Addressing racism takes prayer, action and courage

Lindsay Steele
Mandela Washington Fellowship participants from the University of Iowa in Iowa City sing “Hold On to Love” during a Juneteenth prayer service June 14 at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

CORALVILLE — Members of St. Thomas More Parish say their annual Juneteenth prayer service is more relevant today than it was in 2020. “It feels like we need to do it even more every year,” said Karen Grajczyk-Haddad, a member of the parish’s Racial Equity Initiative (REI).

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked the Black Lives Matter movement — and the formation of the REI — but racially charged discrimination and violence continues, she said. Recently, 10 Black individuals lost their lives in a racially charged shooting in Buffalo, New York. “We hope this evening will inspire action and continued prayers.”

Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration of the ending of slavery in the U.S. and became a national holiday last year. It has grown into an opportunity to celebrate African-American culture.


More than 70 people attended this year’s event and the parish ran short of printed programs. “It’s a wonderful sign,” Father Chuck Adam, the parish’s pastor, told participants. During the prayer service, REI members offered prayer intentions and members of the Congolese choir from St. Mary Parish in Iowa City sang “We Are One in the Spirit” in Congo’s official language, French. “This activity and the song go together,” said choir member Josephine Wala. “We are talking about peace and unity.”

Participants heard the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and an excerpt from an interview of Father Bryan Massingale, a Black priest and author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.” “There’s always going to be a cost to speaking out,” said REI member Pam Bourjaily, quoting Father Massingale. “We are people of conviction, but if we don’t have courage, (we) won’t translate that conviction into action.”

Father Adam offered a prayer. “God of heaven and earth, you created one human family and endowed each person with great dignity. Aid us, we pray, in overcoming the sin of racism. Grant us your grace in eliminating this blight from our hearts, our communities, our social and civil institutions. Fill our hearts with love for you and our neighbor so that we may work with you in healing our land from racial injustice.”

Twenty-four Mandela Washington Fellowship participants from the University of Iowa attended the prayer service.

Lindsay Steele
Members of the Congolese choir from St. Mary Parish in Iowa City sing at a Juneteenth prayer service June 14 at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville.

Parishioner Dimy Doresca, their advisor, told The Catholic Messenger that the summer fellowship attracts young leaders from sub-Saharan Africa who want to build business and entrepreneurial skills, make connections and learn about American culture. He said racism exists in some African countries, such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, but economic discrimination is more common. He thought the Juneteenth service would be a good learning experience for the fellows.

Fellow Thulise Mhlanga of Zimbabwe viewed the event as “a conscious effort to acknowledge that racism still exists and how individuals can get rid of it.” Getting there will be difficult, “but at least the effort is there.”

REI member Mary Lu Callahan closed the service by leading a call to action. “We have so much work to do,” she told the assembly.

An international food fair followed the service. Parishioners celebrated their diverse backgrounds by making dishes including cassava cake, pupusas, Greek salad, fried chicken and jollof rice. Columbian immigrant Maricela Hernandez brought empanadas to the fair. “I wanted to bring Latin-American flavor to the party,” she said, noting that the fair was “a nice way to build community around the table.”

REI member Fernand Bila, a Black immigrant from Burkina Faso, shared fried plantains (similar to bananas). He couldn’t find plantains of the ideal ripeness locally because they are less common in the United States. He thought they might not have the right texture, but that was not a problem.

The Juneteenth service “means a lot” to Bila as does the opportunity to regularly dialogue with Catholics from other backgrounds. “I think people need to hear from us and we need to hear from them. Issues happen when people don’t talk. When we talk to each other, we can build bridges.”

Racial Equity Initiative

Members of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville formed the Racial Equity Initiative (REI) in 2020 to explore the topic of racism and to commit to being an inclusive church and parish. Member Mary Lu Callahan said that until American Catholics understand the history of racism in the U.S. and in the Church, “we cannot make it better.”

The group is diverse, with white individuals and individuals of color coming together to participate in and promote book studies, share ideas and work toward solutions. REI member Kim Novak said awareness events, like the Juneteenth prayer service, are good first steps but action must follow. “We’re trying to figure out every day what that is.”

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