case for Catholic social teaching when a young person looks around them and sees it’s not being lived out in everyday life.”
Chatelain called on the church to understand that it has a unique opportunity in the wake of events Aug. 13 in Charlottesville, Virginia, to address racial justice. “I hope that they understand that change isn’t going to be delivered,” she said.
Saying there is an “urgent need” to address the subject, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Aug. 23 launched an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, chaired by Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, one of the American church’s African-American bishops.
The step followed the violence in Charlottesville in which white supremacist and anti-racist factions clashed. One person was killed and dozens were injured by an alleged neo-Nazi supporter who is accused of driving his car into a group of people opposing a white supremacist rally in the city.
Catholic educators and counselors who work with children also stressed multiple approaches to engage kids and their parents.
Child psychologist Joseph White said that while children are not naturally racist, they are prone to ask questions. “When kids express curiosity about people who look different from them, affirm that curiosity by listening and asking questions,” said White, who is also a national catechetical consultant for Our Sunday Visitor.
Teachers should take care to emphasize cultural similarities as well as differences, White advised. “Kids need to recognize that we share things as well if they are to recognize our common humanity,” he said.
Because many parishes include different ethnic groups who celebrate the Mass in their own language, it’s easy for communities to be segregated, he added.
“One of the things we can do to bridge some of those barriers is to hold an event attended by everyone together,” said White, who suggested parents consider taking their children to Mass in another language in their parish or even to visit another parish that embraces cultural traditions they have not experienced.
In the Diocese of San Diego, Bishop Robert W. McElroy told an interfaith rally against bigotry Aug. 18 that he had asked diocesan staff offices to collaborate on an educational module for children and young adults that would address the “Charlottesville moment.”
John Galvan, director of the diocese’s Office of Schools, said parents are the primary educators of their children, so it is important to use this time in a polarized country to educate parents on the basics of Catholic social teaching and human dignity.
Galvan said Bishop McElroy noted that he was concerned that many young people were among the crowd of neo-Nazi and white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville.
“Social ethics and personal moral behavior is part of the fabric of most Catholic schools in terms of the curriculum and already part of our standards,” he said. “It’s a matter of us realigning the standards to capture the moment.”
Galvan added that he was working with school principals as the new academic year started to redirect already existing resources and adapt materials into the new module that addresses the meaning and causes of racism.
Though teaching on human dignity is already incorporated into diocesan curricula, “we’re trying to utilize this unfortunate incident to allow students to reflect on how we should respond according to Catholic social teacher and how to recognize Christ in the other person,” said Maria “Marioly” Galvan, director of the diocese’s Office for Evangelization and Catechetical Ministry. “Our hope is that by having a clearer picture and awareness they can respond in a charitable way, living their faith.”
Educators and consultants also told CNS it is important for children to see other cultures and races represented in books, movies and other media.
“I always try to choose curriculum materials and texts to be inclusive,” explained Erin O’Leary, director of faith formation at the Church of the Holy Name, in Minneapolis, who has three decades of experience working as an educator in schools and parishes. “I want every child to look at our materials and see examples of people who look like them.”
In the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, conversations about how to support students who might be the target of bigotry because they are immigrants were spurred by the 2016 presidential election, said John Andrews, diocesan director of communications. The diocese is more than 65 percent Hispanic and undoubtedly includes students and young people with family members who are in the country without authorization, he said.
“Teachers needed to be sensitive to that, and to make sure that no student whose parents may have voted differently said something hurtful,” he told CNS.
Ministers, parish employees and Catholic school teachers in the San Bernardino Diocese are required to take part in its Building Intercultural Competencies program, which started in 2011. The pilot project is being expanded to include parish catechists and volunteers, he said.
Teachers play an important role in addressing any potential bias shown by children, added White. “One of the things that teachers need to do is to act very decisively if they see children showing signs of racism or discriminating against other kids because of difference,” he said.
What children learn at home can play a big role in the attitudes they bring to school, say these experts.
If parents don’t feel equipped to reflect with their children on the current racist climate, one in which many people are not valued or not treated with dignity, they might consider reaching out to other parents for help, and reflecting and reading on the topic, suggested Chatelain of Georgetown University.
Such efforts are part of a larger conversation about faithful Catholics and “will raise our more diverse younger generation … to be leaders and to collaborate across cultural and racial lines,” White said.
“The Catholic message is that there is room at the table for everyone, not as a threat, but as gift. That’s what we need to be passing on to our children.”