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Responding to racism means a conversion of heart, says Fr. Scott Woods

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Addressing racism means opening our hearts to an ongoing process of interior conversion as we “strive to see each other first as sons and daughters of God,” said Father Scott Woods, a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington who spoke at the diocesan conference, “Responding to Racism: Understanding, Conversion, Action.”

“Racism has existed for a very long time and is a much larger issue than just here” in the United States, he said, adding that racism exists within all ethnic and racial groups. “It’s not just a social illness, it’s a moral one … at its core, racism is a failure to love our neighbor.”

In his wide-ranging reflections on interior conversion and the actions we can take to change, Father Woods quoted from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” as well as from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., papal statements and even pop culture, such as the Michael Jackson song, “The Man in the Mirror,” which points to where change must begin.

Father Robert C. Cilinski, diocesan Episcopal Vicar of Charitable Works and pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Burke, where the Aug. 25 event was held, welcomed 100 in-person attendees (the cap set for social distancing) and more than 1,100 who tuned in via livestream. He spoke of the diocese’s commitment to working toward change, as well as the American values of freedom, equality, justice and dialogue, cited by Pope Francis in his 2015 speech to Congress.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge noted that conversion means “a turning toward. I turn to you when I encounter you as a person, not a stereotype,” he said. “It is necessary to cooperate, because we fervently desire to build a more just and peaceful world.”

The event was sponsored by diocesan Catholic Charities, the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission and the Office of Multicultural Ministries. Catholic Charities gave copies of “Open Wide Our Hearts” to those attending.

Father Jamie R. Workman, diocesan vicar general, introduced Father Woods, who he said he has known for 20 years. He shared the story that Father Woods, when asked at age 3 what he wanted to be when he grew up, reportedly told his non-Catholic family that he wanted to be a Catholic priest. A convert to Catholicism, he is now pastor of two Southern Maryland parishes, St. Peter Claver Church in St. Inigoes and St. Cecilia Church in St. Mary’s City, as well as assistant vocations director, a high school chaplain and a spiritual director.

“What does it mean to love my neighbor? It means learning to listen, and getting to know more about them,” he said, adding that people who want to work against racism can start with prayer and small actions on a personal level. “We can pray for a metanoia, a change of heart,” in ourselves and in society. “Examine your own conscience, ‘How do I speak about my neighbor?’ ”

We need to “really learn the skill of listening,” he added. “We assume we know what others will tell us, but maybe we don’t understand them. We can work on opening our minds and hearts in a deeper way.” 

He suggested getting to know people and building friendships outside of our own race. “Get to know someone in your parish of another ethnicity or race. Invite them to coffee, or pray together, or invite them to join a parish group,” he said. “Get to know people in your workplace and listen to their stories.”

He said we also can learn about the perspectives of others by reading, watching movies, or going to plays. “Art can help us,” he said, mentioning the 2019 movie “Harriet,” a biography of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

We all need to learn to speak up for each other, Father Woods said, relating an incident that happened when he was a seminarian at the University of Scranton. As he sat in a library cubicle one day, he overheard a group of students talking, and one was making “very racist” comments about a young Muslim woman.

“None of his friends spoke up to say, ‘Stop it.’ But neither did I – I had a fear, and was just frozen,” he said. “We must not cower,” he added. “I feel bad to this day that I said nothing.”

After his talk, Father Woods responded to a number of questions from attendees and sent in by text from those watching the livestream. One questioner asked if racism has improved since Father Woods was a child. “It seems like it’s mutated, and gone ‘underneath,’ but it’s still very much, sadly, there,” he said. “It’s like a virus we just can’t shake.” 

Find out more

To download a copy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” go to:





© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020