Catholics reflect on racial reconciliation in U.S. Church: ‘We must be rooted in prayer’


Chika Anyanwu (left) and Father Josh Johnson / Credit: FOCUS SEEK23 / FOCUS

St. Louis, Mo., Jan 16, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Two prominent Catholic speakers and evangelists say they have seen some progress in terms of Catholics being willing to listen to the experiences of those who have experienced racism, and an openness among many Catholics to acknowledge racism as a sin and as a continued problem in U.S. society.

“How can we do better, I think, is to continue to lean into the Lord in Scripture, in the Gospels, and in prayer,” Father Josh Johnson told CNA in early January.

“We must pray. We must be rooted in prayer. And the greatest saints were all formed, and rooted, and devoted to prayer. And the fruit of their relationship with Jesus in prayer was seen in their works that they did out there in the world.”

Johnson is the author of the new book “On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Restoring God’s Vision of Race and Discipleship,” published by Ascension. In the book, Johnson encourages Catholics to seek out relationships with people of other races, striving always to create a society where people of all races and backgrounds feel welcome.

“The fruit of adoration is imitation, and Jesus Christ constantly crosses cultural boundaries,” Johnson, who serves as vocations director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, continued.

“He went out and encountered people who are different, and he walked with people from various backgrounds and belief systems and walks of life. And what’s going to transform our culture, what’s going to build a civilization of love, what’s going to battle against the sin of racism is when disciples of Jesus Christ are actually imitating Jesus Christ,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who is Black, has spoken in the past about experiencing prejudice, both before and after becoming a priest. He also has spoken about his perception that most Catholics have, historically, been inattentive to racism or overly entrenched in a left-or-right political mindset over the issue.

Two and a half years after the death of George Floyd — which prompted widespread protests and a national conversation about racism — Johnson said he has seen “a lot of progress” in terms of his fellow Catholics recognizing and rejecting the sin of racism. The fallout prompted by Floyd’s death led to a renewed interest in the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, leading many Catholics to read and study the letter.

“I think that when George Floyd was killed, that lifted a veil and it began conversations that people were not having in the Church,” Johnson said.

“And progress is slow, but I’ve seen conversations take place, and an openness to conversations, and that’s where it begins — dialogue with people who at one point were totally shut off to even having the conversation.”

Johnson has said that in addition to talking, writing, and preaching about the topic for years, he has been constantly praying and fasting for an end to racism. He reiterated in January that any effort to combat racism must start with prayer, particularly prayer done during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

“I want to encourage people,” Johnson said.

“If we want to continue to see reformation and renewal happen in the Church and in the world, we must never neglect Scripture in the Blessed Sacrament. The more we spend time with the Lord in prayer, the more we will be able to imitate him as his hands and his feet and his voice in the world today.”

‘People are crying out’

Chika Anyanwu, a Catholic speaker and evangelist from California, spoke about the loneliness that Black Catholics can sometimes experience, being such a minority in the United States. She said at her parish, she is very often the only Black person in attendance at both Sunday and daily Mass.

She also noted that despite the progress she has seen in the past few years, racism remains “a life or death situation for a lot of people.”

“We’re three years from George Floyd, but we’re just a few weeks from the last shooting of a young Black man. And it’s almost like there are times where you feel like you’re shouting into the void and it’s like, ‘Is anyone hearing?’ And that’s really hard,” Anyanwu told CNA in early January.

“People are crying out and not being heard.”

Anyanwu, who is of Nigerian descent, said she continues to experience instances of “unfortunate” and “hurtful” displays of prejudice — even, occasionally, from fellow Catholics. That being said, Anyanwu said she has seen in the years since George Floyd a willingness among many Catholics to take action to combat racism, particularly at the parish level. Some parishes have held listening sessions and dialogues to talk about racism, for example.

“What is the Church doing well? The Church is listening. But there’s so much active listening that you can do before you take action,” she noted.

One important action that some Church leaders have taken, she said, is taking care to hire a diverse range of people — and not just in terms of race.

“So whether it’s hiring people of color, hiring women, those with disabilities, those who are differently abled… all of that,” she noted.

“Your church should look like the community, because your parish isn’t just those who are in the pews, it’s the geographical boundaries.”

‘Jesus Christ is sufficient’

Johnson also spoke about the importance of welcoming and celebrating Black Catholics, who make up a very small minority of Catholics in the United States overall. But in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, many vibrant parishes have served the Black Catholic community for centuries.

A survey released last year found that Black Catholics are significantly less likely than other Catholics — and also less likely than Black Protestants — to attend a church where most of the other parishioners are of the same race or ethnicity they are. Black Catholics also tend to travel farther to get to Mass than their white or Hispanic counterparts, with 41% saying they have to travel more than 15 minutes to get to Mass.

