Listening session yields concerns of African-Americans



CHARLESTON — About 70 invited participants from across the diocese met with Bishop Robert J. Baker to identify the gifts of our brothers and sisters of African heritage on Feb. 17 at the Father Figaro Hall of St. Patrick Church.

Representatives from a myriad of parish, school and various church organizations took part in small group dialogues. Each group of six to eight people was asked to prioritize the three greatest needs of the church in the Diocese of Charleston which must be addressed with regard to our brothers and sisters of African heritage.

Each group then reported back to the entire body, with issues encompassing a range of concerns.

Richard N. Boisevert of St. Jude Church in Sumter addressed the desire that a mechanism be developed to communicate parish problems to the diocese. “It’s important to get barriers out of the way when it is necessary for the diocese to intervene somehow,” he said.

He cited the need for more African-Americans to serve on diocesan boards and commissions, and that no additional schools which serve a majority African-American student body be closed.

Yvonne Orr, principal of Charleston Catholic School, talked of addressing experiences that divide the races as well as providing an atmosphere for honest dialogue.

“While there’s not overt racism, it is still there,” she said. “We don’t attempt to evangelize or reach out to those who are different.”

Educating the various cultures in the Catholic Church about how others celebrate their faith and pray would be a way to end misconceptions and stereotypes, said Orr, who also stressed the need to create an environment to welcome other people in and celebrate their talents.

Mike Gocsik, secretary of the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Mission Advancement, then read his group’s priorities. The church needs to take a leading role nationally in addressing racism as well as a grassroots role to the person in the pew, he said.

Communicating the contributions of African-Americans in history, especially contributions in South Carolina, was also a priority, as was identifying African-American leaders.

The director of the diocesan Office of Social Ministry, Dorothy Grillo, spoke of several needs: for liturgies to be expressive and vibrant, a sacrificial commitment to stand in solidarity with those of African heritage, calling forth leadership from the diocesan Institute for Parish Leadership Development as well as in Catholic schools, and healing the sense of abandonment felt by the African-American community.

“What is the church all about?” asked Edith Benson of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Columbia. “It’s about spreading the Gospel and love of God and one another. The diocese needs to look at its history and then go out to the larger community. Look at the history of how parishes got started, then look at the community and its needs. We’re not connecting basic human needs to serving the Gospel. There is a need for valuing diversity. The church needs to be constantly listening and dialoging.”

Maintaining that theme, Jackie Davis of St. Patrick Church called on the diocese to look at recruiting priests of African heritage, citing specifically the Josephite order, and forming liturgy committees in each church to have services that relate to African-Americans.

“We need to work with priests so they can understand our culture and faith,” Davis said.

Cornelius “Nick” Dorsey, a parishioner at both St. James the Greater Church in Ritter and St. Peter’s Parish in Beaufort, expressed his sentiments that every registered Catholic household in South Carolina should receive the diocesan communications vehicle, The New Catholic Miscellany.

Director of Stewardship for the diocese, Jim Myers, concluded with his group’s thoughts that ministry to people in prisons was an issue that should not be overlooked.

Following lunch, Bishop Baker continued the dialogue by giving his responses to some of the reflections he had heard earlier that morning.

The bishop said that one of the greatest challenges in the months and years ahead will be to avoid the sin of abandonment.

He also challenged his African-American brothers and sisters to evangelize Anglos, saying, “The Gospel needs to be delivered to the Anglo community as well.”

“I know you’ve walked a hard road,” the bishop said, “but we need you to help the Catholic community be more sensitive to all our brothers and sisters.”

Bishop Baker also fielded a variety of questions, dealing with diversity training for diocesan staff and how church togetherness could be fostered in the midst of separateness. To the last query, the bishop promoted cluster activities, with parishes sharing resources and programs.

To follow-up on the suggestions received at the listening session, the bishop said a committee of the event’s attendees would next meet in three or four months to address some of the issues, with the entire group meeting again once a year to prioritize items.