Culture

7 Tips for Facilitating Conversations on Race and the Catholic Faith

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June 10, 2021

There’s a G.K. Chesterton quote I think of often, especially since becoming a stay-at-home mom: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Only have time to sweep half the floor before naptime’s over? Worth doing badly.

“All good things are worth doing badly,” I joked with some Catholic friends when we discovered we had a shared dream, “except leading parish-based study groups on race.”

We wanted to grow in our knowledge of racial issues in the United States and to invite others to journey with us. But the thought of invigorating the worst dregs of Facebook comments, only in person, with people we shared a pew with, was sobering — as was the worse thought of pushing people of color away from our (vastly white) faith community if the discussions went sideways.

I can’t say our resulting conversations were perfect (see lesson No. 4), but in general, I don’t think they went badly. So far, I’ve taken part in and helped lead two groups, one in 2018 and one in early 2021. Both were women only, and most of us were from the same parish. Our first group hovered around 10 to 12 members, including three African-American women. The second group had around eight participants (all of them white except myself). Both groups included the 2018 letter on racism from the U.S. bishops, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” and in the second group, I used the accompanying study guide, which I highly recommend.

Below are some practical lessons I learned from facilitating conversations on race and the Catholic faith, which I offer to anyone who wants to participate in something similar. I know I’m not alone in wanting to raise these issues in our Catholic communities and to discuss racial injustice in light of our faith and tradition of social teaching.

Consider this your gentle nudge to start having these conversations. I’m in no way an expert, and none of our efforts will be flawless, but we can do our best to do them well. This is where transformation and action begins: by opening our hearts to each other and allowing the Holy Spirit to move in our conversations.

This is where transformation and action begins: by opening our hearts to each other and allowing the Holy Spirit to move in our conversations.

1. Race Isn’t a Subject Just for Liberals or Conservatives

In our groups, we had a broad spectrum of political ideologies, from women I doubt have ever voted for a non-Republican to a friend who huffs when she hears, You can’t be a Christian socialist.” One woman frequents the traditional Mass with Gregorian chant. My co-leader, a musician, incorporates praise and worship songs into her Mass repertoire. What we clearly had in common was a desire to better educate ourselves on the impact of racism in our country’s history and a confidence that the Catholic Church has something worthy to say about it.

On that note, don’t assume everyone is on the same page politically and alienate one side by only using language from the other. Someone steeped in a conservative worldview might feel pushed away if everything is framed in terms of anti-racism, intersectionality, privilege, and the inflammatory rhetoric of the Trump years. Similarly, you’ll turn off left-leaning participants if you save all your criticism for Democratic politicians, “wokeism,” and “social justice warriors.” It’s not that these concepts aren’t worth grappling with — they are, and defining terms is helpful to having productive conversations — but we shouldn’t preemptively burn bridges by deciding which concepts are the most valid, unquestioned starting point. This lesson also applies to the resources you choose to study.

If I could keep coming back to one theme, it would be this: Let people surprise you. The woman you thought was summed up by her bumper stickers might have the most beautiful and nuanced insights on policing or transracial adoption. Let your discussion be a place where people can step out of the ideological boxes we construct for ourselves and step instead into the light of Truth.

2. Come Prepared (and Know What You’re Getting Into)

On the one hand, don’t let “I’m not an expert” stop you from facilitating these discussions. On the other hand, your preparedness can make or break the conversation. Read beforehand. If you’re using the bishops’ study guide for “Open Wide Our Hearts,” read through the introduction, and set aside time to familiarize yourself with the extra resources.

Along with having a basic familiarity with the subject matter, think about how you’ll handle conflict. Differing, heartfelt opinions are inevitable. As a moderator, be ready to steer conversations back on topic and gently hand the figurative microphone over to someone else if one person dominates the conversation.

Know your purpose. If people have different ideas about why they’re there, it quickly affects the group’s unity. Set expectations for tone and content: Is it an informal conversation? A structured study group? Is it mostly about sharing personal stories, or are you doing a deep dive into a writer’s work? Are people open to a hearty give and take, or should criticism be kept to a gentle level? What basic principles are you grounding your conversation in?

