STRATFORD — It began as a simple conversation at St. James Parish about racism, a conversation at times unsettling but always illuminating, a conversation between people of different faiths and different ethnic groups. And from that discussion, which focused on the pastoral letter by the U.S. Bishops, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” a group of people from all walks of life gained a deeper understanding of the sin of racism.
The program attracted some 30 participants, who took part in Zoom sessions over seven months. They prayed together, they shared their personal experiences, they meditated and they reflected on topics that sometimes made them uncomfortable. But from that discomfort, they achieved insights into their personal lives and their parish community. John Burlinson, who teaches Black and Latino students in Bridgeport, is personally familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, and the experience at St. James proved enlightening for him.
“I realized I didn’t really know that much,” he said. “I thought I was well-versed in race relations, but this opened a greater dimension of things I wasn’t aware of.”
During the program, people were able to tell personal stories that involved their families, their time in school and incidents they experienced … along with “the things they did or said that they weren’t proud of,” Burlinson said.
“Many of us remembered parents and grandparents saying, ‘We aren’t going to rent the house to any colored people,’” he said. “A lot of people grew up with that, and it is part of the fabric of the American culture.”
The St. James “Open Wide Our Hearts” series was the result of a Foundations in Faith mini-grant made possible through the St. John Paul II Fund for Faith Formation, said Kelly Weldon, director of Foundations in Faith.
“They wanted the funding so they could launch a six-session study on ‘Open Wide Our Hearts,’ the 2018 pastoral letter, which addressed racism as a sin through a Catholic lens,” she said.
For Weldon, St. James Parish was an ideal starting point. “It has beautiful diversity and is made up of many ethnicities and cultures, and they had already begun a discussion on race,” she said.
The materials that were developed for the series are going to be posted on the Diocese’s Leadership Institute resource page so other parishes can borrow them and initiative their own programs.
“Every parish will have a different experience because they will have a different starting off point,” Weldon said. “They have created a real groundswell of interest and a desire to continue this work. Any anti-racism work is a lifelong journey, and the participants at St. James are committed to continuing.”
Weldon says parishes interested in launching their own anti-racism initiative should contact her at email@example.com.
She, herself, has been inspired by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano’s desire “to shine a light on the sin of racism.”
“He is one of the very few bishops who at the time were saying that we must all address this issue,” she said. “He also made a call to action and formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Racism.”
One of the first steps he took was to name Therese LeFever and Angie DeMello, both of whom are St. James parishioners, to the Ad Hoc Committee.
Both women, who originated the St. James program, are involved with CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), which is committed to engaging in conversations and activities about race and equity.
CONECT is a “collective of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and civic organizations from New Haven and Fairfield Counties – representing more than 20,000 people from different races and faith backgrounds who have joined together to take action on social and economic justice issues of common concern,” she said.
A letter inviting parish participation said in part:
“While the Bible and our Catholic teachings have, for centuries, advocated against racism, we, as a faith community and as individuals are challenged with how to uncover and claim it, to talk about it and find a way to become anti-racist – essentially to eradicate it. We are experiencing a national and global spread of racist activity. The news is filled with it: The murder of George Floyd and the many other instances of police brutality; white supremacists driving through crowds of protesters; hate speech on every social media platform. The Black Lives Matter movement has elevated the deep-rooted need in our country to reckon with our history of racism and to change the structures that continue to oppress blacks and other people of color in our society. Racism is NOT genetic; it is a learned behavior – from our value systems, our cultures, our families, society, political administrations… No one is exempt.”
LeFever said the St. James program attracted people of diverse beliefs — Catholics, Jews, Sikhs, Baptists and even atheists.
“This is a lived experience more than a ‘curriculum,’” she said, adding that future sessions will provide bias training and feature a former St. James parishioner who is a neuroscientist and has done research in the field.
LeFever, who is the cochair of CONECT, worked with DeMello on the program, which included, prayer, the meditative practice of Lectio Divina, Gospel and Scripture readings, and study of the bishops’ pastoral letter. The women also consulted with a leadership team from the parish to help formulate the weekly lessons for the larger group.
Participants were giving homework to prepare for the sessions, and then would break into small groups where they were encouraged to share what they learned before returning to the larger group to offer their insights, LeFever said. The sessions ended with a call to action.
“One thing we heard was that there were tensions in the group, and we had to talk about it and sit in that uncomfortableness,” LeFever said. “Some people even admitted, ‘Gee, I didn’t think I was that way.’ The format worked well even though the conversations weren’t always comfortable. But we didn’t want people to feel they were being ostracized or called out.”
