The ecumenism preached by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is key to breaking the shackles of individualism and systemic racism, a St. Louis priest has said.
That racism is a sin is a “shared tenant of Christianity,” said Father Art Cavitt, executive director of the St. Louis-based St. Charles Lwanga Center, in a recent interview with CNA.
“The need for recognition of the dignity of all human beings is incumbent upon all of us. That lack of recognition contributes to the problem.”
US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville echoed the priest’s sentiments in a statement marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Every human life has profound dignity, rooted in our creation in the image of God,” Archbishop Kurtz wrote. “We are on family. Our communities will only reflect this dignity if we first turn to prayer to guide our actions toward ending years of isolation, disregard and conflict between neighbors.”
Archbishop Kurtz lamented a lingering stain of racism in the United States.
“Continuing tensions and violence in our communities remind us that although significant progress has been made…we still have much work to do,” he wrote. “As we consider the gains of the past and the challenges before us, I urge each of us to pray for healing and peace as we work for ever greater communion.”
The comments by Fr. Cavitt and Archbishop Kurtz come months after protests and increasing racial tensions in the St. Louis area following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown. The decision prompted many protests across the U.S., some of which turned violent.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson had called for prayer and calm in response.
Despite the violent response, Fr. Cavitt said there is hope after the Ferguson controversy. He said there is a rising desire for action to overcome injustice and cooperation to build common ground.
“Hope has more than emerged here. It is a stabilizing virtue in the organization of activities,” Fr. Cavitt said. “The religious community is not silent, but engaged.”
“There is an urgent sense of the desire to address issues,” he continued. “In the midst of feeling ‘shell-shocked’ in the aftermath of destruction, there is still the rallying of myriad organizations, religious and secular commissions, to address problems of injustice and disparity.”
The St. Louis archdiocese is working to improve its efforts at racial reconciliation and justice. Archbishop Carlson on Jan. 6 named attorney Marie Kenyon as director of the archdiocese’s Peace and Justice Commission. For almost 30 years, Kenyon has been managing attorney of Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, which helps address the legal needs of people with low incomes.
At a Mass for Peace and Justice in August 2014, the archbishop had pledged to re-establish the commission to address issues like poverty, racial tension and a lack of education.
Fr. Cavitt also said people should recognize the times when race is viewed differently by different ethnicities.
He stressed the need to get “a perspective from the other person’s shoes” to move from misunderstanding to solidarity.
Working towards common ground from different perspectives would acknowledge “both systemic and individual contributions to our problems,” he advised.
“What is it like to feel like a victim of the ‘isms’?” the priest asked. “What is it like to be accused of ‘isms,’ particularly if those being accused are stereotyped exclusively because of the attitudes and actions of past generations?”
Exploring and affirming various perspectives in an in-depth way would help build common ground, he said.
Fr. Cavitt reflected on the state of black Catholics in the U.S. They make up over 3 million Catholics out of about 36 million black Americans, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports.
According to Fr. Cavitt, black Catholics share some characteristics of the country as a whole: their communities show a “complex display of vibrancy,” adherence to the Catholic faith, and a desire to give an example to younger generations.
Many say they are satisfied with their experience as Catholics, while among others there is a decades-long “exodus away from parish life.”
Like other Americans, some are searching for answers about identity and faith and have a mistrust of authority. Some who were raised Catholic are not engaged in their parishes, but are “seeking answers elsewhere or not particularly addressing that void in their life.”
“The daunting task remains: how the Church invites and communicates its relevancy into the life of the black community,” Fr. Cavitt said.
He suggested the newly ordained Louisiana priest Fr. Joshua Johnson might be an example of this effort.
The young priest runs a hip hop radio show with one of his friends. They talk about the saints and apologetics in a way that is “attractive to people who are in the hood,” Fr. Johnson said in a YouTube video posed by Catholic Extension. “Every episode is rap, we freestyle and have fun.”