Whatever you choose to discuss, when you issue an invitation, make sure the wording gives people a clear sense of what they’re walking into.

3. Be Judicious in Whom You Invite to the Conversation

Yes, every single member of the Catholic Church should be invited into deeper conversion when it comes to racial justice. No, that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to open your group to everyone who picks up a bulletin and has an opinion on race. It is a sensitive topic that gets at the fundamental question of whom our society bestows worth upon. Opening that conversation takes trust and vulnerability, and cultivating that kind of atmosphere must be a priority when you think of who you want to participate.

I know I’m not called or equipped to facilitate an open, parish-wide discussion on race. But both times I’ve been part of these groups, I’ve issued an invitation to the large, private parish moms Facebook group I’m part of. I know the majority of these women, even if I’ve never had a conversation with many of them that didn’t involve diapers or dinner planning. But, importantly, we all know each other, at least on some basis — after all, we’ve been bringing each other meals after each new baby for years — and it’s enough to think, “I can trust her heart. I don’t know if we agree, but I know she’s coming with good will.”

In other cases, trust has been built over the years through other intimate moments — mourning together over a miscarriage or listening to a friend’s anxieties over her marriage. Often, the willingness to be vulnerable with one’s heart is already there, even if it’s never turned its attention to race. And for the few people I didn’t know at all whom I thought might be interested, I set up some constraints — similar station in life, many mutual friends, etc. — and the rest was up to the Holy Spirit. Try to walk that tension between setting boundaries with your invitations and leaving room to be surprised by grace.

A note on the racial makeup of groups: My parish is very white. I’m Filipino-American, and in our first group, three African-American women participated, all of them knowing they were going into a “Racial Justice and Catholicism 101” situation with a bunch of white women. I know there are arguments for keeping these types of conversations in white-only spaces, and I think there’s merit to them. People of color might not want to spend their time and energy rehashing “But what is racism, really?” with people who are just starting to educate themselves, and it’s especially presumptive to expect that the one Black mom at the parish school should be on deck to provide The Perspective of People of Color. Simply put, there’s also less fear of asking unintentionally offensive questions in a white-only environment.

For our group’s purposes — to educate and, above all, to seek unity through the diversity of the Body of Christ — I didn’t want to exclude our Black sisters. This situation might be similar to yours or not. (And if your local Church circles are more diverse, this dynamic will be different, too). Whatever you do, be upfront with all of your participants, especially those of color, about what to expect (what kind of knowledge base are people working from?). Don’t force them into a corner (“We’re talking about race; can you come share?”), and be gracious in acknowledging that it can be a sensitive situation for a woman of color to share, even — or especially — with her sisters in faith.

4. Be Prepared to Make Mistakes

You’ll put your foot in your mouth. Someone will unintentionally hurt someone else, and you’ll fumble a response. It happens, and it’s awful, but it’s also an opportunity to model the posture you want in all these conversations: humility and listening. Pausing the discussion to apologize in the moment or the next time you have the chance shows others that, when we come to these discussions in good faith, it’s normal to respond to mistakes and correction with grace and humility. This is a great reason to come together in person, if possible: When your thinking is critiqued, it’s harder to stew resentfully when you’re sitting next to your friend instead of staring at her comment box.

On that note, don’t be afraid to say something wrong or ask a question that you fear might have an obvious answer or betray your own bias. It’s why you’re having this conversation — to uncover layers of prejudicial assumptions that have seeped into so much of our culture — and it’s an uncomfortable process. When we come to the conversation with docility — an openness to learn — it also implies a willingness to unlearn, to have presumptions reshifted, even in front of others.

In our last group, one woman who had recently become aware of historic, systemic racism against African-Americans often prefaced her questions with a hesitant apology that she was even voicing a thought that would flare into a social media war if she asked it there. Each time, I was grateful (and told her so) that she asked anyway, choosing vulnerability for the sake of learning. I wanted that space to be safe not only for people who’ve felt the effects of racism but also for people who were sincerely probing their own heart for latent biases and asking for help in the process. (Notably, this was the group that didn’t have any Black participants.)