LeFever says the desired outcome is for people to take those same conversations into their families and communities while simultaneously asking themselves, “How can I start to be that voice who speaks up for folks without being divisive or making that person feel less than?”
LeFever is the program manager at Burroughs Community Center in Bridgeport, and she previously taught music at St. James and St. Gabriel parishes.
“We are entering into this work, bringing with us all our past,” she says. “‘Reckoning’ is a good word to describe it. How will we individually, and in our parishes and communities, help others to reckon and engage with others over the issue of racism so we can start to heal?”
“Reckoning” is the word used in the pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” …to reckon with the past and come to a truthful space, she says.
“People say all the time, ‘I’m not racist,’ and I believe them,” LeFever said. “But some of the words we have used in the past and our actions are learned. They are part of our environment. We have these preferences — call them biases. How do you reckon with that and say, ‘That’s what my parents taught me because that’s what they grew up with.’ Like being taught to hold tight to my pocketbook when a black man walks down the street or to lock my doors or think a certain way. That doesn’t make my parents bad people. But it is not treating people with the dignity they deserve.”
Entering into this conversation with one’s faith community is especially beneficial, she says, because “more windows are open and you have the knowledge that folks are entering into it with love — and the understanding that we are all sacred and want to get to a place where everybody is also feeling that they are sacred.”
She also believes it is important for priests to be willing to say, “We have to focus on this. We have to make this a priority and completely engage the Church.”
The first step is to have the conversation, and eventually the process should lead to the desire to work for social justice.
“It is great that Bishop Frank is engaged in this,” she said. “It is one of those things you can’t dictate. There has to be a willingness of the people and an intentionality.”
Angie DeMello, who was co-chair of the St. James group, is also active in CONECT and a member of the diocesan Ad Hoc Committee on Racism. She believes their effort was truly the work of the Holy Spirit.
“We put together a leadership team of 10 of us and met and decided on a format,” she recalled. “I am committed to the work I do, and the Holy Spirit is a tremendous facilitator. Our meetings were amazing. I can only tell you it was God’s work being done. It isn’t easy to have this kind of conversation — about how we all played a role in creating this demon of racism.”
She believes that when we fail to talk about racism “we foster that sin.”
“Perhaps it is embedded in us culturally and our family systems,” she says. “It doesn’t really matter. We have all heard it somewhere along the line that we are better than others. The essence of white privilege is that you’re not even aware of it.”
DeMello said that many of the participants cried during the sessions, once they recognized the great divide that separated them.
“Why do we have to have this divide? We acknowledge it implicitly, and then we don’t talk about it … and society has given us permission not to talk about it,” she said. “We are thinking about systemic racism and personal racism and from an individual perspective, each of us has to come to an understanding that we are all racist and we lend to the badness of racism — not necessarily intentionally — and it will take a long time to unravel this fabric.”
The key, she says, is having the willingness to accept that we all play a part in it and mustering the willingness to change and create a culture of inclusion.
“We measure success by virtue of the fact that we have seen a heightened level of openness and people are eager to return to the next session,” she said. “A lot of our coming together is to express our feelings and realize we all share in each other’s lives.”
Betsy Redgate said, “The journey with OWOH has been an eye-opening experience for me. Before the pandemic, the violent events of this past year, and these sessions I had no idea what systemic racism entailed or how my own white privilege inadvertently contributed to the suffering of my brothers and sisters of color. Hearing their stories, reading the articles and watching the videos has been at times painful but so necessary if I am going to recognize, accept and take the needed action that will help to bring about the changes my heart and faith demand of me to end the injustices existing in our communities.”
Mary Tesla said her participation gave her a new perspective: “How I look at myself and also how I view others through the lens of my family and culture has become more clear. I can see that real change can happen if I look inside and make a difference in how I perceive others, and then this will bear fruit in the bigger society of my family and friends…. I realize that my whiteness has segregated me and is a loss for me as much as it has hurt others, and I am finding a way to be a part of the solution.”
Ligia Masilamani said: “I’m very grateful that we were able to provide a venue to help people to open up about the topic of social justice and diversity. The smaller breakout group format enabled new and quiet members to speak up and share experience which left community people feeling heard. These few sessions gave a sense of progress around diversity and inclusion. We were able to create space for honesty, bravery and vulnerability.
John Burlinson said it was particularly moving to listen to people of color talk about their life experiences and engage in a continuing dialogue.
“Parishes have to find their own motivations to be able to do something like this,” he said. “It can’t be prescribed. It has to be people in the parish who say, ‘I want to do this thing, and I have people who will join me.’ The Church is definitely looking at the systemic nature of racism, and that’s a good thing.”
By Joe Pisani