#Onebody tackles racism in the Church
Dr. Althea Porter welcomes participants to the first #Onebody virtual conference. The June 11 conference saw eight members share their experiences with racism. Also taking part are Dr. Marianne Partee, Deacon Don Weigel, Josie Diebold and Sister Roberta Fulton, SSMN. Photo by Patrick J. Buechi
A group of people from the Diocese of Buffalo have reacted to racial violence not with big signs and loud voices, but by gathering with a goal to understand. #Onebody, a racially, generationally and ministerally mixed ministry, hosted its inaugural virtual conference to raise awareness of racism in the Church.
Co-moderated by Dr. Marianne Partee and Dr. Althea Porter, the June 11 Zoom presentation saw its members giving witness to the overt and subtle racism they have seen.
“Today, we will explore ways to eradicate this insidious sin. This conference was designed to promote and encourage and restore the one body as Christ Jesus meant for us to be,” said Partee.
Bishop Michael Fisher sent a video message with the opening prayer.
“I want to commend you for coming together and for the work you are committed to accomplishing. The horrific killing of George Floyd and the grave injustices suffered by far too many other Black men and women at the hands of those sworn to serve exposes the painful reality that we have yet to rid ourselves of what our Holy Father, Pope Francis, rightly refers to as the sin of racism. These incidences, which tragically happen again and again in our present age, confirm that we cannot legislate changes to hearts and minds. And that for some, the race of others is a cause to obscure and degrade their God-given dignity. It is an imperative, that who claim to follow Jesus Christ and live according to His gospel call out every and any evidence of racism for the evil it represents and to be part of the work of ending racial prejudice in all its blatant and subtle forms.”
Each of the nine participants gave witness to how racism effected their lives and their own actions in fighting intolerance.
Nigerian-born Father Moses Ikuelogbon, parochial vicar from St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, related stories of subtle racism he experienced as a seminarian, from priests not wanting to work with a foreign seminarian, to native food being thrown out because someone thought it was garbage, to having a professor tell him, “You’re too smart to be a Black person.”
“I looked at her and said, ‘Is that a compliment or an insult?’ I wanted to make that moment for her to just think about what she said,” he told the audience.
Deacon Don Weigel, Catholic Relief Services director for the diocese, grew up in an all-white Cheektowaga neighborhood and had no contact with people of color until he went to Bishop Turner High School on Buffalo’s East Side.
As an extrovert, Deacon Weigel made friends with some Black kids quickly and was asked to join the school’s Interracial Society, which offered an opportunity for Black and white students to get together and create understanding among each other.
“I didn’t realize the backlash I was going to get from some of my white, so-called, friends about why are you with them, how can you talk to them, what can you possibly get out of being with them,” he recalled. “There were some who were really adamant. Some of whom, I lost relationships with because they just did not feel capable of associating with somebody who would associate with them. You know that desire that I have for understanding and being with other people and hearing their stories and recognizing our common humanity has, thanks be to God, lasted with me all these years and explains why I became a deacon.”
He now calls himself an ally to people of color.
“What I know now is that being an ally is a learning process if nothing else,” he said. “It involves a whole lot of listening and involves a lifelong process and a commitment to action and a lot of work. I think being an ally involves building relationships not only with people who are oppressed by their identities, but also with people who are privileged by their identities in order to challenge them. I think being an ally also means you don’t have it all figured out. You’re committed to not being complacent and not being silent.”
Coleen Quinn, Statistics teacher at Erie Community College, reflected back on events from her childhood that, although were not overtly hurtful, could still be considered racist.
She reflected back the ’80s when Black students entered her Catholic junior high. She met Alicia.
“It was very difficult to be Alicia,” Quinn said. “I always wondered where she is today. I know she did not go to the Catholic high school that I went to. I hope she went somewhere that treated her equally and kindly, because at my school she was not. I’d like to say I didn’t have anything to do with that, but I was also in a separate grade, and by not having anything to do with it, I did nothing.”
She now teaches her four white suburban boys about white privilege and racism.
The stories told by Sister Roberta Fulton, SSMN, are the familiar stories of segregation and violent prejudice. As an African-American growing up in Kingstree, South Carolina, in the 1960s, seeing “white’s only” signs were commonplace.
“In this deeply pained racist town, I also had a relationship with the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. They offered us hope. They not only talked the talk, but they walked the walk. They lived in the African-American section of town. They invited us to their homes when we were not supposed to mingle with white people,” Sister Roberta recalled.
“In quiet ways, they played a pivotal role in speaking about racism. I was so moved by their faith, the faith of helping others and bringing other people together that I wanted to live like them, I wanted to serve like them, I wanted to do what they did.”
The next goal is to create safe spaces in parishes.