Reflections on race and the Catholic Church


By Keith Soko

I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee. The area I lived in was mostly of Polish descent. I don’t believe that I knew a student who was Black until I was in high school. It was an all-boys Catholic high school, and, unlike the stereotype, the few Black students who were there turned out to not be very good athletes, which they heard about often. When I was in grade school, I remember when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. I remember relatives saying “Good! He was a troublemaker!” Whites did not generally have a clue what Blacks were going through.


I remember Father James Groppi, a white priest of Italian descent, who was helping lead civil rights marches with African Americans in Milwaukee. The city has a number of viaducts or bridges that cross over the industrial valley from downtown to the then predominantly white south side. Father Groppi was going to help lead marches across the viaduct. I remember neighbors saying, “If they come over here, I’m getting my guns out.” This was Milwaukee in the 1960s, not Mississippi.

Father Groppi and other priests and nuns throughout the country were involved in civil rights marches and protests, but they received a lot of flak for it from Catholics. I remember parishioners getting upset when some of the priests and nuns would discuss social justice issues. However, that vision of Catholicism would strongly influence me.

Father Groppi received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award from the Diocese of Davenport and St. Ambrose University in 1968. He eventually left the priesthood and became a bus driver in Milwaukee. His vision of the Gospel was influenced by Vatican II and a developing liberation theology that focused on the poor and marginalized.

African American theologian Peter Paris has argued that the Catholic Church usually only deals with the issue of race on an implicit level, when it is talking about poverty and justice overall, but rarely explicitly. Father Bryan Massingale, an African American priest and scholar, addresses this and other concerns in his excellent text “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.”

One issue involved with race and gender is affirmative action. Theologian Daniel Maguire addresses it in his text “Case for Affirmative Action.” Maguire describes a scenario where people are gathered to run a race. Some of the people have balls and chains on their legs; some do not. The race begins. Obviously, those weighed down fall behind. At some point in the race, people say to take off the balls and chains. Now, some would say, it is equal. However, it is not since they are way behind. They need some “affirmative action,” as President John F. Kennedy coined the term, to bring them up to the playing field. That is why, when people say things such as, “I don’t see race” or “don’t include it on the application” or “all lives matter,” they perceive it as being fair. However, they are not accounting for years of oppression that has kept certain groups marginalized and behind in our society.

Maguire also likens it to being a parent. When one of your children is sick, that child receives the extra attention until getting better. Things such as affirmative action respond to those marginalized groups that have the greater need in overcoming what Maguire calls “unfair monopolies.” The key to it all is diversity. If we live in a diverse society, then our social institutions should reflect that diversity. Catholic Social Teaching has argued for systemic change when social structures and institutions are unjust.

Over the past year, many of us have stayed home from live rallies because of concerns with COVID-19. Yet, the Black Lives Matter movement flourished. I was impressed to see young people from around our community, in cities and rural areas, leading and attending these rallies. Now, Black lives and people of color are not just “those people.” They are our friends, our spouses, our children, our neighbors, our co-workers, our colleagues, our parishioners; they are us.

While the Catholic Church may not be an ideal model of diversity on some counts, it is on others, in that it is a global institution. Pope Francis has emphasized more than ever that the Catholic Church is a global church, not a white European church that needs to concern itself with the poor and marginalized. Catholic Social Teaching offers key principles to help our institutions to reflect on diversity, to bring structural change where needed, and to work for social justice, which includes racial justice.

(Keith Soko, Ph.D., is a Professor of Moral Theology and Religious Ethics at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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St. Thomas More introduces Racial Equity Initiative

St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville presented a Stations of the Cross focusing on racism March 19.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

CORALVILLE — A Prayer Vigil to End Racism, held last summer at St. Thomas More Parish, inspired creation of its Racial Equity Initiative, an ongoing effort to learn about racism and a commitment to being an inclusive church and parish. This year’s Lenten activities introduced the initiative to parishioners and the broader community.

The initiative evolved after the prayer vigil, organized in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in police custody, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed. The Pastoral Council, in turn, “wanted members to have an ongoing focus and conversation about the topic of racism and how it relates to our Catholic faith,” said Pastoral Council member Karen Grajczyk-Haddad.

A small committee explored how to provide the parish with learning opportunities about racism to better fulfill the parish commitment to being an inclusive church and a parish for all seasons, she said. Committee members Fernand Bila, Terry Conner, Grajczyk-Haddad, Kim Novak and Shirley Schneider have developed a webpage of activities and resources. They facilitate study and organize events.

