SOCIAL FAITH task force: learn, dialogue, educate, act

This is a new ministry at Sacred Heart created on June 2020. In view of the recent events showing the racial fracture in our society, Sacred Heart is starting a group that will learn, dialogue, educate, and act in the area of social issues and Catholic Social Teaching. Anybody can be part of this group, but there will be certain standards—an ability to complete the learning tasks, a willingness do dialogue, an ability to educate others, and a desire to act on behalf of our parish. As we continue navigating the CoVID pandemic, part of the work of this group will be initially done virtually. If you are willing to be part of this group, you can register here.  

LEARNING STEP #1: "white fragility"

We start by educating ourselves. We are asking members of the group to read the book White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, and to watch or re-watch Fr. Bryan Massingale's video.  In the first meeting, besides logistics, we decided on a methodology. For the first discussion, the members of the group will have read White Fragility, and will select two main ideas they take from the book. One of the goals will be to produce a one-page, bullet-point summary of the book for general parish access. We will also bring to the meeting our own thoughts on what we learned about ourselves in reading it, as well as our testimony of how do we reflect about our own ethnic/cultural experience. 

discussion #1: june 30, 2020

We started by introducing ourselves and the mission of the Task Force. To prepare for our first conversation, group members were asked to reflect on their own upbringing and think about how cultural or ethnic norms might have influenced their current views. This exercise provided a way for members to get to know one another while also illuminating aspects of our own lives that shape our beliefs. We then began our discussion of White Fragility: Why it’s So Difficult for White People to Talk About Race (Robin DiAngelo)There were a wide range of feelings expressed – embarrassment, shame, sadness, surprise, disbelief, anger and discomfort among them. Critical to the discussion was aligning on a shared understanding of key terms used throughout the book and how they might have differed from the way we have typically understood them, including but not limited to: white supremacy (a system of structures designed to keep white people on top); the good/bad binary (challenging the commonly held belief that only “bad” people can be racist and do racist things, while “good” people cannot); racism vs. prejudice (that in the United States, only whites have the strength in numbers to impose racism on others, and that while people of color might be prejudiced against whites, they do not have the power to impose racism and racist structures.) Perhaps the most challenging idea posed by the author is that all white people are racist to a degree – that because of our formation, from the time we’re little children throughout our adult lives, there is no way not to be. Many of us were encouraged by the author’s statement that she is on a continuum, where she recognizes that she is constantly trying to unlearn racism, identify and own her biases and to make changes in herself as she learns from her missteps.    

LEARNING STEP #2: "THE NEW JIM CROW"

Race experts tell us that once slavery was eliminated, our society started a systemic process of black incarceration. In addition to the book, we will watch the documentary "13th." We will look at that systemic process in our own city (Racine, Milwaukee.) There is a caste system in the United States that discriminates against black and brown people. After Emancipation, the system took the form of what has been called the Jim Crow laws. The Jim Crow era lasted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making room for a new strategy based on the massive increase of the incarcerated population. In 2016, 2.3 million people were in incarcerated in the U.S.—despite having 5% of the world's population, this number represents almost 25% of the world's prison population. Almost 7 million people were under control of the correction industry (incarceration, parole, or probation.) 56% of the U.S. incarcerated population is African American or Hispanic.   

DISCUSSION #2: july 14, 2020

For our second discussion, participants were asked to complete at least the Foreward of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander) and to watch the Netflix documentary, “13th,” about the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States. Central to both is the issue of ‘crime’ and how the various ‘wars’ that have been waged in the United States – from the War on Poverty, to the War on Crime, to the War on Drugs – have unjustly targeted people of color, in essence giving rise to a new form of slavery through the creation of a massive, profit-driven structure whose benefit is solely derived from our world-leading rate of incarceration. Some of the insights that surprised us were the jump in incarceration rates in the United States (from approximately 357,000 in 1970 to more than 2 million in 2016); how unifying the issue of criminal justice was for politicians and that the building of this system over time had full bipartisan support; the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for black men (1 in 3) compared to white men (1 in 17); and the permanent, second-class status held by convicted felons that forever impacts their ability to secure housing, employment, government assistance and much more. We agreed that understanding the statistics in our own communities – from incarceration rates to law enforcement budgets –would be a good next step so that we can begin to understand the local impact.

