Time for a race conversation

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | January 7, 2015

Bishop Braxton’s letter is a start

Every January is a time of new beginnings, a time to wipe the slate clean and start over. If there ever was an issue that needed a reset button in this country, it is race relations.

Joe Heller cartoon
Joe Heller cartoon

In 2014, we witnessed some high-profile cases involving law enforcement and minorities. Each ended with tragic deaths and questions about police brutality. Now no one questions the sacrifices our police officers make to protect citizens, putting their lives on the line to assure our safety and well-being. However, we would be dishonest not to acknowledge the sin of racism in our society, including in law enforcement agencies.

Resolving to end racial tensions begins with a national conversation about the issue. Thanks to the bishop of Belleville, Ill., who issued a letter Jan. 1 on racial tensions, we have some guidance in our discussions, especially as a church.

On the World Day of Peace, observed on Jan. 1, Bishop Edward K. Braxton released a 19-page reflection titled, “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.” The letter cogently addresses racism from the eyes of a black bishop who has personally felt the sting of racism.

Not only does Bishop Braxton address the sin of racism, he also offers suggestions for people of faith to hit that reset button.

Referring to the deaths of “young men of color during confrontations with local white police officers … and heinous ‘revenge murders,’” Bishop Braxton writes: “It is my hope that this World Day of Peace reflection will help families, parishioners, neighbors, support groups for priests, ecumenical ministers, chancery staff members and school faculties to engage in fruitful conversations about the events that are unfolding in the United States.”

The letter is divided into six parts: a prologue; a call to Christian dialogue; a summary of the recent deaths of African-American males; an invitation to reflect on those events within the context of church teachings; a discussion on “minority” Americans and Catholics; and a conclusion that offers specific suggestions and activities to “help bridge the racial divide.”

Bishop Braxton’s letter is a must-read for Catholics who are serious about social justice and the pro-life cause. Here is a letter that draws from the experiences of a black man and a Catholic priest.

Bishop Braxton revealed that he had two personal encounters with law enforcement officers “that made me very conscious of the fact that simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong.”

The first episode happened while he was a young priest and the second while a bishop. In the first, he was walking down a street “in an apparently all-white neighborhood.”

“A police car drove up beside me and the officer asked, ‘What are you doing in this area? … I never told him I was a Catholic priest, but I wondered what it was I was doing to attract the attention of the officer,” wrote Bishop Braxton. “This was long before I heard the expression, ‘walking while black.’”

In the final section of his letter, Bishop Braxton offers 14 suggestions for people to consider. They begin with prayer and an examination of conscience and move into helpful actions.

Bishop Braxton’s letter is one of the most illuminating reflections written by a church leader on the topic of racial tensions. It is an excellent starting point for parish groups to begin a conversation about race and racism. You can read the entire letter at this link.

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