The Lenten activities demonstrate how the Racial Equity Initiative interweaves learning opportunities into the life of the parish. Among the activities was Stations of the Cross focused on overcoming racism and helping individuals, families and communities to reflect on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” 

Other Lenten offerings: a weekly, virtual gathering to pray, listen, study, reflect and respond to difficult questions related to the Catholic faith and racial equality, and encouragement to learn about and support minority-owned businesses and nonprofits. The study, based on “‘Open Wide Our Hearts,’ averages around 50 participants,” Grajczyk-Haddad said. “We’re going to keep offering this quarterly.”

“Too often issues of importance such as racism become hot topics but often lose the attention of the community or by those not directly impacted,” said Schneider, who serves on the Pastoral Council and co-chairs the initiative with Grajczyk-Haddad. Schneider encouraged the council “to make a more concerted effort to address racist beliefs, attitudes or behaviors within our own parish community and by extension in the communities we live.”

Schneider values the ideas and input of the initiative’s committee members. “St. Thomas More is a growing faith community with diverse members. It is important that we are a welcoming and safe environment for all who may come to worship at our parish.”

Grajczyk-Haddad is realistic about the initiative, saying it will take years of hard work to provide healing. “We would like to provide opportunities for personal growth (book studies, discussion groups), parish growth (assisting each of our parish commissions with resources to become better equipped to deal with the often hidden manifestations of racism), and community growth (including ways we can all work together to address systemic racism).

She believes the Catholic Church needs to be more explicit in “messaging on racial injustice and how we as people of faith need to prioritize it as an issue of life and human dignity. I am proud to be a part of a parish that believes anti-racism work should be a priority. I hope other parishes will replicate this.”

Committee members Novak and Bila share the committee’s hope for response to the initiative:

• Raise awareness. “We don’t often consider ourselves ‘racist,’ but are unaware of the experiences of others, history, and systemic racism that we are all complicit in. Culturally, we have to acknowledge that ‘Iowa Nice’ often means we are not being authentic with others and ourselves. We have ‘to see’ and hear the stories of our brothers and sisters first to be able to really understand where people are hurting.”

• Create a heart-centered desire to honor the dignity of all others that leads to action. “How do we move toward the culture of loving-acceptance that Jesus modeled? ‘The Beloved Community.’”

• Help people gain confidence and courage to lead needed changes.

• Provide a platform for people of color to share their experience on racism, lack of diversity in the Catholic Church, and to find resources for healing and renewal/strengthening of their faith.

Father Chuck Adam, St. Thomas More pastor, said he appreciates several things about the initiative. “First, that it came about after Pastoral Council discussions that focused on what people were feeling after a contentious summer with the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. I appreciate that the discussions have been led by parish members and that an atmosphere of trust was created so that individuals could share how they have wrestled with racist attitudes from others and from within their own hearts. And, I appreciate that the reflection has been based on an important document from our U.S. bishops’ conference.”

“While this discussion series ends with Lent, there really is no ending point when it comes to being an ever more inclusive parish,” Father Adam said.

“That work is ongoing. One example of how the discussion is bearing fruit is that a consciousness about cultural inclusiveness has entered our planning for a new worship space. Ideas have surfaced about multicultural devotional images and depictions of saints who represent the heritage and races of minority parish members.”

To learn more
For more information about St. Thomas More Racial Equity Initiative, visit the webpage ( All are welcome to participate in activities.

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The meaning of ‘sass’ in the lives of the oppressed


By Lisa Powell

I recently asked students to explore Jesus’ claim that he came “to proclaim release to the captives.” We considered the imprisonment of Peter, John and Silas and the fact that at least 40% of Paul’s letters were written from jail. Despite these examples, some found it difficult to hold together the imprisonment of saints and the experience of inmates in the U.S. prison system.


The saints were imprisoned not simply because they were Christian in a pagan empire, but because they were defiant. The empire required their submission, demanded that they hang their heads and meekly obey: marry this person, make this sacrifice, take this pledge; but the saints rebelled. They refused to deny what they knew to be true.

Similarly, when Black, brown and indigenous people demonstrate their commitment to their God-given worth and dignity in the face of systems that would deny it, they are penalized, sometimes with citations or arrests, often with demotions and dismissals. Black people are still punished for resisting the empire logics that demand Black deference to whiteness, that require a form of tribute, extracted in fear and humiliation: pulled over again, searched again, followed again. In shopping malls, classrooms and boardrooms, on sidewalks and streets.

