A recent event in a Florida diocese is seeking to help Catholics overcome a lack of awareness about the ongoing problem of racism in America today, said organizers of the initiative.

“We who do not experience racism are often blind to it and want to deny that it exists,” said Sabrina Burton Schultz, the Diocese of St. Petersburg’s director of Life, Justice and Advocacy Ministry.

“Changing hearts and minds is really more of a marathon than a sprint, and we are excited to continue to look at new ways to help people apply their experiences, their faith and the teachings of the Church to this very challenging issue,” she told CNA.

Close to 200 people attended the Diocese of St. Petersburg’s first listening session, held Sept. 5 at St. Lawrence Parish in Tampa.

Schultz said the session aimed to bring together a diverse group of Catholics and “start by listening to people's experience of racism, in our pews and beyond, to make everyone aware that racism does still exist in our communities and in our Church.”

“We were greatly encouraged by the diversity of our audience and the candid responses that were shared,” she said.

The session moderators were Dale Brown, director of the diocesan Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute and liaison for its Black Catholic Ministry; and James Cavendish, a sociology professor at the University of South Florida.

Cavendish said that the U.S. bishops have “called on the church to confront instances of racism within its own walls.”

Bishop Gregory Parkes of St. Petersburg was present, as was Bishop Shelton Fabre, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. The special committee was launched by the bishops to focus on how to address racism and come together as a society after a major rally of white supremacist, neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi activists turned lethal in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.

Schultz said discussions about how to increase dialogue and education regarding racism have been underway in the St. Petersburg diocese for some time, but the bishops’ national move strengthened local resolve. The diocese’s Racial Justice Committee first met in January 2018.

Gerri Drummond, a member of the racial justice committee and the diocese’s Life, Justice and Advocacy Committee, was born in Jamaica. She said she had never experienced racism before she moved to the U.S.

Those who are suffering racism are “asking for their brothers and sisters in the majority to embrace and heal them,” she told CNA.

Attendees called for “a clergy that truly understands the plight of racism, how it affects the person of color, and how silence from clerics is felt as a lack of care.”

“There was a great desire to see our priests, pastors and bishops preach more forcefully against the sin of racism, Drummond reported. “In addition, there were calls for a more diverse clergy and leadership at the diocesan and parish level.”

Ahead of the event, moderator Dale Brown told the Tampa Bay Times said she and other black Catholics have discussed their feelings about whether they are treated differently at Mass. If a parishioner does not drink after them from the chalice of the Precious Blood at Mass, they wonder what the reason is.

“I have the experience of people not sharing the (sign of) peace with me, but sharing with others who are white,” she said.

Brown said she hopes the event will help people examine their biases and “begin to broaden their understanding of the difficulties and experiences of those that have felt not only discriminated against, but left feeling like second-class citizens in the Church and society.”

Both Drummond and Brown are parishioners at St. Peter Claver, a historically African-American parish in Tampa.

The Sept. 5 listening session took inspiration from a similar event in the Austin diocese, but there have been similar events in the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

According to Schultz, the event aimed to help clarify “that racism did not die in the 1960s. It exists today.” She reported that a special matter of concern for some locals is the law enforcement response to a recent racially charged shooting.

“There is a great deal of discussion currently about Florida’s use and application of the Stand Your Ground law due to the shooting of Markeis McGlockton in Clearwater, Florida in July,” Schultz told CNA.

Surveillance video showed Michael Drejka, 47, confronting McGlockton’s girlfriend for parking in a handicapped space outside a convenience store, CBS News reports. McGlockton, whose three young children were also present, then shoved Drejka to the ground and backed away. Drejka, a white man, pulled out a gun and fatally shot the African-American man.

Drejka was initially not charged due to a Florida law that protects the use of lethal force in self-defense. He claimed he feared for his life. He was later charged with manslaughter.

Court documents show authorities citing other motorists’ reports that he had previously brandished a weapon, with one saying Drejka had previously confronted him over parking in the same handicapped parking space.

Drummond stressed the need to “keep the conversation going… as long as black people are being unjustly victimized, as long as black families are having to have challenging conversation with their children regarding why persons of color are treated differently, as long as white supremacists are holding rallies, as long as our nation’s leaders use derogatory terms to describe persons of color and specific countries.”

Vivi Iglesias, an Argentina-born relationship manager with the southeast regional office of Catholic Relief Services, said all Catholics must continue these discussions in “open forums that foster civil dialogues.” She noted the importance of the ability to reach across cultures in a way that fosters understanding and acceptance of others.

Catholics must learn about and accept the diversity in the Church, Iglesias said. For instance, vocations teams should be culturally diverse, she said, and there must be “opportunities for gatherings to help us know one another, serve together, and learn from each other.”

The St. Petersburg diocese’s Racial Justice Committee is planning a broader initiative with several more events. A workshop on healing racial division in the Church and Society is set for Sept. 15, while a series of civil dialogues is also under development.