CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CNS) — Just over five months after a violent white supremacy rally shook Charlottesville — and the nation — to its core, more than 80 area Catholics gathered to discuss racism and how to face it, dismantle it and advance toward equality for all.
“The sin of racism is that it attempts to deny certain individuals’ image and likeness of God,” said Greer Gordon, a theologian, activist and retired departmental director of the Office of Evangelization for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “We have never had such revelations from God in Scripture. We have to be able to stand in front of people and witness to this. Like Paul, we must be courageous.”
She spoke at “Grappling With the Sin of Racism” Jan. 20 at the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, in the Diocese of Richmond. The Church of the Holy Comforter and Casa Alma, a Catholic Worker community, co-sponsored the event, which included prayer, speakers and discussions.
Laura and Steve Brown, co-founders of Casa Alma, first considered the idea of a racism conference last year, after a local Ku Klux Klan rally in July, followed by the white supremacy rally in August.
In response, the Browns and others designed a day that would include calls to action — for everyone. The program stated: “Together we will seek ways to better witness to God’s love in the present and build a more just future.”
Eric Martin, a Charlottesville resident and graduate student in theology at Fordham University, echoed that sentiment.
“I’m gratified that so many people came today, but this is just the start,” said Martin, who marched with Charlottesville religious leaders at the August rally. “We need many more people to be involved — not just our Catholic clergy, but all of us.”
The event drew members from the two sponsoring parishes as well as from other area churches, and some from Waynesboro and Lynchburg as well.
“I wanted to expand my boundaries today,” said Jamie Ballenger, a member of the Dominican laity chapter at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville.
She described the two beams of the Christian cross: One is vertical, that goes from heaven to earth, and one is horizontal, that goes out to each other. “It’s not a cross without both. If we’re called to be ‘in the world and not of the world,’ then we can’t be afraid.”
Juanita Maher, a parishioner at Church of the Incarnation and a native of Puerto Rico, said the scars of discrimination, which she has experienced, can remain for many years. She also sees the effects of bias as a Legion of Mary member who ministers to needy people on the street.
“Today opened up some wounds for me and made me cry,” she said. “It’s important for us to understand what others go through. That’s the First Commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Working together, with everyone doing their part, is the key. Gordon noted that while Catholics need to support the clergy in their efforts, they also must not wait to follow the call for justice. “Here in Charlottesville, this is your solace: You are one in Christ, and you are supported by the whole universal church,” she said.
Nichole Flores, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, spoke on the need for unity. “We are one family but many of our members are suffering,” she said.
Quoting the late Sister Thea Bowman, Flores continued, “The majority of people in the Catholic Church are people of color. The majority of people in the world are people of color.” Sister Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration from Canton, Mississippi, was nationally known for her work to advance the life of her fellow black Catholics in the church.
Catholics must remember the rich tradition of activism in their church, Flores said, noting the “prayerful engagement” of the Catholic religious sisters who marched in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
“This requires perseverance and faith in the vision of a world transformed by Christ, a world where all people can thrive,” she said.
Several attendees said the challenge in divisive times is learning how to speak up in everyday situations.
“Going out to demonstrate is not the hardest way to challenge racism,” Gordon said. “The hardest way is to sit at your Thanksgiving table talking with your wayward uncle, or the people you play bridge with. We teach racism at our dinner tables.
She added, “We have to be people of courage, not of conflict.”
At the end of the day, participants were offered opportunities to get involved in fighting racism immediately, including a look at black liberation theology; conversations on the Anglo-Hispanic divide in the Catholic Church; an exploration of local black Catholic history; book, film, music and other arts-related discussions; and prayer groups.
“Clearly, we’re on an ongoing journey and there are many communal steps we can take,” said Laura Brown. “It’s about who we are meant to be as a church together.”
Adams writes for The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond.