Parish hosts a candid, educational conversation about racism

Participants engage in group discussions during a workshop on defining and tracing the development of racism in the United States. It was held Feb. 5 at Saint Thomas More Parish, Cherry Hill.
Photos by Alan M. Dumoff

CHERRY HILL — To pray for a peaceful solution to racism.

To clarify my own thinking.

To recognize [my own] prejudices.

To learn what I can do to help prevent it.

To be an informed instrument of peace.

To be empowered to defend against racism.

To pass [what I learn] on to others.

Those are just a few of the responses to the question “Why are you here?” posed by presenter Sister Cora Billings, RSM, at a Feb. 5 workshop on anti-racism. Hosted by Saint Thomas More Parish in Cherry Hill, the workshop drew high school students and retirees, ministry and community development professionals, travelers from Vineland and Atlantic City, clergy, diocesan staff members, and Saint Thomas parishioners — a diverse gathering of 70 people engaged in a candid, educational conversation about racism.

Sister Cora was joined by Sister Rose Martin, RSM, a fellow Mercy Sister. Passionate about anti-racism, the duo addressed the group as a whole and encouraged an exchange of ideas through smaller group breakouts. Participants explored stereotypes, ways racial tensions have eased and worsened over the last 40 years, the realities of white privilege and the role of power, distinctions between racial prejudice and racism, systemic influences on racism, and a shared definition of racism.

Elva McGee traveled from the Parish of Saint Monica in Atlantic City with friends Maryann Martin and Marilyn Kirkland to attend the workshop. “We loved it. We’re still talking about it,” she said a week after the event. McGee said her favorite part of the day was hearing from the high school students. “I was impressed with the participation of the young people. They didn’t just sit there and listen. They really took part.” McGee was referring to 16 students from Camden Catholic High School, Cherry Hill, who attended the session with a group of administrators, faculty and board members.

In 1999, the Sisters of Mercy adopted racism as one of its five Critical Concerns for persons who are poor. Sister Cora and Sister Rose — one a “woman of color” and one a “woman of white” — have worked with Chicago-based Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training to develop antiracism training for the Sisters of Mercy. They acknowledged that dismantling racism requires the willingness to be stretched and feel uncomfortable. It is a lifelong challenge and process, one that “doesn’t get fixed in a year.”

“I feel as though I know a thimble-full. There is so much to know,” said Sister Rose, who has been a part of the antiracism team since its inception.

“We don’t consider ourselves racists, but we’ve experienced white privilege our whole lives,“ said Sister Ann Byrnes, RSM, pastoral associate at Saint Thomas More. “We have to try to understand that.” Sister Ann organized the workshop, with support from the diocese’s Office of Life and Justice Ministries.

Some takeaways from the day included: have the courage to speak out, be in touch with the way we react when we meet new people, remember that everyone has more than one story — people are complex and multidimensional, and always try to walk with empathy in another person’s shoes.