When Cardinal Wilton Gregory was Archbishop of Atlanta, he remembers a time a pastor asked if it was okay to address issues of race from the pulpit, to which he answered, “Of course you can … not only can you, you must.”

The insight from Gregory, now the Archbishop of Washington, came in response to a question at the Diocese of Arlington’s “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” Conference, named after the U.S. Bishops 2018 pastoral letter on racism, which took place Saturday.

The question referenced the 2018 letter and whether or not the U.S. bishops were ready to have priests and clergy address racism in their homilies and teachings. Gregory added that while it “must” be addressed, it “takes a delicate hand because you want to engage people. You don’t want to browbeat them.”

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, seated next to Gregory, echoed the sentiment, saying that addressing issues of race is “preaching the gospel.”

“There is a sensitivity sometimes that when you speak certain words and languages there is a human fear. There is a fear of reaction or overreaction that you may receive, which is a fear we have to get over. We have to be courageous,” Burbidge said.

“But that in itself tells us a reality … that a mentioning of the sin of racism and a concrete challenge to oppose it will get people remembering and as the priest is standing outside he will be the recipient of less charity. So, I think it’s a challenge.”

The question of how to discuss issues of race within the Catholic church was a small part of the conference that was more so focused on how to tackle the topic as a nation. The Conference was originally scheduled for this time last year, but was postponed due to COVID-19.

Towards the top of his keynote address, Gregory brought up the recent shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that took the lives of eight people, six of whom were Asian women.

He said that tragedy combined with the “hatred and violence that Asian Americans have endured with increased intensity since the beginning of the global pandemic … reminds us that we still have serious racial problems that continue to plague our national unity and harmony.”

The shooter’s motive in the Atlanta-area shootings was still unknown as of Saturday.

Gregory also highlighted that the U.S. has a long way to go on issues of race. One place people can start to work towards eradicating racism, the cardinal suggests, is developing an appreciation for the histories of different cultures.

“I strongly endorse cross cultural educational opportunities. They allow young people to look into the vast storehouse of history and to discover that every group of people has heroes and heroines. It has triumphs and tragedies and it has villains and scoundrels,” Gregory said. “Racism is only able to survive as long as there is ignorance. Racism grows only in the soil of ignorance and unfamiliarity.”

In addition to developing an appreciation for the diverse cultures across the nation, the cardinal advises all people to “tone down” their rhetoric.

“I have long felt that in issues of race the more vehement the rhetoric, the weaker the position that the rhetoric seeks to defend,” Gregory said. “If we are humble enough to admit that my personal experience is not the summit of human wisdom then we might also be willing to listen to one another’s experience realizing that it too is limited in insight.”

Affirmative action, violence, economic and political power sharing, interracial dating and courting, bilingual education, immigration laws and gender equality are “volatile topics” that Gregory said the nation needs to face.

But in doing so, he again emphasized that “they will not be solved by the volume of our arguments but only by the wisdom.”

Alexandra Luevano, a conference panelist and the clinic director of the Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic at Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington wants Catholics to realize the change that’s possible if racism got the attention of other issues important to the church.

“I work and run a free clinic that used to be an abortion center. The only reason that it’s no longer an abortion center is because many of us Catholics prayed in front of that abortion center for many years in order for it to close,” said Luevano, who is also a member of the Diocese of Arlington’s ad hoc committee against racism.

“That is what we need to do in order to end racism. We need to unite ourselves in prayer for racism to end, and we need to stand up and talk about it.”

Emelda August, who works in the Holy Family Catholic Church in Dale City Black History & Heritage Outreach Ministry further noted that it’s important “to go beyond what you’ve seen of a person and what they’re saying and listen to them and then be able to communicate with them.”

Towards the end of his remarks, Gregory issued a simple reminder: “We are not all alike, and that is not a bad thing.”

“Our national unity is not predicated on all of us being exactly alike so much as it is on sharing common goals on national purpose, and an acceptance of our differences as an advantage rather than a liability,” he said.