By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 29, 2008
Leading Catholic theologians along with hundreds of activists are examining racism through the lens of the Gospels when the national Social Action Summer Institute for the first time comes to the Southeast this summer.
The weeklong July seminar will push people out of the classroom and into the neighborhoods on a “Poverty Tour” in Athens and Atlanta.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity for living our faith in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” said Susan Sullivan, the director of Parish & Social Justice Ministries.
Close to 300 people are expected to attend the seminars.
Atlanta’s history of race relations and being the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the 40th anniversary of his killings made it appropriate to study racism, said Sullvan.
Racism has biblical roots starting with Cain’s murder of Abel. And while the years of divisions between blacks and whites often illustrate the problem of racism, observers believe racism is part of the undercurrent of heated immigration debates.
On racism, U.S. Catholic bishops have issued four major documents in the 20th century about the problem and the Vatican looked at the global problem twice.
The Catholics leaders attacked obvious acts of racist discrimination in 1958, and since then Catholic teaching has evolved to denounce more subtle forms such as housing policies that discriminate against the minority poor.
The U.S. bishops in 1979 condemned racism in the document titled “Brothers and Sisters to Us.”
“Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father,” wrote the bishops.
Father Bryan Massingale, an associate professor of theology at Marquette University, said Pope John Paul II asked people to be “unconditionally pro-life,” which includes combating racism as well as opposing euthanasia, the death penalty and abortion.
“Racial bias affects the life opportunities and the quality of life of many persons of color in the United States,” said Father Massingale, who is scheduled as one of the speakers in July.
“Our teaching on racism too often goes untaught and unpreached,” he said.
More recently, Catholic Charities USA is urging a national conversation linking racism and poverty.
Society of the Precious Blood Father Clarence Williams has spent much of his 30 years as a priest dealing with what he calls “racial dysfunction.”
“It’s not my father, it’s our father,” he said about the Lord’s Prayer, which means everyone who recites the prayer is related as brother and sister.
Father Williams is the director of racial equality and diversity at Catholic Charities USA. He also started the Institute for Recovering from Racism.
Father Williams said some people do not know the history of the church and mistakenly think it only represents one culture. But the church is influenced by Greek thought, Jewish prayers and Roman culture, he said.
“When people think of us and them, they don’t know our tradition. We have a richness right in our faith tradition,” he said.
A few weeks ago, the feast of Pentecost marked the beginning of the church when people from different languages and cultures worshipped together. And it is the same way today as new people add to the faith community, Father Williams said.
The challenge is “not to see cultures as those people don’t know how to act, but they are bringing something to us as every culture has and strengthened us,” he said.
The July workshop is hosted by the Atlanta Archdiocese through the efforts of the Parish and Social Justice Ministries office, a branch of Catholic Charities Atlanta. The event is co-sponsored by six other organizations: The Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors; Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Catholic Charities USA; Catholic Campaign for Human Development of the USCCB; Catholic Relief Services; and JustFaith Ministries.
The first half of the week is an intense study of Catholic teaching on issues of justice with its biblical foundations and its place in the Catholic Church. The second half focuses on doing the work of justice at the parish.
The workshop will be held on the campus of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. The institute starts on Sunday, July 20, with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. It closes on Friday, July 25. The full week costs $375 with options to attend half the session. There are two areas of focus: the foundation of Catholic social teaching and racism.
The Parish and Social Justice Ministries, which helped bring the event to Atlanta, organized $300 parish scholarships to defray the cost of the seminar. Two members from each parish in the archdiocese are eligible for the scholarship.
For more information and details about the scholarships, go to the Web site for Parish and Social Justice Ministries at www.archatl.com/ministries/psjm.html.