Elevating conversation: Catholics engage in dialogue on race, religion

| September 22, 2017 | 1 Comment

Students from St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul and Al-Amal Islamic School in Fridley play a game at Merriam Park in St. Paul May 24. The students started writing letters to each other six weeks earlier, then set up a day to meet, talk and play together. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Cynthia Bailey Manns said she could feel the racial tension in St. Louis following the Sept. 15 acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley, who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011 after a police chase.

Stockley is white; Smith was black. The verdict incited protesters who reportedly threw rocks at the mayor’s house and blocked highways.

The director of learning for St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, Manns was visiting St. Louis to prepare for a Spiritual Directors International retreat in 2018. Among the tasks was discerning whether or not to still hold the conference in St. Louis, given its racial unrest. The committee decided to go forward with having the conference there, which Manns believes will be a “healing presence for all.”

“I feel very strongly that it was very prophetic that we were here [during the verdict], because it gave us a chance to really to see what’s going on in St. Louis,” Manns said.

She said that although the pain from police-involved shootings of black men — including the high-profile 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson — remain palpable there, the situation isn’t that different from what people face in the Twin Cities or elsewhere.

“As a country, we are very torn,” she said.

She believes the light being shed nationally on racism is good, but that much work remains to improve relations between people of different races, religions and cultures. She has sought to do her part by collaborating with a team at St. Joan of Arc and forming a program to address racial issues. It’s one of several initiatives around the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in which Catholics are seeking to bridge gaps between people of different races and cultures.

Parishioners of St. Joan of Arc formed a core team to build an anti-racist community in 2016. The parish also participates in an ecumenical 12-church consortium promoting anti-racism efforts.

“We’ve developed some listening tools to help hear each other in those conversations, to listen on a deeper level,” Manns said.

St. Joan of Arc’s events have included watching and discussing films that deal with race issues. It is also among organizations partnering with the Minnesota Science Museum in St. Paul supporting the current exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?”

A new program, Sacred Conversations Series, launches at St. Joan of Arc Oct. 21. Described by organizers as an event “to learn foundational skills of ‘civility’ and a process of holy listening that can be used in our encounters with others,” Sacred Conversations aims to help participants understand the importance of “sacred speech” and recognizing the “sacred in each other,” Manns said. The program addresses “how do we come from space of what we understand versus trying to convince, or shame or blame,” she added.

A similar effort has been underway at St. Olaf in Minneapolis since 2004. The ecumenical group Discussions that Encounter meets biweekly at the Phillips Community Center in Minneapolis on second Thursdays of the month and St. Olaf on the fourth Thursday. The group, normally an even number of Caucasians and African-Americans, focuses on the experience of racism and overcoming it in Minneapolis.

“The biggest point that we emphasize is use your heart, not [just] your head, in the conversation, so when somebody says ‘This is my experience,’ you don’t try and argue them out of it,” said Bill Keatts, a St. Olaf parishioner and one of the leaders for Discussions that Encounter.

He acknowledged that it can be hard for people to have that sort of dialogue, but he normally sees the conversation warm up. Sometimes the discussions have run late and continued in the parking lot.

“What we’re trying to do really is have the conversation and as a result of that, have people be moved to action in whatever way they can,” Keatts said. “People either have gotten involved in existing activities or have the inspiration to go start something.”

St. Olaf parishioners have been working with those from St. Thomas Beckett in Eagan to host the parish’s own Discussions that Encounter event Oct. 29.

Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ social advocacy program Sowers of Justice, a network of about 3,000 people around the region who are working for justice in economics and society, has recently offered opportunities for dialogue and learning about race. Acooa Ellis, Catholic Charities’ director of advocacy, said it draws Catholics in the pews as well as state legislators.

“There’s a lot of issue education, and oftentimes when we’re doing that, we’re also coupling that with Catholic social teaching, so folks understand the connection between those issues,” Ellis said.

Through Sowers of Justice, people have been able to engage in conversations about real-life situations. In 2017, the program hosted presentations and discussions on incarceration and cycles of poverty. Sowers of Justice also partnered with Discussions that Encounter at St. Olaf on a conversation about white privilege in 2015.

“I have observed more people wrestling with their role as agents of change on this front,” Ellis said. “I hope that in some way our discussions have offered language, resources and food for thought to support their passion to create positive change.”

She hopes to help people come out of their comfort zone when talking about race. The isolation fostered by contemporary culture remains an obstacle to improving race relations, she said.

“Grace and humility are essential,” Ellis said. “They build the trust necessary to wrestle together. We must be willing to simultaneously honor good intentions and own that our actions have real consequences, sometimes different than we would hope —however well-intentioned. Both are hard and complicated by the intense emotions that accompany a topic like race.”

Catholic schools are also helping students engage issues around cultural and religious differences. St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul launched a fifth-grade pen pal program with Al-Amal Islamic School in Fridley last year. The students exchanged letters, which included learning about each other’s religion.

“We just wanted to do something to bridge the gap,” said St. Mark’s fifth-grade teacher Rachel Ogard, who helped to organize the effort.

The pen-pal relationships culminated in a friendly soccer match last spring in St. Paul. The schools plan to continue the program this school year.

“It went even better than I could imagine,” Ogard said. “I think the community got a lot out of it.”

St. Mark Principal Zach Zeckser expected his students to get the most out of the project, but he found out the expectations were mutual.

“I thought that we were going to be extraordinarily beneficiary compared to them, but they [Al-Amal staff] said, ‘Oh no. … This is huge for our kids and for our parents to meet some Catholics,’” Zeckser said.

Good dialogue around race and religion can start as simply as it did for the fifth graders from St. Mark and Al-Amal: by showing an interest in one another.

Ogard observed the students were comfortable talking to each other and sharing about each other’s faith. They talked about wanting to become friends, she said.

“If that’s what these kids are getting out of this, I’m very happy with that,” she said.


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