People are arrested for refusing to hang their head low in submission, for boldly looking someone in the eyes, for daring to disagree, for speaking their rights, declaring their innocence or naming the injustice. People are jailed for defying the structures that demand they give deference in spite of injustice, a deference not dissimilar from the days of an extracted “yes massa” to any and all demands.

At age 16, Kalief Browder was falsely accused of stealing a backpack, but spent three years in jail awaiting trial because his family couldn’t raise the $3,000 bail required. He refused to be bullied into the false confession of a plea deal; he wanted his innocence vindicated. Browder was beaten frequently by inmates, resulting in the psychological torture of two years in solitary confinement.

Not long before the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence or witnesses, he was offered immediate release for admission of guilt to two misdemeanor offenses. Still he refused. He would not take a plea that denied the truth of what had occurred: he was an innocent Black teenager arrested out of convenience and forgotten in jail. The system got him still, the damage was done; he died within a few years of his release. People who die because they stand up for their humanity, their God-given dignity in the face of brutal and persistent persecution are surely martyrs.

In 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland drove from Chicago to Texas, excited to start work at her alma mater. The day after her arrival, a police officer pulled her over for failure to signal a lane change as she moved into the empty right lane to allow him to pass. While he processed her citation in his car, she lit a cigarette, stressfully awaiting a ticket she couldn’t afford. When he returned, he asked her why she looked upset; she told him, not disrespectfully, but flatly. She didn’t speak in obsequious tones, which clearly irritated him. He told her to put out her cigarette. She refused, saying there is no law against smoking in your own car. This was too much, and he ordered her out of the car, which she also refused. He tried to drag her from the car and repeatedly put his Taser in her face, saying he would light her up. She stepped out of the car and once out of camera range, he forced her to the ground. She died in prison three days later, having been unable to secure the $5,000 cash bail set for her release or the $500 she would have to relinquish to a bail bond company.

Biblical scholar Mitzi Smith identifies Sandra Bland’s response to the officer as “sass,” which she describes as “verbal and nonverbal gestures of defiance and resistance.” Sass can be back talk or nonverbal action “like placing one’s hands on one’s hips, rolling one’s eyes.” Sass is a term historically applied to women (or children) who step out of line, who speak when silence is expected, particularly if the recipient is a man. It is a demonstration of one’s self-knowledge: of one’s worth, intelligence, competence, rights and strength of will.

Smith explains, “For black women, talk-back and/or sass has been and remains in some situations the only means of agency.” Sass carries the risk of retribution, but the absence of sass in the face of dehumanizing experience carries its own risk — internalizing the lies of one’s worthlessness and subjugation.

Sass is a refusal to be bullied into lies against one’s humanity, not dissimilar to the acts that brought martyrdom upon Archbishop Oscar Romero and others in El Salvador arrested and tortured for denouncing the systems that strip the dignity and agency of the poor and indigenous. They died rebelling against dehumanizing forces and in the name of the God of Life.

(Lisa Powell is associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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An eye-opening experience with racism


By Deacon Derick Cranston

“They didn’t like Atticus Finch because he was a (n-word) lover, wasn’t he daddy?” This is what my 10-year old biracial daughter asked me several years ago when I asked her what she thought of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book she was reading in school.

Deacon Cranston

To say it hit me like a jolt would be an understatement. I explained to her as best I could that the n-word was an awful word that bad people call a Black person. She then asked, “Am I a (n-word)?” I was crushed at this point and all I could do was hug her and tearfully say, “No, you are not.”

I am far removed from the effects that racism can have on a person. At least I was until I had to explain a racial slur to my 10-year-old daughter and assure her that it did not define who she was. Now, many of us who have not directly felt the effects of racism are having our eyes opened.

We must keep them open. We must hear the voices of those directly affected by racism, and empathize with the frustration they are feeling. No matter where you are at on the issue of race relations, please try to take time and truly listen.

The act of listening is a skill that has largely been lost in this time of divisiveness. How often do you find yourself focusing on your “comeback” when you disagree with someone, not really paying attention to what that person is saying? I know I have caught myself doing this.

Just watch any news talk show. Often you will find two people trying to talk over each other and it becomes a contest of who can talk louder and longer. They are not talking with each other — only talking at each other.

Sometimes it takes a sudden jolt for us to take note and really listen to what a person is saying. That sudden jolt is happening now, and I ask you, please, to take notice. You may not like what is being said, but please listen with both your mind and your heart.

For as Christ said in Scripture, “Those who have ears to hear, should hear; those who have eyes to see, should see.”

(Deacon Cranston is pastoral associate for St. Mary Parish in Riverside, Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond and St. Joseph Parish in Wellman. He can be reached at

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