Archdiocese offering staff opportunities to reflect on racial justice

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Members of St. Benedict Parish Pathways Toward Peace Ministry led an outdoor ecumenical prayer service marking the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2021 outside of the church. Archdiocese of Chicago staff members are being encouraged to examine and reflect on their commitment to racial justice as the archdiocese continues to encourage parishes and schools to emphasize it as part of their outreach efforts. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Archdiocese of Chicago staff members are being encouraged to examine and reflect on their commitment to racial justice as the archdiocese continues to encourage parishes and schools to emphasize it as part of their outreach efforts.

This year, the pastoral center’s mission identity team added a racial justice circle to help staff members in their efforts. The circle offered an online racial justice novena this spring and two opportunities for employees to participate in racial justice peace circles, according to Clarissa Aljentera, one of the organizers. Aljentera is coordinator of children and family ministry in the Department of Parish Vitality and Mission.

Angela Swain, director of the Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity in the Department of Parish Vitality and Mission, said the work archdiocesan staff members do internally will bear fruit in the wider community.

“It is important for pastoral center staff to address racial justice internally through racial justice peace circles because it starts with us,” Swain said in an email interview. “As church leaders, we are called to hold space for and accompany the most vulnerable. In peace circles, we become vulnerable as we share our truth through storytelling and reflection. In our vulnerability, we commit ourselves to the ministry of reconciliation, which God calls us to as ambassadors of Christ.”

Racial justice will also be a theme of several days of reflection for pastoral center staff this year, taking the place during an annual retreat, Aljentera said.

Aljentera leads the racial justice circle with Cliff Barber, the archdiocese’s chief strategy officer and coordinator of the Black Catholic Initiative. They brought in Bishop Joseph Perry, who has written widely on topics involving racial justice and the Catholic Church and is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on African-American Affairs and vice president of the board of the National Black Catholic Congress.

The circle formally began this spring, but the seeds took root in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and Cardinal Cupich’s call for healing, Aljentera said.

“For many of us, this is vocation, ministering in different ways through the church, we are undergoing constant transformation,” she said. “How are we called to heal individually, and how are we called to heal those who we’ve maybe unintentionally slighted or hurt, especially our coworkers or our neighbors? Also how are we modeling this healing?”

“Five years ago, the cardinal held up the San Damiano cross and kicked off the renewal effort that’s been going on, and it’s a spiritual renewal,” Barber said, referring to Renew My Church. “Part of the pastoral renewal is renewing ourselves. It’s kind of re-centering Jesus Christ, coming closer in touch with our Catholic values.”

Barber had experience working for racial justice, especially in the area of economic development, before coming to the archdiocese three years ago.

“Our faith informs our views on this difficult topic,” Barber said. “Racism is the issue of our time, particularly our country, but also across the world. Our response is to be out in the world and be informed around issues of racism. We want to make sure that everyone in the pastoral center is informed but also is equipped with the right information and the right avenues to go out into the church and work for justice.”

The church must do so with an awareness that neither the institution nor its people are innocent of the sin of racism.

“Because the work of racial justice is so big and so broad and so deep, even within who we are and where we are in the Archdiocese of Chicago, because of segregation, because of redlining, it is a part of the Archdiocese of Chicago,” Aljentera said. “We have to be mindful of how it’s going to look and how this work is going to take place.”

The archdiocese has addressed racial justice many times in the past, including Cardinal Francis George’s 2001 pastoral letter, “Dwell in My Love,” and his creation of the Office for Racial Justice, which worked with parishes and schools from 2000 to 2014.

“’Working for racial justice isn’t new to the pastoral center and isn’t new to who we are,” Aljentera said. “So much of the work is hard and it’s not always linear. Some of this work is three steps forward and one step or two steps back, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s really meant to be done in a way that causes you to reflect.”

The efforts so far are only a start, organizers said.

“Our colleagues and coworkers will have different ways to enter into this space, if you create these spaces for prayer and reflection,” Barber said, “One of the questions we asked at the peace circles was, ‘What supports do you need to keep going?’ By entering into this conversation, there is an expectation that you need to inspire others on your team, that you need to keep going.”

“Becoming an anti-racist doesn’t happen overnight,” Swain said. “It’s a life-long journey for us individually and collectively. Once a person gains awareness around where they are in their journey, they can begin to locate themselves within the anti-racist discourse. Through prayer, reflection, sharing their stories and listening to understand other people’s stories, we can begin to heal and be vehicles of reconciliation as one body.”


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