Discussions about racism can certainly be challenging, but when approached with the Franciscan spirit of openness, acceptance and fraternity, they can also be eye-opening, transformative and strengthen the bond of community. This has been the case with the friars of St. John the Baptist Province. At the final provincial Chapter in May 2022, they passed a proposal “to take immediate ‘Gospel’ action to confront and condemn the sin of racism. We can eradicate racial injustice through appropriate and ongoing conversion, both internal and external, personal and institutional.”
In a reflection for the Feb. 17, 2023, issue of News Notes, Robert Seay, who brought forth the proposal, recalled that as a young man he questioned whether he would be rejected or accepted as he discerned a call to religious life.
“I previously had encountered rejection, being told by my pastor, ‘We don’t know what to do with a colored priest.’ So, I was not encouraged to pursue my vocation,” Robert wrote. “Nevertheless, I continued asking Jesus, ‘What do you want me to do?’ The answer came when the Franciscans accepted me.”
“At this momentous time of transition, we must show leadership, inspiration and example to the Church by being one of the few groups willing to talk about anti-racism techniques within our own structures and to empower those who are oppressed by racism,” he said. “However, the main focus of anti-racism is not to sensitize, but to break down racist structures. It is not to change hearts, but change structures and processes while hearts change.”
The Provincial Council entrusted the mandate to the Fraternal Life Committee (FLC), comprised of Robert, Jim Bok (chair), Jeff Scheeler, Bob Bruno, Dennis Bosse, Mike Chowning and Kenn Beetz, to develop and implement a plan of action.
The committee decided to use A White Catholic’s Guide to Racism and Privilege, by Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, as a guiding resource. The process began earlier this year with a province-wide Zoom gathering, hosted by the FLC, with the late Fr. Clarence Williams, C.PP.S, as the main presenter. Fr. Clarence, who passed away July 8, was well known for his ministry as a pastor, evangelizer and racial justice advocate. In recent months, each local fraternity or group of fraternities was dedicated to reading and discussing Dan’s book using prompt questions. Fraternities were asked to provide minutes of their conversations to the FLC. John Barker agreed to take the minutes of each session and put them into an executive summary. Those summaries were then shared with the FLC.
In summarizing the discussions, John noted that conversations about racism need to begin with “an assessment of one’s own experience and perspective. Most, if not all, of the friars came to these discussions with at least some awareness of their own social position as members of the dominant ‘white’ culture and its implications for their approach to the problem of racism, how to understand it and how to address it.”
Many friars noted that conversion and change begin at home, in their own minds and hearts and in their immediate environments,” he added. “With the help of these discussions, many of them have become more aware of their own unconscious biases and assumptions, and the way these might contribute to unconscious and unintended racism in their fraternities or ministry. They have committed themselves to further study and reflection.”
John also noted many other ways friars can contribute stemming from the discussions. “They can bring their heightened awareness of the dynamics of racism to a broader public, exercising something of a pastoral ministry in this regard. Preaching, parish or other learning programs remain options. Getting involved in local or national antiracism efforts is another example.”
As chair of the FLC, Jim thanked “our brother, Robert, for calling us to address the issue of racism in our province, the Order, the Church, society and around the world because it is an issue that touches the lives of so many people,” and praised his fellow friars for their dedication to the discussions, as well as their commitment to continue to converse and act moving forward. “Going through the process was a reminder that we must change our behavior toward one another. We must be accepting. We all have biases and prejudices and need to acknowledge them.”
A longtime missionary in Jamaica, Jim noted how the experience has reinforced for him the need to understand and respect the circumstances under which people live and grow in his sensitivity. In a simple yet meaningful example, he said, “Jamaicans are typically late for everything, and I’m very much on time. That constantly reminds me of the need to be mindful of the differences in cultures and respect them. It’s something you can never be reminded of too much.”
For their final Zoom discussion on Aug. 8, several friars were asked to share reflections with the entire group regarding their thoughts on the process, personal experiences and possible next steps, individually, fraternally and beyond.
“For those of us who are older and grew up in a different time, we saw things related to segregation that we would consider terrible now, but were accepted at the time,” said Tom Richstatter. “We’re shaped by our history, and getting in touch with that was difficult, but definitely helpful. I’m trying to be more aware now and trying not to notice a person’s color first, but to meet the person first. I hope the new province really keeps the issue of racism before our eyes and is particularly sensitive about inviting people of all races into the community.”
“I think we have to be instruments of change, just as we are instruments of peace, and peace can only come when people are treated justly,” said Raphael Ozoude, who is of Nigerian descent. “Our biggest platform is when we give homilies. Friars can address issues and help others begin to think differently. It may make people uncomfortable, but people will hear the Gospel and be confronted with the truth and be willing to make a change.”