Many of the Black Catholics whom Johnson encounters say they feel unwelcome or neglected by the Catholic Church — “that’s just a fact,” he said. But the most important reason to stay in the Catholic Church is Jesus himself in the Eucharist, Johnson said. Jesus offers an example of persevering through suffering, Johnson said, as do many of the holy Black men and women currently being considered for sainthood.

“My encouragement for [Black Catholics] is to pray, as well, because Jesus Christ is sufficient. God is enough. So even if the community that surrounds us is the only Catholic church in our area, even if they persecute us, Jesus was persecuted and he was misunderstood. And he was mocked, and he was abandoned, and he was betrayed, and he was rejected, and so there’s an intimacy with Christ in that to be experienced.”

Johnson said people who, like him, work continually for racial reconciliation in the Church may not see in their lifetimes the fruits of their labors. But he encouraged everyone to continue striving for holiness, even through adversity.

“We might not see the visible fruit in our lifetime, but the fruit is there, even if it’s invisible. Even if I cannot see the fruit of my labor in the Church for racial reconciliation, I feel like God has called me to be a saint,” the priest said.

“I’m just focused on doing the work that he told me to do so that whenever I die, I can say the same words that Jesus Christ said at the end of his life in John 17. He said, ‘Father, I have accomplished the work that you gave me to do’ … maybe when I’m a saint in heaven, God willing, he’ll show me the fruit.”

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  1. In harmony with the above, and with four possibly interesting details:

    FIRST, the Hebrews waited 1,800 years from Abraham until the coming of the Messiah, and then walked away. In much of rural India or Africa a priest probably shows up maybe every six months. So, might a 15 minute or more drive to Mass, for people of any race, be viewed from this perspective?

    But, SECOND, yes, to the message. Recalling that Martin Luther King Jr., while not claiming to be perfect, based his appeal on the natural law and divine law, rather than on today’s infiltrating and substitute political and even divisive slogans.
    King: “But they [‘early Christians’] went on with the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963).

    THIRD, from my own experience, I came from a 100% white boom town—Richland, Washington, the (1944) bedroom community to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Years later I learned that the Blacks were confined to the town on the other side of the Columbia River.)
    In 1959 the 9th-grade class found ourselves with a black woman as a long-term substitute teacher, “Mrs. Saunders”…Like Fr. Johnson, but already back then, she was writing a book—to be entitled “From out of the Depths.” The “educational” bureaucracy was not yet a Big Brother Cabinet Department watchdog (1979) and, Like King in jail, in the classroom she got away with this reference to Psalm 130!

    FOURTH, this was one dynamic lady of heart and mind, both, and all thirty of us were totally with her as soon as she began to speak the truth. Decades later I’ve searched for her book, but without any luck. The publisher marketing staffs of the day possibly filtered her race; or her faith—much like social media and censors of the Administrative State today.

  2. Sorry, but I am weary of the church choosing to harp on racism. I dont see it evident anyplace near me in the Northeast. In fact I recall far too many financial programs instituted by the Biden administration during covid which made a point to exclude whites from eligibility. Maybe someone from the church should remind the leftists that racism is not ok simply because the victims are white. I wont even get into the disgusting wok travesty of CRT in our schools. Being white does NOT give you an instant path to success. In my(white) family, none of my grandparents went to school past the 8th grade. They worked hard at minimum wage blue collar occupations. My parents didnt get past high school. It wasnt until my brothers and I were born that we all attended college or obtained post-graduate degrees.Three generations to make progress. That is reality, no matter your race. Nobody handed success to us on a platter. Our race had nothing to do with our success. Hard work did. At the point at which I went to college I saw plenty of faces that were not like mine. That is 50 years ago. Wake up to the fact it is no longer 1940. The simple fact is, people who fail to make good life decisions can blame nobody but themselves. George Floyd was no paragon and his unfortunate death does not qualify him, a man who held a pregnant woman at gunpoint, for sainthood. I find it disturbing that anyone of any race would hold him up for emulation.

    I find it unsurprising that many blacks travel a while to find a catholic church. Catholic churches tend to be built where there is an obvious NEED. As most blacks, statistically, are NOT catholic, but protestant, it is not a shock that the few black catholics have to travel to find a church.

    Finally, take a look at American Immigration history. Ever hear the phrase “Irish need not apply?” Ever read about Italians being called the “N” word due to their generally darker skin? Irish and Italians are WHITE. People tend to club with people who are just like them in all measures, ethnicity, religion, economics, etc. That is human nature, not bias. I think much too much emphasis is placed on race. I for one ( who have friends and FAMILY of varying races and religions) am tired of getting called out for a sin I have not committed. The church should reconsider beating this dead horse further, before more people vote with their feet and leave. And take their wallets with them.

