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Listening session acknowledges the pain of racism

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In the 1950s, Charlottesville’s black and white residents didn’t go to the same restaurants. They didn’t use the same bathrooms. They sat in different places on the bus. Their children went to different schools. There was a black Catholic church and a white Catholic church. President Dwight Eisenhower had to use federal troops to integrate the public high school in 1959. 

“Prejudice is something I’ve seen all my life. It was just the way things were,” said Father Horace H. “Tuck” Grinnell, retired pastor of St. Peter Church in Washington, Va., who was born and raised in Charlottesville. 

Father Grinnell, a white man, was one of the 300 diverse group Catholics who attended the Listening Session on Racism held at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington May 21. In the wake of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for the creation of an ad hoc committee on racism. In November 2018, the bishops issued “Open Wide Our Hearts: the Enduring Call to Love, a pastoral letter against racism.” 

To further address the issue, Houma-Thibodaux Bishop Shelton J. Fabre, chairman of the committee against racism, has been traveling to dioceses around the country holding listening sessions on racism, such as the one in Arlington. He acknowledged that it’s difficult to hear the stories and he knows it must be difficult for speakers to share them. But the encounter is an important and often inspiring one. 

“I have been humbled and I have been amazed at the faith (of those who have experienced racism at the hands of church members.) They acknowledge — this happened to me, it was wrong, it was sinful but I’m not going anywhere and want to help the church to overcome this so that we can be that beloved community,” said Bishop Fabre. “I thank you for your faith and your endurance.”

He was joined at the listening session by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, Bishop Emeritus Paul S. Loverde, Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio and many other clergymen, women religious and laity.

“We know it is a sin to discriminate against a person because of his or her race,” said Bishop Burbidge at the opening of the event. “We pray for an end to racism in all its forms and that our church may reflect the unity we are called to live while respecting the diversity of the members who make up the body of Christ.” After several men and women from the diocese spoke to the bishops and the crowd, participants moved from Burke Hall upstairs to the cathedral to pray. 

Charlottesville and the rest of the Virginia is no longer segregated, said Father Grinnell, but prejudice toward people of other races still exists. “When they marched across the University of Virginia two years ago, do you know what they chanted? Jews will not replace us,” he said. “Antisemitism has gone through the roof.”

He proposed parishes take pilgrimages to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian, then return to their parishes for discussion and a Mass of reconciliation and repentance. “If we don’t do that, what I’ve seen will be all I see,” he said. “Seventy years for me is enough.”

Jim Brown, a black parishioner of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg was a second lieutenant fighting in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The head chaplain of his brigade was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but the junior chaplain was a priest he called Father G. 

“What I found powerful is the way he stood up to racism among the other officers. He spoke truth to power,” said the veteran. “Father G made a point of letting it be known that he was not going to tolerate this kind of prejudice.” He hopes today’s priests can follow Father G’s footsteps by embracing multiculturalism in their own parishes.

Many speakers reflected on racism they experienced at the hands of the fellow Catholics. Harvesta Greene Williams, a black parishioner of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling, believes she was shut out of leadership positions in her home parish because of her race. Williams filled out countless forms to become a lector, and then watched from the pews as others proclaimed the readings.

So she drove 30 miles to a different Catholic church. “That parish treated me as a member of the body of Christ,” she said. “I became a Eucharistic minister, I became a part of the liturgical team, a member of the choir, religious education (teacher) and, yes, finally a lector.”

Williams said understanding God’s love protected her from internalizing the discrimination. From a young age, she was taught she was created in the image and likeness of God, and that humans were given dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth, but not over one another. “Thank God for good parents, because we always knew we were children of God, no matter what the racially prejudiced people would say,” she said.

Santiago Garcia, an immigrant from Caracas, Venezuela, has lived in Northern Virginia since 1990. The parishioner of All Saints Church in Manassas said he hasn’t experienced much racism, but occasionally, he’ll hear comments such as, “Go back to your country.” 

“Those are very hurtful words, especially because a lot of us have not only made the United States our home, but we see her as a loving and adopting mother, and we’re very grateful,” said Garcia. Though he’s able to brush off offensive remarks, he knows it might be harder for others, particularly children. He also knows racism doesn’t affect just one ethnicity. 

“Racism is not a one-sided occurrence. It also happens to white people, folks. Any one of any race can commit an act of racism,” he said. “I encourage everyone in this room to discover the beauty and unlimited uniqueness of Christ in others, especially in those who are different from us — seeing others not through the obsolete human eye but through the holy eyes of our Father and Creator.”

This story has been updated. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019