LEARNING STEP #3

The last of the books we are going to read is by Milwaukee priest Fr. Bryan Massingale. As a group based in a Catholic parish, it is important to learn the issue in the framework of our Catholic Faith. This will be the last book we are going to add to the on-going bibliography for now.  In this book. Fr. Massingale, originally from Milwaukee, addresses the issue of racial justice past and present. Fr. Massingale writes from an abiding conviction that the Catholic faith and the black experience make essential contributions in the continuing struggle against racial injustice that is the work of all people. 

discussion #3: july 28, 2020

For our third discussion, participants were asked to complete the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) on race, to finish reading The New Jim Crow and to begin reading Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Fr. Bryan Massingale) so that we could start our examination of the issue of racial justice in the context of our Catholic Faith. We began by discussing our individual results from the Harvard IAT. While we acknowledged that tests like these have limitations, we agreed it was one element that could be used in self-reflection about our unconscious biases. We then continued sharing insights from our reading. We learned about the power of prosecutors, 95% of whom are white, in determining charges against those accused of crimes, the virtually limitless ability of police to use “stop and frisk” tactics and to seize property, even from those who have committed no crimes and that, in spite of the statistics that would show otherwise, the courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, have ruled that there is no racist intent in our justice system, showing just how daunting a challenge it will be to reform the system to one that is not prejudicial. We talked about three possible actions our group might initially take: learning more about the Supreme Court decisions specific to these issues, engaging on voting rights reforms for former prisoners and looking at the bail system in Racine to determine if there are ways we might assist.


discussion #4: august 11, 2020

For our fourth discussion, participants were asked to finish reading Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Fr. Bryan Massingale) so that we could begin our study of racial justice in the context of our Catholic Faith. We started by sharing some of the points that stuck with us – key among them Fr. Bryan’s assertion that the church has had opportunities to be at the forefront of this issue and has not stepped up.  Seminaries were not welcoming to black men, resulting in low numbers of black priests, brothers, etc. Fr. Bryan shared his own experience of being one of only 25 black theologians in the United States, which he said could be a heavy burden at times. 

And when he thinks about people of color in the Catholic church, “struggle” is the main word that comes to mind. But we were also heartened, knowing that he is part of our church and hopeful that he is someone who will help drive change. We found his definitions of ‘white supremacy,’ ‘unconscious bias’ and other terms to be both helpful and consistent with how these terms were defined in the books we have read previously. It was noted that the conclusion of all three books was essentially the same – that we can change laws and policies, but it is critical that we begin by changing hearts and minds. With this in mind, we wrapped up our meeting by talking about the areas where we might begin to engage, including developing educational opportunities for our fellow parishioners, recognizing the importance of taking care of our own house before going outside.

discussion #5: august 25, 2020

Given the officer-involved shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the resulting unrest, we spent most of our time working through our thoughts and feelings around what had happened and what we can do. We shared some of the individual experiences we have had so far in trying to dialogue with others who do not share our views. One frustration expressed was that we see many people who are reluctant to acknowledge the victim, dehumanizing him in a way, which we believe is an attempt to deny or ignore that racism exists. Another frustration was the information suggesting that, just as it happened in Minneapolis, those perpetrating the violence and looting in Kenosha are not from within our communities, are organizing online and are descending on Kenosha simply to fan the flames and incite more violence. We acknowledged the complexity of the situation and agreed we must pray for Jacob Blake and his family, for the police officers and their families and for the entire Kenosha community. We were grateful that Archbishop Listecki issued a prompt and compassionate statement, in which he acknowledged Jacob Blake and his family, decried violence and called for us to pray “for peace, justice, mercy and protection for every human being.” We also began a discussion of how our group might want to move forward, with ideas that included but were not limited to the following:

  • Continuing to study and learn, especially about how these issues manifest locally.
  • Finding opportunities for ongoing prayer, such as including a weekly petition in the Prayers of the Faithful and engaging those who participate in our parish prayer tree.
  • Looking at the upcoming gospels to find opportunities to share messages on social justice and Catholic Social Teaching.
  • Using one of the three sessions at our January scripture conference to focus on social justice.
  • Preparing a Lenten reflection series for our parish, recognizing the importance of starting inside of our own walls with those in our Faith community.

learning step #4

Two books have been added to our active bibliography. "White Like Me" by Tim Wise. 

Using stories from his own life, Tim Wise examines what it really means to be white in a nation created to benefit people who are “white like him.” This inherent racism is not only real, but disproportionately burdens people of color and makes progressive social change less likely to occur. Explaining in clear and convincing language why it is in everyone’s best interest to fight racial inequality, Wise offers ways in which white people can challenge these unjust privileges, resist white supremacy and racism, and ultimately help to ensure the country’s personal and collective well-being. "Tattoos On the Heart" by Gregory Boyle. Fr. Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. In the book, Fr. Boyle distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith. 

