Diocesan leaders: learn, pray, act on racism

Barb Arland-Fye
Peaceful protesters walk in Davenport on May 30, calling for an end to racism after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Father Ross Epping’s videotaped message on racism lasts eight minutes and 45 seconds. His message approximates the time that a white police officer in Minn­eapolis anchored his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a black man handcuffed and down on the ground. Floyd desperately insisted he could not breathe, and died. The police officer has been charged with murder.

“Racism and our role in perpetuating it is an unarguable offense. As Catholics, we know that racism goes against who we are. I made the video because we forget it still exists,” said Father Epping, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell.

His message and follow-up call to action are among the responses emerging in the Diocese of Davenport as Catholics and other people of faith examine their individual and collective consciences regarding personal and institutional racism.


Earlier this month, Bishop Thomas Zinkula discussed the issue with the diocesan director of Faith Formation, superintendent of Catholic schools and director of Social Action during a virtual meeting.

“I wanted to know if racism is part of the curriculum. I figured it was addressed at least in a general manner in the context of education on the social teachings of the church. But I wanted to know if teachers and catechists applied those teachings specifically to racism,” the bishop told The Catholic Messenger.

Youths in the diocese “need to know the history of racism in our country. They need to understand what the Church teaches about it. They need to have a sense of the systemic nature of racism as well as implicit bias. They need to encounter, dialogue with, and accompany people of other races, ethnic groups, cultures and religions,” the bishop said.

During the meeting, “we began a discussion and identified some first steps. It will be an organic process. We need to continue to converse about it and collaborate on it. Kent Ferris (Social Action director) offered some helpful resources.”

Don Boucher, director of the Faith Formation office, said racism “is an issue that is important to young people. That whole sense of equality and acceptance for all people is a big thing for the youths.” His office plans to recommend ways in which parishes and families can explore the issue of racism and to provide resources, some of which are on the diocesan website (https://www.davenportdiocese.org/at-home-resources).

Black individuals should be involved in the diocesan process to educate people about racism and parents need to be encouraged to have a conversation on the issue with their children. Those were two important points that emerged from the discussion with the bishop, Boucher said.

The diocese’s Catholic schools “have had policies prohibiting discrimination and racism for decades,” said diocesan Super­intendent Lee Morrison. “We have adopted the K-12 standards for teaching tolerance put forth by the Southern Poverty Law Center. All plans are in place. Our Catholic schools are guided by Catholic Social Teaching, the Catechism of the Cath­olic Church, and our belief in the dignity of the human person.”

However, “the times in our country call for more,” Morrison said. “As leaders of the diocesan Catholic schools we must prayerfully reflect on the question: ‘Have I done enough and has our staff done enough to inform ourselves about racism, its roots, and its historical and current manifestation? Are we using those opportunities when issues arise in our society, our communities, to discuss those issues in our Catholic school classrooms and discern how our Catholic faith and Jesus have taught us to respond?”

Morrison participated in a national webinar June 12 for Catholic school leaders on Catholic schools’ response to systemic racism. He said the first takeaway was the need to listen to one another. A white person and a black person need to hear each other’s stories so that they understand one another better. The second takeaway: “a Catholic school in its entirety should be a safe place” for all students. Educators need to be more aware of how classroom practices affect a diverse student population.

The diocese’s principals will begin examining the U.S. bishops’ 2018 statement on racism to “determine what it is calling us to do,” Morrison said. He also envisions panel discussions with black persons at the local and possibly national level participating.

“Besides highlighting resources available, our office supports programs that help people who have been marginalized respond to the injustices they face,” said Fer­ris of the Social Ac­t­ion office. “Funding community organizing groups can begin to address issues like the disproportionality of African Am­ericans incarcerated, traditional barriers to construction and skilled trade careers, and systemic racism in other sectors of life including education and housing.”

“We absolutely should read every single bishops’ pastoral letter that has been created following every tragic incident of racism that has occurred. They are thoughtful and incredibly pastoral. Merely reading them is not enough. Seeing the root causes of racial injustices through the eyes of those oppressed will allow us to begin to address the collective sin,” Ferris said. “Pursuit of justice, in this instance racial justice, is something people from many different faiths can agree upon.”

Father Epping said his goal in creating a video for his parish was not to make people feel guilty, but to take action. He identified two calls to action:

1. Recognize that “I don’t know it all and that I have so much to learn. That I acknowledge in total humility that I have no idea what my black brothers and black sisters go through on a daily basis.”

2. A willingness to change. “Don’t make change for the sake of change, but change for Christ’s sake.” Be willing to reach out to others.

Young adults are at the forefront in addressing racism, which encourages Father Epping. He said they organize and participate in protests and reach out on social media, sharing insightful resources and short videos that educate about racism.


Resources on racism

The Diocese of Davenport website, which includes Bishop Thomas Zinkula’s 2017 letter on racism, other statements, lesson plans and other resources: https://www.davenportdiocese.org/

Video message from Father Ross Epping, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell: stmarygrinnell.com

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: https://tinyurl.com/hacmrb8

Iowa Catholic Conference: www.iowacatholicconference.org

Iowa Department of Human Rights: www.humanrights.iowa.gov/cas/saa

Book: “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church,” by Father Bryan Massingale  (see amazon.com)

Children’s book: “Everyone Belongs” (see https://tinyurl.com/hacmrb8)

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