Black Catholics offer insight on addressing racism


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Catholics of color living in or near the Diocese of Davenport express hope that the U.S. Catholic bishops’ commitment to fight racism will put words into concrete action.

The USCCB announced last week the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in response to the hatred and violence festering across the nation. The white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month brought the issue of racism to a head.

“I’m glad we’re addressing it,” said Shirleen Martin, a retired education administrator and member of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport. “We need to, after Charlottesville. It’s not just ugly for black people; it’s ugly for all Americans.” The U.S. bishops’ words need to be followed by action, added Martin, who serves on the executive committee of the Davenport NAACP (National Association for the Advance­ment of Colored People).


Martin remembers being the only black female at Assumption High School, Class of 1966. She got along well with her classmates at school and made great friends. “But I didn’t feel the atmosphere was always inclusive.” Black people and white people need to get to know one another, she said.

Chris Whitt, associate professor of political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., hopes the bishops will collaborate with experts on racism, “people who have done scholarly work on the issue.” Get input from larger, diverse dioceses and other faith groups that have experience in race relations and working for social justice, added Whitt, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island.

Jim Collins, a retired Deere & Company executive and member of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, is “proud of our Catholic Church and all it has done over the years on the issue of race and racism.” Catholics marched in solidarity with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in the 1960s and the local church was involved in social justice even before that.

“I’m proud of our bishops for saying that was yesterday and this is today and we still have issues to address,” Collins continued. “This issue gets resolved or more resolved by what we do individually and through our faith make happen on a daily basis. We can convene thousands and thousands of people, but the question is, ‘What do I do tomorrow?’”

Many churches, not just the Catholic Church, “become silos in that they’re only looking out for themselves,” Martin said. You’ve got to step out of your parish. You have to step outside of your silo…. The Word of God tells us to help our neighbors, to help our brothers.”

“Oftentimes black people and white people ‘talk past each other’” concerning the issue of racism, Whitt observed. “White people assume that racism refers to racial epithets or to hate groups while black people think in terms of institutional racism” such as being followed through a store because you’re black.

Hispanics and other people of color also experience racism. When the Columbus Junction varsity girls’ basketball team headed to Mediapolis for a game in January, they were greeted with comments like “Go back to the border” written on the white board of the visitors’ locker room. Columbus Junction is a community with a strong Hispanic presence. In response, members of the diverse team said they hoped to bring awareness to the racism issue in a positive way.

Whitt encourages people to step up and speak out in their circles of influence against racism and for social justice. Consider participating in Friends of MLK, a Davenport-based organization, Martin said. The organization aims to empower and encourage the practice of civil and human rights for all races, colors and creeds as exemplified by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Racial diversity in the Catholic Church is growing – largely because of the influx of Hispanic Catholics – but some people of color view the Catholic Church as a white church, Whitt said. As a cradle Catholic who is married and the father of a newborn, Whitt chooses to remain in the Catholic Church because “it’s my church. I feel a sense of ownership in the Catholic Church. I feel I can help make it better. I feel I can be an agent of change.”

Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week, Collins said. Yet, “many of us, if not most of us, do something faith–based and we address this issue in our church and yet we address it segregated. What do we do when we go back to work the next day, or to the gym or even in our own neighborhoods? What are we doing to interact with people? To say, ‘Hi, I’m your neighbor?’”
Consider asking your neighbor over for a meal, Collins said, or inviting your neighbor to your church.

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