Forum on racism an ‘eye opener’ at Ascension Parish

Deacon Charles Williams, director of the diocesan Office for Black Catholics, discussed racism in the Catholic Church and shared his personal experiences of prejudice at a racism forum held Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Church of the Ascension, Virginia Beach. (Screenshot/Church of the Ascension’s event livestream)

Series challenges attendees to remedy social justice issues


At a time of heightened racial tension, a forum at Church of Ascension, Virginia Beach, has started transforming hearts.

The two-night forum “Understand and Overcome Racism” in August and September enlightened the approximately 100 virtual and physical attendees about overt and subtle racism, both systemic and individual. It also called for action.

“We felt that it was very important that our parishioners reflect on the current events of the day with the Black Lives Matter and all the police brutality issues that were occurring,” said Ruth Brogan, parish director of social justice ministry.

While the forum opened a dialogue on racism, Alvin Schexnider, a parishioner at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, and facilitator on the first night, said there’s still “a lot of work to be done.”

“It can’t begin and end with one forum. There needs to be serious conversation, an ongoing dialogue about racism in the Catholic Church,” he said.

The event was one of the parish’s four forums that educated people on social justice concerns and challenged attendees to remedy the issues. Previous forums addressed breaking the cycle of prejudice, human trafficking and homelessness. Another on the death penalty is slated for January.

During the forum, Deacon Williams described ways the Catholic Church has been complicit, and Schexnider, who has a doctorate in political science, told The Catholic Virginian that the Trump administration has perpetuated racism by his “divisive” stance on race, gender and immigration.

“We have to slowly work our way through this issue because in my opinion, the ‘in-your-face response’ can be counterproductive and will lead to some backlash,” said parishioner Ed Hobbs, who shared his story of prejudice at the forum. “Not every incident that involves people of color is necessarily racist.”

Deacon Williams shared his experience of prejudice in the 1960s when he was one of two Black students during his freshman year at Benedictine High School and one of four Black students by his senior year.

In his sophomore year, he celebrated with fellow school athletes at the annual spring picnic at a local clubhouse. When it “became time to swim,” the clubhouse manager said Deacon Williams was not allowed because of his color. He and his fellow athletes left the clubhouse in solidarity.

“Because of that manager’s prejudice, everyone on the team’s day was ruined,” he said. “I felt the bitter sting of racism that every Black person in this country will experience at some point in their lives.”

Several of those involved in the forum said many people don’t know the gravity of racism in the United States, and some don’t believe it even exists.

The video “Holy Post: Race in America” by Phil Vischer, shown during the forum, detailed the history of systemic racism from post-Civil War to today. The video, available on YouTube, said that Black individuals have 60% of the earnings of white people but only one-tenth of the wealth.

He put partial blame on a history of racist legislation, segregation, difficulty getting federally-backed mortgages, the inequity of the GI Bill and the movement of factories to the suburbs, some of which prohibited Black individuals to live there.

Vischer said in 1970, 70% of Black men had good, blue-collar jobs. By 1987, that dropped to 28%. Also, Black individuals are incarcerated at such a high rate that one in four Black boys born today will go to jail at some point in his life. In comparison, one in 23 white boys will share that fate.

Father Daniel Malingumu, Ascension pastor, said people have told him that the forum was “an eye opener,” and Deacon Charles Williams, director of the Diocese of Richmond’s Office for Black Catholics, said many attendees were “unaware” and “shocked” to hear the information.

“We see we are all from the same mission and all called to be sons and daughters of God no matter who you are,” Father Malingumu said.

Forum attendees brainstormed ways to address the issue of racism. Some called for additional forums and “listening” events during which Black individuals share their experiences of prejudice. They suggested inviting Deacon Williams to give a homily at their parishes and proposed the diocese dedicate a weekend in which the homilies at all parishes address racism.

They recommended reconciliation services on racism and making prayer cards on the issue available. They directed people to look inwardly to examine their prejudices, make an effort to meet people of color and reach out to other local churches and groups to work together.

The racism forum has already spurred a book club and the educational Just Faith module.

Deacon Williams said he is hopeful that eradicating racism can be accomplished.

“You could see emotion and feel something was moving in them by the questions they asked and the way they asked them,” he said. “I’m encouraged that one day we will have the beloved community that we all want.”

Editor’s note: Deacon Williams’ presentation at the forum can be seen here.

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