Racism pastoral letter aimed to help eliminate sin of hate

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Thursday, November 8, 2018

This story is part of a special issue marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In 2001, on the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cardinal Francis George released a pastoral letter exhorting the faithful in the Archdiocese of Chicago to work to eliminate the sin of racism.

“The purpose is to draw people’s attention to the sin of racism, which is pervasive in our communities,” said Cardinal George of “Dwell in My Love: A Pastoral Letter on Racism.”

Daughter of the Heart of Mary Sister Anita Baird, who headed the archdiocese’s Office for Racial Justice when the letter was released, told the Catholic New World then that the publication was a “prophetic moment” at the beginning of the third Christian millennium, at a time when U.S. society is becoming more ethnically diverse than ever.”

“We have to get this right or we will perish,” Baird said. “Look at the census figures. We as a nation are going to look different.”

An impetus for “Dwell in My Love” was the 1997 beating of Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old African-American boy by a group of white youth from the Bridgeport-area. Clark ended up in a coma.

The archdiocese formed a Task Force on Race in the aftermath of that incident. The task force suggested addressing the issue in a pastoral letter, Cardinal George said when the letter was released, although a letter will not solve the problem.

“It’s easier to write a letter than to change attitudes,” he said.

The letter discusses the history of the Chicago area, where ethnic parishes created a sense of community and support, but too often turned into “parish fortresses,” designed to keep others out.

“We have had a history of segregated neighborhoods,” Cardinal George said. “It’s less true now than it was when I was growing up.”

When the cardinal was a boy, he lived on the Northwest Side. He didn’t become aware of racism, he wrote, until he spent a summer in Tennessee. Upon his return, he realized that his own neighborhood did not include African-American families, and that while his parents had African-American acquaintances, they did not socialize with them.

“The teaching in my home and in my parish was good; the experience just didn’t match the teaching,” Cardinal George wrote. “That gap is called ‘sin,’ sometimes personal and social, sometimes institutional and structural, and sometimes all of these.”

Since that time, there has been much progress, the cardinal said.

“There are some real changes in attitude, sometimes to good effect, sometimes to troubling effect,” he said. “I think people now take it for granted that racism is wrong and that wasn’t always the case.”

 The sin of racism still exists in people’s hearts and in institutional practices that make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of different races to find affordable housing or get financing for homes in some neighborhoods.

 Such practices have their roots in the history of the Great Migration of Southern African Americans into Chicago, where they were confined to a few neighborhoods, and the ensuing decades, where some neighborhoods “changed” virtually overnight with the help of fear-mongering real estate brokers hoping to turn quick profits.

While some parishes may have discouraged people of different races from becoming part of their communities, the church teaching has always been clear, Baird said.

“The teachings of the church have never varied on this,” she said. “Individual pastors and parishes have. But we have to stand on what we know has always been right.

“We cannot hate anyone and say we love God. That is very, very clear.”

The letter continues the church’s commitment to oppose racism, and it recalls the men and women of all races who stood up to oppose racism in the past.

“I’m building on what is a very difficult history, and what is at the same time a very comforting history,” Cardinal George said.

This year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to vote on “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” at its November meeting.

This article was published April 8, 2001 and has been updated.


  • racism
  • 175th anniversary

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