discussion #6: september 8, 2020 guest speaker—john costabile

For this discussion, we welcomed our first invited guest – John Costabile, retired Racine Police Officer – to give us the perspective of a career law enforcement officer. Over his 30-year career, he held many positions in law enforcement, from patrolman to inspector, and he oversaw professional standards, which included handling citizen complaints and disciplining officers. He was also a founding member of the Association of SWAT Personnel – Wisconsin, the country’s first organized tactical association. He continues to serve this organization in retirement. Mr. Costabile shared the history of policing in the United States – how it was modeled after the London night-watch program of the 1800s and how the function was instituted here in the United States to maintain status quo for the wealthy and powerful. The institution evolved over time and in a number of cities across the country, including Racine, community policing is in place so that officers serve as partners to citizens. He believes that most people who become police officers do so for altruistic reasons and the institution, itself, is not racist. He asked us to keep in mind that the violent situations that we see on the news are aberrations compared to the many police-citizen interactions taking place on any given day. He did, however, state that institutional racism does exist and that police are put in the position of having to enforce laws that are inherently racist. He said that police do need reform but that they have been consistently resistant to change. We asked for his perspective on “defunding the police.” He talked about how under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the resources were in place – social workers, early childhood programs, access to psychologists, etc. – to provide the support needed. This changed during the Reagan administration, when social safety nets were slashed by 70% – and continued to be cut by subsequent administrations – leaving the police to try and handle myriad problems when they are neither equipped nor trained to do so. Multiple reports have identified the same set of issues – lack of jobs, poor education/inequitable schools and more – as causing the breakdown of communities, but little has been done to address this in the inner cities. He commended the group for the effort we have undertaken to educate ourselves through reading and recommended two additional books – The Mismeasure of Man (Stephan Jay Gould), which analyzes the early works of scientific racism, and, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Elizabeth Hinton), which outlines the rise of mass incarceration in the United States and the bipartisan efforts across administrations that built and continues to fortify the structure. On the Catholic realm, he mentioned the USCCB document, Economic Justice For All. We asked him how a group like ours could help in the community. He suggested that we talk to the Mayor’s ombudsman to talk about housing issues in the city. He also advised meeting with the police department as concerned citizens. He left us with a final thought: Find ways to build up others.

discussion #7: october 13, 2020 guest speaker—georgia herrera

Following the discussion with a retired police officer at our last meeting, tonight we looked at another aspect of the law – the legal justice system. To help us understand the dynamics in Racine, we invited Georgia Herrera to address our group. Born and raised in Racine, Ms. Herrera has practiced law for more than 35 years. Among her positions and appointments, she served as assistant district attorney for 11 years, has worked in private practice for 16 years and has served as a deputy family court commissioner for the past 13 years. Earlier this year, she was appointed to the position of municipal judge for the Wind Point/North Bay Joint Municipal Court. She has taught continuing legal education courses, as well as constitutional law classes and has been trained to conduct trauma-informed education for others in her profession. What we’ve read so far, coupled with recent events in Kenosha, had us asking many questions. To start, based on accounts in The New Jim Crow, we asked about the power of the prosecutor and the practices of stacking charges to force those charged to accept a plea bargain. Ms. Herrera said that in her experience in Racine, she saw neither overcharging nor forced plea bargains. She said that people tried to do their jobs justly and with reason and that there was accountability. Another question we asked was around how she views policing in Racine. She suggested that we’ve done a number of things right in the city. To begin, community-oriented policing (COP) really took hold here. She believes that if someone were to do a study, they would find that the COP houses helped build relationships and bridges and served as a good model to bring people together for discussions. She also talked about the emphasis that has been placed on trauma-informed care and said that we’re fortunate because Racine has a trauma-informed mental health group/task force that is activated when the police recognize at a call that the person needs mental health support and brings them to the hospital rather than to jail. This is good both for the police officers, so that they keep their focus where it’s needed, and for the person in crisis, who can get the help and support they need. She emphasized that police officers have a very difficult job and suggested that, given what they see and experience on a regular basis, police officers also suffer from trauma, which can impact decision-making. She said we need to look at them from a different perspective and consider better support strategies, such as rotating them in different ways and looking at other models for their work, among other ideas. When asked what one thing she would change about the legal system, Ms. Herrera said she would improve education for those who come through the system so that they know what to expect and what they need to do. She also said there isn’t enough advocacy for people who don’t have lawyers. We ended by asking her where she felt a group like ours could have an impact. Ms. Herrera mentioned volunteer opportunities with a Kenosha-based resource center that seeks to provide handholding of a sort to those coming through the legal system. You don’t have to be a lawyer to volunteer and that it’s about explaining things to people in different ways they can understand. She also made an observation that there is a great need for personal coaches – people who will take a genuine interest in others who are struggling to provide guidance and encouragement to encourage good life choices and help them know they are not alone. She thanked the members of our group for looking at ways we can be active participants in our city, saying there are theories that community-supported advocacy generates a lot of excellent results.