Last November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” This letter, the first conference-wide document on the issue of racism since 1979, was written because, “Despite many promising strides made in our country, racism still infects our nation.”
While the document touches on several themes of Catholic social teaching, the issue of racism is framed in the context of the church’s teaching on the life and dignity of the human person: “As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.”
Around the same time that this letter was released, I had the opportunity to attend an event at a local school that featured a photo exhibit. Called the “Color-Brave Exhibit,” this project was developed by Fit Oshkosh and featured professional portraits of people of color from Oshkosh, along with written stories of their experiences within the Oshkosh community.
As the developers said, “The goal of the project is to create a new narrative because we know that people are more complex and their reasons for moving into any community vary. This project is a celebration of people of color, our choices, our lives with our own images and stories.”
As I walked through the exhibit, examining the pictures and reading the stories, I felt a range of emotions. I was sad when I learned of the experiences of prejudice and discrimination that people have encountered in our local communities. I was inspired when I read about people’s accomplishments in the face of some of these challenges. I was surprised and disappointed as I began to recognize and become more aware of some of the stereotypes I have about other people.
Most importantly, though, this exhibit brought to light some of my personal blind spots. I left that day with a new understanding of people of color and a new appreciation for what they bring to our communities.
Inspired by this experience and the bishops’ call to open wide our hearts, I began to think about how the church might respond to this issue of racism. This time of reflection became the genesis of the “Open Wide Our Hearts” photo exhibit. Modeled after the Color-Brave Exhibit, this project of the Catholic Charities and Living Justice Mission Team features people of color from across the Diocese of Green Bay who represent the diverse races and ethnicities present in our parishes and schools. This project shines a light on their experiences, specifically within the Catholic Church in northeast Wisconsin, and asks us to consider whether we, as a church, are truly places of welcome for people of color. After all, if the church is going to take action against prejudice and discrimination, we must start at home.
The purpose of the Open Wide Our Hearts exhibit is to provide the opportunity to listen to people of color within our parishes and schools, and to understand what their experience of the Catholic Church has been.
Through this, we hope that audiences will be inspired to start a conversation about issues of race, diversity, discrimination and inclusion within their parishes and schools. Ultimately, we hope these conversations will lead to concrete actions so that the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Green Bay will truly become a place where all people are welcome, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or background.
The exhibit recently debuted in a limited format at the annual Catholic Charities Gala (Sept. 25, in Green Bay). We are putting the finishing touches on the complete project and hope to be ready for a full launch in late October or early November.
For more information on the exhibit, to see a schedule of locations, or to request to host the exhibit, check out our webpage at gbdioc.org/openwideourhearts.
I hope that you will be inspired by this project to open wide your hearts in welcome, love, and support for all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Weiss is Living Justice Advocate for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.