Raising awareness about racism: Catholics in two small Iowa towns open their hearts to study

Members of St. Mary Parish-West Point and St. Boniface Parish-Farmington met on Zoom for a five-session study and reflection on “Open Wide Our Hearts, the Enduring Call to Love.” Pastor Father Dennis Hoffman, upper right, led the study.


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

People of color represent a tiny percentage of the population in West Point (97.4% white) and Farmington (98% white), two small towns in the southern tier of the Diocese of Davenport. The communities did not experience the protests against racism held elsewhere in the diocese and across the nation this year, provoked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody May 25 in Minneapolis.

However, racism is ingrained in American culture, and Father Dennis Hoffman, pastor of St. Mary Parish in West Point and St. Boniface Parish in Farmington, thought his parishioners would benefit from discussion and education about it. He organized a five-session Zoom video conference to study and reflect on “Open Wide Our Hearts, the Enduring Call to Love,” a pastoral letter on racism by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Part­icipants met Wednesday nights at 7 p.m., with the concluding session held Nov. 11.

“What is the relationship between evangelization and racism?” Father Hoffman asked, posing a question from the study guide for the final session. A group of eight, participating in the Zoom conference, reflected on the question. “Witnessing,” someone said. “We have to speak out; we can’t remain silent” to racism, Father Hoffman added. “Even though it’s hard, we may have to walk with people we may not like. We can help them out by giving them the right information.”


One participant expressed frustration with protests that resulted in violence and destruction of property. “They need to be more like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the participant said. “We need to listen to each other” and to be re­spectful in disagreement,” Father Hoffman said.

How is fighting racism part of missionary discipleship? How will an encounter with Christ help individuals combat racism? “Reaching out,” said Joseph Moran, a member of St. Mary Parish who participated in the sessions with his wife, Becky. “Walk the talk.… The church isn’t just the four walls.”

Moran, who grew up in Illinois, shared with the group that his older brother married a Black woman. During a later interview with The Catholic Messenger, Moran, who served as best man at the wedding, said his biggest concern focused on how his parents might react to his brother’s marriage. “My mom, I think, had the hardest time with it,” Moran said. “She did come to love her (daughter-in-law).”

Living in an insulated community makes it difficult to figure out how to engage with people of color when nearly everyone is white, Moran said of the community where he and Becky live now. “We need to be inclusive. The Catholic Church is a universal church; it’s meant to be universal.”

Father Hoffman mentioned during the final session that he had participated in the 21-Day Equity Challenge of Central Iowans, an experience he found enlightening and challenging. “It brought in a lot of history,” he said. The challenge now is to figure out what to do with what he learned.

He and the group concluded their discussion by responding to the following question: What are the three most critical actions that should be taken in the wider society? Among the responses — end racism internally, be friendly and speak up when you witness racism. Within the larger society, the group suggested advocating Congress to make laws stick, get to the root causes of racism and bring about change as a nation. At the grassroots level, write letters to the editor, and spread the message of racial justice on billboards in town.

“My goal was to get our parishes to dialogue about racism and to see what we can do in our parish and community to help stop racism,” Father Hoffman told the Messenger. “And to look for ways to help spread the word in our surrounding area. And, advocate for change.”

He invited parishioners to participate through the Growing in Faith Together (G.I.F.T.) adult learning sessions. Those who participated “grasped the seriousness of the issue and were open to ideas and to look at changing some of our behaviors and attitudes regarding racism.”

Where do you go from here? “We are looking at how we can become more active on the state level and getting people to look at the many ways we can help the Iowa Catholic Conference on issues, and how we can advocate for change in our state and national government,” Father Hoffman said.

“We did talk about ways to get our state government to look deeper into this issue, as well as get Congress to look at the issues. We need them to look seriously at the issues and change laws at the top before people will act on the state level. But, we see it works both ways as well.”

Resources on racism and racial justice

On Dec. 3, Thomas Mason IV, St. Martin de Porres Society’s president, will talk about the history and role of the society during the Lunch and Learn session of the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Office. The event begins at noon via Zoom video conference (link to join meeting on smartphone, tablet or computer: http://bit.ly/DioDavVoicesLL).

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

Iowa Department of Human Rights:

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

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

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/

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