COLUMBIA—One day after the national holiday honoring the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., about 40 people came together at St. John Neumann Church to discuss how his goals of racial healing and justice square up against today’s reality.
They took part in “What We Have Seen and Heard: A Reflection on Peace,” the latest in a series of dialogues on race sponsored by the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries. This was the first such discussion held in the capital city. Others have been in Charleston, Greenville, Aiken and Sumter. The event drew a diverse crowd, both in ethnic background and age, made up primarily of members of St. John Neumann and St. Martin de Porres churches. The session was led by Kathleen Merritt, director of the ethnic ministries office, and Michael Tran, assistant director.
The basis for discussion was “The Racial Divide in the United States,” a 2015 letter written by Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill. It focuses on the tumultuous history of race relations in the United States and the Catholic Church, including the conflict in recent years over police shootings of unarmed black men around the country. Discussions included the state of race relations since the presidential elections of 2016 and the experience of African-Americans in South Carolina.
Sister Roberta Fulton, who is a Sister of St. Mary of Namur and principal of St. Martin de Porres School, offered perspective on the historic prejudice faced by early black Catholics who wanted to become priests or religious brothers or sisters in the United States. She told the crowd about Father Augustus Tolton, who became America’s first black priest, but had to be ordained in Rome because no bishop in the U.S. would offer him the sacrament. Father Tolton is now being considered for sainthood.
Discussion was deep and sometimes emotional, and included difficult topics such as the lingering legacy of slavery and the struggle to help black children grow up with a sense of self-esteem and pride in their culture.
Ericka Wooten, who attends St. John Neumann, said she worries about how society perceives her son and other young black men. She noted that every mother worries about their children, but black mothers have an added fear because people hold stereotypical ideas about black teens and young adults.
“The fact is many people see young black men as menacing,” she said. “I don’t think I can protect my son like I want to and that is a daily struggle to deal with.”
Several people talked about the sad but necessary conversation that African-American parents must have with their children, instructing them how to act if stopped by law enforcement officers.
“A white parent will teach their kids to be respectful with the police, but they don’t have the same level of fear we do,” one woman said. “You want your kids to be respectful, but we want our kids to also come home alive. That’s the fear we deal with.”
There were also stories of other groups who have faced prejudice. A woman named Rosa, a member of St. John Neumann, discussed her Puerto Rican heritage and her experiences of prejudice while growing up in the Northeast. A Vietnamese woman talked about both the difficulties and blessings she has experienced since coming to the U.S. in the ’80s.
The session also included positive discussions about the impact the Church has had on the lives of African-Americans, especially through Catholic schools, which have played an important role through both teaching and evangelizing in communities around the state.
Prayer and song were also part of the day, which ended with the hopeful “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” At the close, the men and women went out into the cold night expressing gratitude at the chance to talk together and continue to work for justice and peace through God’s help.
Photo by Christina Lee Knauss/Miscellany: Participants read a document on race relations during a discussion about race and peace held Jan. 16 at St. John Neumann Church in Columbia.