Finally, it’s OK to not know an answer. If you’re stumped, say you’ll look into a question further, and follow up later. Ask others to join you in deeper research.

5. Give People Time to Tell Stories

I noticed this advice in the study guide to “Open Wide Our Hearts,” and even then, I underestimated how important it is. Even in a structured, formal study group, personal stories bring the human element to an intellectual exercise. Listening to a woman’s experience as she opens up in your living room is what connects discussions of anthropology, history, theology, and politics to the individual persons we’re called to love.

Listening to a woman’s experience as she opens up in your living room is what connects discussions of anthropology, history, theology, and politics to the individual persons we’re called to love.

Now is the time to let people surprise you and to find unexpected bridges with people you thought were on the “other side.” It’s the time to practice what’s perhaps our most lacking skill in 2021: listening. When we talk about the need for healing in our divided society, I think of Pope Francis’ descriptions of mercy. They’re physical, like a caress or an outstretched hand, and they begin with the simple but profound act of listening.

Listening doesn’t mean affirming every single belief held by the person telling her story, but when we shut up and listen, we open a door that many of us didn’t even realize was closed for most of our lives — or, perhaps, we thought that keeping it closed kept division at bay. Keep that door open for the Holy Spirit. It’s how mercy flows. It’s how healing begins.

6. The Most Important First Step Is Starting a Conversation

I’ll go out on a limb and say that your study circle is not going to solve racism inside or outside the Church. You probably won’t even walk away with an action plan for your parish or local community. But just having this conversation opens a door that far too many white American Catholics didn’t even know existed. Don’t underestimate the significance of opening that door.

By facilitating the conversation, you’re letting other Catholics around you know that it’s OK — it’s good — to talk about this topic. It is an issue that we care about, too. I know for many in the Church, especially Catholics of color, it is too little, too late. But I want to convey how much hope I feel when the women I know from holding babies together in the back of the church look around the group and say, “I’m so glad to know this is important to you and that we can talk about race together.”

It’s helpful to have a “closing date” for your group instead of letting enthusiasm wane with dwindling attendance. (My second group lasted four sessions: one for each section of the “Open Wide Our Hearts” study guide.) That doesn’t mean that the topic’s closed but, rather, that together you’ve accomplished something and you have each other’s back to practice what you’ve learned.

One of my friends is passionate about highlighting the beautiful diversity of the Church’s images of Our Lady. Her dream is to create a sidewalk shrine outside our parish, right on our city’s main downtown corridor, dedicated to Our Lady of the Nations, with rotating images depicting Mary from different cultures. In the course of one of our meetings, several women volunteered to help her maintain it, and others offered to connect her with volunteers who could build it. “Just talking” isn’t enough, but it’s important, and it’s where concrete action begins.

7. Let the Holy Spirit Show up

Open with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, and let this prayer set the tone for your time together. Invite Him to fill every heart with the fire and love that He has for each of His people. Ask that the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) be present in your conversation and in the way you address each other. Pray for a spirit of docility and humility, especially the humility to let scales fall from your eyes. Ask for the gifts of wisdom, discernment, and compassion as you navigate sensitive topics with others who all carry their own wounds. And, finally, ask for courage — and push out into the deep.

Open with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, and let this prayer set the tone for your time together. Invite Him to fill every heart with the fire and love that He has for each of His people.

Resources

“Open Wide Our Hearts: An Enduring Call to Love”: A pastoral letter against racism from the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Racism

Study Guide for “Open Wide Our Hearts”

Liz Hansen

Liz Hansen is a freelance writer, minivan driver, and mom of four in Lansing, Michigan. She majored in English and theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville (2008), and her writing has been featured in Magnificat, Columbia Magazine, FAITH Magazine, and Cruxnow.com. She will always talk about books and is either reading literature or aimlessly scrolling Twitter while parked in the pickup line at her children’s school.

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