In addition to homilies, our fraternities should endeavor to be diverse and welcome more than one ethnic group, if it is possible,” he added. “We should find ways to incorporate other cultures by saying the Our Father in another language, preparing different cuisine. There should not be the expectation that the person from another culture will adapt. The only way you can truly be enriched is to allow another culture to flourish.”
“The Franciscans can be collaborators in bringing about change,” Raphael said. “I hope all friars will continue to learn and be open to accepting this as a journey, that they won’t be afraid to make mistakes and be transformed.”
Manuel Viera shared that his experience is based on two perspectives of racism. “In Cuban culture, I’m a white man; from the U.S. perspective, I’m a Latino,” he noted. “As a result, my approach is to see people for who they are. Color? So what? There are very good, holy people in every ethnic group. We all have our gifts, and we all have our sinfulness. As ministers to different communities, we need to be aware of issues from our own history that may give us a sense of superiority. We are not superior. We are servants.”
Looking to the future, Manuel emphasized the importance of “welcoming brothers from different cultures or other points of view. We must consider whether we are welcoming them as a token or trying to understand their history and truly see each other as brothers as Francis tells us to do.”
All of us have power in a different way,” said Colin King, who serves with Jim in Jamaica. “As a Franciscan, I’m called to look at how I can use my power and privilege to help others. As Franciscans, we need to go to those places where there is poverty, where we can be instruments of reconciliation and racial healing. Maybe it’s just letting a person share their story of how they have been hurt in the past and giving them the dignity of listening.”
“It doesn’t need to be us doing everything,” Colin emphasized. “It’s our way as Franciscans to help others discover their own power and become agents of change. Racism is just one aspect. We can use our privilege and power to empower others who feel ostracized, the homeless, those with addictions. We aren’t the sun or the Son, but can try to be another point of light. It doesn’t need to be that we solve systemic racism or injustice, but we can be a light where we are. As small as that may seem, it’s still a piece of the Kingdom that’s among us now.”
The friars continued their conversations in small group sessions. Dennis Bosse reflected on how serving the African American community at St. Mary of the Angels in New Orleans, as well as other cross-cultural experiences among Native Americans and the Hispanic community, has been life-giving for him. “People have been very welcoming wherever I have been, and there is a richness that comes from experiencing other cultures, getting to know other people and seeing Christ in them,” he said.
“I hope one thing that comes from this is that we become more cross-cultural as a new province, to help all who accept the invitation to join us feel welcome and comfortable and to know that we value their perspective,” he added. “We can only be enriched and benefit from widening our experience of other cultures.”
Al Hirt, who served at predominantly African American faith communities in New Orleans and Kansas City, said, “It’s been nothing but a grace to become aware of a whole other group of people’s experience of life and church. It’s vibrant and alive.”
“That doesn’t take away all of my racism, though,” acknowledged Al, who currently serves as pastor at St. Francis Seraph Parish in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. “I’m deeply involved in the Black community, but there are still times when I’m walking home and see a group of Black men congregated somewhere, that I cross to the other side of the street. If it was a group of white men, I wouldn’t feel the same. There’s still some caution in me about what could be a threatening situation. I don’t know what to do about that caution other than to be aware of it and try not to let it overly influence how I interact with people.”
Al expressed his gratitude for the opportunity that his ministry has provided for him to become active in social justice causes. “I’ve become very aware of the injustices that African American people, in particular, face. That’s very important to me,” he said. “When I think of racism, I think of African Americans, but there is also the racism that other cultures face. Our province traditionally hasn’t been very diverse, so I’m looking forward to being part of province with many different cultures. That will only stretch us in a good way.”
“I’ve had the blessing of attending international meetings in other provinces, in other countries,” said Jeff Scheeler. “We’re a worldwide Order, a multi-cultural one, and when that’s your experience, you have a sense that these are my brothers and it makes you just a little more aware that it’s a big, beautiful, colorful world.”
Also, a blessing has been ministering as pastor at the multi-cultural Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield, Mich., said Jeff. “When people come to Communion, I see the whole world in front of me. Being a friar is a privilege because we have these experiences and can be brothers to all. That awareness is a gift, and every encounter with another culture opens minds and hearts.”
“This proposal comes on the eve of our provincial merger and challenges us to journey with our brothers and sisters from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds,” Robert said. “It comes at a time when racism has peaked and cultural awareness is emerging in society, as well as in the Church. May we continue our work to be brothers to all!”
The proposal was very well received at the all Council meeting in Atlanta the week of Aug. 21. “We anticipate it being part of the Wednesday discussion (at the October Chapter), thematically linked to the fraternal life planning proposal and the intercultural proposal,” said Br. Keith Warner, OFM, animator of lifelong Franciscan formation, Office of Renewal and Restructuring, noting that things could evolve or change moving forward. “The all Council meeting recognized and affirmed the good work begun by St. John the Baptist Province in this regard.”