LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The work it takes to respond to the issue of racism in the church and the wider community is difficult and slow, but it must be done, said Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana.
Speaking at the Archdiocese of Louisville’s online Archdiocesan Leadership Institute March 9, Fabre discussed “witnessing to the dignity of the human person as an antidote to the grave sin of racism.” And he shared six ways to respond to racism.
Typically, the institute draws parish leaders, clergy, staff and volunteers together for a daylong gathering of learning and sharing, but this one was presented via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fabre spoke to a group of 149 individuals, including Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, archdiocesan chancellor Brian Reynolds, clergy and individuals who serve in various ministries in the archdiocese.
During the first part of the day, Fabre discussed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” As chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, he played a key role in drafting the letter.
His presentation posed the question: “How can we move forward in responding to issues of racism in the church and our communities?” This work is difficult and may be slow, but doing this work is “our call as a church and our task as disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Racism affects how “we experience the journey through life,” he said.
For some, that journey is one of “optimism, hope and advancement,” he said. For others, it’s one of “fear, dread, injustice and discrimination.”
Fabre shared six ways to respond to the sin of racism:
— “Recognize and respond to racism as a life issue,” he said.
“Racism attacks the human life and dignity of its victims. … To truly and authentically be pro-life, we must strive to dismantle in our own hearts as well as in society all attacks against the sanctity of life and one such attack is racism.”
— Seek to overcome individualism and encounter others who are racially different.
Racism “traps people into individualism, blaming others for the misfortunes they encounter in life,” said Fabre. He noted that the 2018 pastoral stated that only by “‘forging authentic relationships can we truly see each other as Christ sees us.'” This can only happen, he said, “if we step out of individualism.”
— Accept the growing racial diversity in the nation and the church.
“The church in the U.S. has been enriched by many races and cultures. … We must believe and act upon the fact that there can be unity in our diversity,” said Fabre. He noted that racism is typically seen as a “Black and white” issue, but noted that in reality racism affects “people of all colors.” “Educating ourselves on the church’s teachings and catechizing the youth and adults must be a way forward,” said the bishop.
— Seek the conversion of one’s own heart.
Fabre said that while it’s important to work for civil legislation that protects people from racism, “as people of faith we must understand that it is ours to undertake a deeper task,” he said. “Each must examine our own hearts … or what we declare will be empty words.”
— Preach against racism. He urged members of the clergy to regularly preach against racism.
“We all know that preaching against racism will elicit a response, but we must nonetheless lead our people to a path of goodness, charity, justice and peace,” said the bishop. It’s also necessary to give people hope and to remind them of the “grace available to overcome racism,” he said.
— Pray for an end to racism.
“Rely on the power of prayer. Prayers are often dismissed in these times as having no effect, but authentic prayer keeps us honest about where we are in our fight against racism,” said Fabre.
In a question-and-answer session that followed his presentation, the bishop was asked to address “the pain and realities of the past year” in which Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both African Americans, were killed in altercations with white police officers.
“We have to find opportunities as parish communities and as people to really hear stories and to learn and share our thoughts, as well,” the bishop said, adding that Jesus knew the power of stories and used them to teach his followers.
Taylor, 26, was fatally shot in her Louisville apartment March 13, 2020, during a police raid. No officers were charged in her death.
Floyd, 46, died while in police custody May 25, 2020. He was arrested after a store clerk alleged he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. He was pinned down by then-Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck, and he later died after being taken to the hospital.
Jury selection began March 9 for Chauvin’s trial. He was charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The three other now-former officers involved in the arrest were each charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, as well as aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
After Floyd’s death, Fabre invited parishioners of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese to speak to someone “racially different” to find out how Floyd’s death made them feel. Those whom he heard from said that in talking to others they finally started understanding the pain.
Asked what will generate “the needed passion” to respond to racism, the bishop that getting people to understand that racism is a life issue is a way to start.
“The more we can get them to see it as that it will hopefully generate a passion and hopefully we will have the same passion to end racism as we have to end all the other attacks against life,” he said, adding it also is important to preach about racism at church and teach about it in schools.
“Placing it before people in positive and constructive ways so that it becomes a part of our conversations” also is needed, he said, “so we can get passionate to see the injustices happening.”
Thomas is a staff writer at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.