After 34 years of officially honoring slain civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation still has a long way to go in healing its multi-generational racial divide.
That was the feeling among many of the more than 400 participants at a Jan. 20 archdiocesan interfaith prayer service held at Our Mother of Consolation Parish in Philadelphia.
Archbishop Charles Chaput presided over the celebration, which was sponsored by the Archdiocese’s Secretariat for Evangelization and Office for Black Catholics, as well as local parishes serving the pastoral and spiritual needs of the Black Catholic community.
Building on the U.S. bishops’ November 2018 pastoral letter on racism, the event’s theme was “Open Wide Our Hearts: Our Call to Heal the Racial Divide.” The evening combined prayer, Scripture and reflections, along with performances by several choirs, including the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir, the Faith Chapel Church of Philadelphia Choir, and the Our Mother of Consolation Parish Adult and Youth Choirs.
“Every year we gather, as does the rest of the country, to honor and celebrate (Dr. King’s) legacy, and every year we hear excerpts of his speeches,” said Msgr. Federico Britto, the evening’s homilist. “And yet we are still faced with the same issues Dr. King preached about and died for.”
Msgr. Britto, who serves as pastor of both St. Cyprian and St. Ignatius of Loyola Parishes in Philadelphia, listed a number of such issues, including injustice, social and institutional racism, poverty, homelessness and anti-immigrant policies.
In an apparent reference to the Trump administration’s construction of a multi-billion dollar southern border wall, Msgr. Britto said that there are also “invisible walls being built to assist the wealthy while driving out the poor.”
He cited urban gentrification as an example, observing that upscale development in several cities is “chasing the poor out of their own neighborhoods.”
“Our cities are focusing on beautiful housing for those who can afford it, and ignoring those who can’t, forcing the poor to move elsewhere or to live on the streets,” said Msgr. Britto.
Although Dr. King’s activism and legacy attracts supporters of numerous faiths, racism persists even among Christians, Msgr. Britto said.
He recounted an incident from his seminarian days, when he answered a knock on his door to find three classmates wearing white pillowcases over their heads in imitation of Ku Klux Klan garb.
As pastor of a newly merged parish, he once received an angry complaint from a parishioner, who accused “those colored people” of closing her former church.
“If we do not begin to find ways to eliminate these sins against people, gathering every year on this day is really a waste of time,” said Msgr. Britto. “It is also going against God’s command to love and respect our brothers and sisters no matter what they look like.”
Capuchin Father Richard Owens, director of the Office for Black Catholics, noted that Dr. King’s “prophetic preaching was rooted in Scripture, in particular the prophetic Christian call to love.”
Several passages of Scripture were proclaimed and reflected upon by area clergy members, including Rev. Albert Ogle of neighboring St. Paul Episcopal Church, Rev. John Graves of Faith Chapel Church of Philadelphia and Rev. Alexander Houston, pastor of Christian Community Baptist Church, who has two children enrolled in Our Mother of Consolation Parish School.
In his welcome, Oblate Father Bob Bozzoli, pastor of Our Mother of Consolation, cited an analogy made by St. Francis de Sales, who likened the church to “a garden patterned with many flowers.”
“That was also the dream of Dr. King,” said Father Bozzoli, who has worked closely with Father Owens to educate students at the parish school in accepting diversity and embracing marginalized groups.
Awareness is the first step in combating racism, said Patricia Sheetz, principal of Our Mother of Consolation Parish School.
“We do a lot of work educating our faculty about unconscious bias, which then translates into education for our children,” she said, stressing that the process can “take a lot of time” since most individuals often don’t realize “the bias they hold in their hearts.”
The virtue of humility is also essential to combating racism, said Deacon Anthony Willoughby, spiritual director for the St. Francis-St. Joseph and St. Vincent Homes, an archdiocesan Catholic Social Services ministry for at-risk teens.
“We just won’t get honest enough to admit our faults and shortcomings, and we’re holding ourselves back,” said Deacon Willoughby, adding that “we’ve got a way to go, but we’re not at the start.”
A number of youth at the prayer service agreed, with students from Our Mother of Consolation Parish School, Archbishop Ryan High School and Mount St. Joseph Academy sharing their thoughts on the significance of the holiday and on the current status of race relations in the U.S.
“If we as Christians had done what Dr. Martin Luther King had dreamed of, we would not be here today,” said Sydney Okeke, who attends Mount St. Joseph.
Okeke added that acknowledging the problem of racism and “recognizing we can fix it” were critical to building a tolerant and just society.
“Racism is still present in my lifetime, but God willing it will not be in the next generation,” said Cameron James, a student at Archbishop Ryan High School, who credited his “strong Catholic faith” with enabling him to confront racism.
“Dr. King’s martyrdom lays bare Christian discipleship,” James said, adding “we must forgive those who choose violence over love.”
Taylor Delli Carpini and Gabrielle Best, both students at Our Mother of Consolation School, said the prayer service was both inspiring and encouraging.
“I feel lucky to be in a very diverse place tonight,” said Delli Carpini, an eighth grader. “We need to work a little harder at having more of these types of events.”
Best, who is in fifth grade, said she enjoyed the opportunity to “celebrate our civil rights and our freedom,” while offering a simple recommendation for addressing the problem of racism.
“Stop the violence,” she said.
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