October 18, 2019

‘Open wide our hearts’: Local Catholics share experiences of evils of racism at listening session

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson holds a basket containing written accounts of experiences of racism being blessed by Bishop Shelton J. Fabre, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee against Racism, during a listening session on racism held at Marian University in Indianapolis on Sept. 30. Fifteen Catholics from across central and southern Indiana told the stories of their experiences of racism at the event that drew approximately 100 attendees. Holy Cross Brother Roy Smith, center, served as master of ceremonies for the session. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson holds a basket containing written accounts of experiences of racism being blessed by Bishop Shelton J. Fabre, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee against Racism, during a listening session on racism held at Marian University in Indianapolis on Sept. 30. Fifteen Catholics from across central and southern Indiana told the stories of their experiences of racism at the event that drew approximately 100 attendees. Holy Cross Brother Roy Smith, center, served as master of ceremonies for the session. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

It wasn’t easy for Daryl Whitley to stand before a diverse audience of listeners as he prepared to share his experiences of racism.

But he knew that doing so could promote justice and racial healing. So, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Whitley told the group of roughly 100 people his story of experiencing racism as a teen during a sporting event 40-some years ago.

Sharing the experience “was pretty liberating and kind of helped me to heal a little bit, because I normally don’t talk about this,” said Whitley, a black Catholic who is a member of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis. “I’ve never had to write it down and actually read it and share it with a large group of people, especially a diverse group of people.

“I was a little reluctant at first, but the Holy Spirit was there to help me to get through that.”

The group he addressed included teenagers, senior citizens and people of ages in between; black, Hispanic and Caucasian Catholics; lay persons, religious and ordained, including three bishops.

All were gathered on Sept. 30 at Marian University in Indianapolis for a listening session on racism.

Whitley was one of a group of 15 Catholics from across central and southern Indiana to tell their stories of racism at the listening session. Each related how racism has affected them in schools, the business world and sports events, as well as in the Church.

Participants from a Caucasian background also testified to how they have witnessed and been affected by discrimination against racial and ethnic groups.

The event was co-sponsored by the archdiocesan offices of Human Life and Dignity and Intercultural Ministry in coordination with the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee against Racism.

The committee was established in 2017 in response to racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August of that year and earlier racial strife in Ferguson, Mo., St. Louis, Baltimore and Chicago.

The committee’s chairman, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana, attended the session along with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson and Bishop Joseph N. Perry, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Bishop Fabre encouraged those attending the session to read and study “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the 2018 pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops on racism.

At the start of the event, Bishop Fabre also reflected on the purpose of the listening session and of others held across the country, saying they can help the bishops “grow in our understanding of the aching pain of communities affected by racism and aching bewilderment of people who sometimes feel powerless to do something about it, or wonder if they are unknowingly a part of the problem.”

“It is our prayer that we, as the Catholic Church, will not listen without being changed, that we will no longer see without being called to action,” Bishop Fabre said. “It is our hope that these listening sessions will be a part of an intentional decision on the part of dioceses in the country to continue or to begin to deal with the evil of racism.”

The listening session wasn’t simply a time for people to come forward to share their stories. It was also a spiritual event, beginning and ending with prayer. And in between the stories, a choir from St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis led those attending in singing “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”

Pearlette Springer, archdiocesan coordinator of Black Catholic Ministry, reflected afterward that “the environment changed” once the participants started sharing their stories.

“It was almost like a sadness that this [racism] actually happened,” she said.

Hearing the other stories and speaking with those attending the listening session was helpful for Whitley.

“What gives me hope is if one heart can be touched at a time and then that one person takes action,” he said. “I had a gentleman from Columbus come up to me afterward and said he was inspired by what I said. Then he told me what he’s trying to do to help battle … racism.”

Some of the stories told during the listening session related the experiences of discrimination against Hispanics in the U.S.

Saul Llasca, archdiocesan coordinator of Hispanic ministry, was glad that a diverse group of storytellers took part in the listening session.

“It was a reality check,” he said in an interview with The Criterion. “Sometimes I don’t know about the suffering of my African-American brothers and sisters. Sometimes, we see our struggles and issues, but we don’t see what is going on in our neighbors’ house. So, it was a good thing to experience this tonight all together, to see what things are going on in our lives, what things as a society we should improve.”

At the end of the listening session, the written accounts of experiences of racism shared by those in attendance were collected and brought forward in a basket.

Bishop Fabre then asked God in prayer “that your Spirit descend upon these written cries for justice and peace. Envelop them, these hearts that are burning for love, burning for understanding, burning for justice, burning for healing and forgiveness.”

He also prayed that God might “ignite in all of us and open wide our hearts to hearing the stories of one another and to seeking to overcome racism as it continues to wound the family that you call together as one.”

Archbishop Thompson and Bishop Fabre also offered a response to the stories shared at the listening session.

The courage and thoughtfulness of the speakers at the event impressed Archbishop Thompson.

“Amid the sadness and woundedness of what we heard, we also heard passion and compassion,” he said. “Those who spoke did not speak out of despair or bitterness, but out of a great sense of hope and trust in the grace of God and what is possible for us as the family of God.”

Bishop Fabre encouraged those attending to take action against racism and assured them that all the stories told and shared in writing would be given to the members of the Ad Hoc Committee against Racism.

“Whenever I go to these listening sessions, I always say that the stories that are shared are sacred,” he said. “And I am deeply grateful for those who have, in some instances, opened up their hearts to places where only they’ve allowed God to walk thus far in their pain.”
 

(To read “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the 2018 pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops on racism, and for resources to help promote justice and racial harmony, go to www.usccb.org/racism.)


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