‘… THE SUBJECT (OF RACISM) IS INEXHAUSTIBLE. BUT WE TOOK SOME FIRST STEPS.'
Diocese of EriE-News staff
ERIE — Several members of the administrative cabinet of the Diocese of Erie are nearing completion of a six-week study session on Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism. The document, published in 2018, was developed by the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
“I like to say that after our first five sessions, we basically finished talking about the title,” said Anne-Marie Welsh, director of Communications. “Obviously the subject is inexhaustible. But we took some first steps, and the experience has been very valuable.”
The virtual sessions were arranged after Jessie Hubert of the Faith Formation Office and Patrice Swick of the Social Justice and Life Office presented the cabinet with details about the Just Faith program they were preparing to launch with parish leaders. Just Faith includes a significant component on racism. Cabinet members expressed interest in becoming more educated about the topic in light of Bishop Lawrence Persico’s involvement with United Clergy of Erie. Hubert and Swick suggested the USCCB document as a good starting point.
The sessions were led by Dr. Parris Baker, an assistant professor at Gannon University who is writing a critique on the document through the lens of Black Liberation Theology for his graduate thesis in pastoral studies. (Faith magazine featured him on the cover of its May 2020 edition.)
Offering the analogy of a nurse preparing to give someone a shot, Baker didn’t pull any punches as the sessions began.
“When a nurse tells me it’s going to hurt, I believe it,” Baker said. “Likewise, I knew the work we were about to begin was going to make people uncomfortable.”
Prior to the sessions, Baker asked the group to review documents the American bishops had published on racism going back to 1958. He also recommended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as well as 13th, a thought-provoking Netflix documentary on the criminalization of African Americans.
Assignments between sessions ranged from a challenge to reach out to someone “different,” a term Baker did not define, to reflecting on the scriptural, theological and practical aspects of the document. But Baker’s focus frequently returned to “encounter.”
“I am always amazed that God would come from heaven to deal with us,” Baker said in an interview with the Diocese of EriE-News. “We can learn so much about the importance of encounter just by the choice God made to be present on this planet.” Baker also noted how Jesus’ miracles often involved people who were outsiders, whether Gentiles or the “unclean.”
“He gives us a foundation for how to navigate relationships with people who are ‘other,’” Baker said. “He touches and talks to people most would not. He reminds us that all encounter has purpose, and he teaches us how to do it.”
To that end, Baker’s efforts always include intentional encounter.
“That’s where we need to start,” he said. “We need to get to know each other, to establish trust and lower barriers by building real relationships.”
Jim Gallagher, superintendent of schools, was pleased that the opportunity to explore racism together was made available to cabinet members.
“These sessions have been good for me on a personal level,” he said. “They absolutely increased my awareness and understanding of racial justice issues. I’m more attuned to how racism impacts our communities and our church. Now it will be important for us to hold each other accountable in terms of integrating some of these experiences and insights into the ministries we oversee.”
Baker invited the group to participate in an evening of dialogue and learning at the non-denominational Victory Christian Center in Erie, which is under the leadership of Bishop Dwane Brock.
“I enjoyed the evening,” Welsh said. “Dr. Baker created activities that engaged us and led to good discussion. It underscored what we have been learning. Eliminating racism will take generations of commitment. But we are responsible for what happens in our lifetime. We need to take steps now, especially through one-on-one encounters.”
To download the document cabinet members studied, free of charge, visit Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love