    • Where I live, we have many “Black” Catholics & still have 2 separate churches within the same parish-one historically white & the other church historically black. It’s a holdover from segregation days. It would be far more sensible & economical to have just one combined church per parish but at this late date many black families do not want to give up the church they, their parents, grandparents, & great grandparents grew up in. They have their own choir, hymnbooks, Our Lord is portrayed over the altar as someone with darker skin, etc., etc. It’s become their church home.

    • Many good insights, LJ. The entire article and the 2 featured people in the article are simply pushing the lame narrative from the “woke” that has been debunked time and time again by actual facts and data that give the lie to the “woke” claims, but those committed to the false narrative will not give it up, especially when they can still dupe many people.

      What’s especially egregious is the ongoing unjust attack on white people in general wherein it is claimed that most whites are “unaware” of their racism against blacks, or that whites do not care enough about blacks being abused that, it is also claimed, continues to happen with too much frequency….again, even though such is a flat out lie not supported by any objective evidence.

      What also jumps out in the article is the notion that only whites “need to examine their sins of racism,” which means racist actions and attitudes toward blacks, but never, ever is there a call for blacks to examine their own sins of racism toward whites and others. Why is that? This sin applies to all people of all races.

      There is so much more wrong with the article, but I will emphasize just two more things and leave it at that. Whenever someone calls for hiring more black people simply because they are black, that in and of itself is racist and also flat out stupid, but that is what Anyanwu calls for and promotes as one way for whites to help overcome their “racism.” Forget objective standards: just hire more blacks regardless of whether or not they are more qualified than others (and call it diversity to make it sound good). And who cares about the people who are more qualified, right? Better to impose a prejudice against them to “right” the wrong of past/ongoing racism against blacks, right? This is straight from the race Marxist I. Kendi playbook wherein he proudly declares that the only way to end racism against blacks is to impose racism on whites. And many gullible people believe this yahoo is brilliant, plus his calls for more racism should be followed, which, sadly, many people do.

      Lastly, note the following from the article:

      “Many of the Black Catholics whom Johnson encounters say they feel unwelcome or neglected by the Catholic Church — ‘that’s just a fact,’ he said. …

      …’My encouragement for [Black Catholics] is to pray, as well, because Jesus Christ is sufficient. God is enough. So even if the community that surrounds us is the only Catholic church in our area, even if they persecute us, Jesus was persecuted and he was misunderstood. And he was mocked, and he was abandoned, and he was betrayed, and he was rejected, and so there’s an intimacy with Christ in that to be experienced.'”

      With regard to many blacks feeling unwelcome or neglected, why do they feel that way, and what role does their own possible prejudice toward whites play in their feeling? Have they also listened to others demonizing whites so they just accept that narrative? What exactly can any of these allegedly aggrieved people actually point to as evidence of them being unwelcome and neglected? As always, we get the bogus narrative without facts to support the dubious claims.

      Lastly, what’s with the “even if they persecute us” part of the narrative? What a lovely and charitable suggestion of what some white people might do to black people in the Church….NOT! Again, no evidence here to even suggest such might occur, but what influence might the idea of facing possible persecution by whites have on blacks who hear they may be persecuted in the future? Great job, Fr. Johnson. Stoke more fires and suspicion in your efforts to “end racism.”

      Indeed, throughout the article the one-sided, sinful narrative against whites is repeated in many ways, and so instead of helping to heal any racial wounds, this false narrative with the “solutions” it proposes are sure ways to further divide people. Indeed, race relations will get worse the more people wrongly demonize people because of the color of their skin, but such demonization is precisely what is being done to white people all under the arrogant yet remarkably obtuse claim that those doing the demonizing are really just trying to help white people better understand just how racist they truly are…even if they don’t know it, which is in part a redefinition of sin no Catholic can ever accept, much less peddle to wrongly accuse others of sinful behavior.

  3. I am a white woman (65 years old). I think it’s difficult for white people to know where the line is between welcoming the few black Catholics in their parish and patronizing them. Why would I make a point of greeting a black parishioner and walking right by all the white parishioners? Or perhaps I greet everyone, including the black parishioner–but that’s not practical when there are several hundred people to greet. Finally, greeting people is easy–foster a friendship that includes getting together for social occasions outside of church is much more difficult these days. And to be honest, it’s probably not going to work out well if there are no common interests or if there are personality clashes (e.g., sports lover trying to be friends with someone who hates watching or participating in sports). I don’t know the answer to all these questions, but I do know that just because someone doesn’t greet me at church does not result in my concluding that they are looking down on me or hating me.

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