Forum begins conversation on racism in Austin

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

Concerned about the growing racial divide in the U.S., a coalition of parishes and ministries from the Diocese of Austin organized a community conversation on the issues of race and social justice to determine what people can do in their communities to bring healing and understanding.
A diverse crowd of more than 100 people gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in late January to listen to a panel of speakers that included Bob Van Steenburg, a parishioner from St. Austin Parish and the father of four adult children, two of whom are adopted and are biracial; Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP; Genoveva Rodriguez, representing Council Member Ora Houston; Maj. Darren Long, of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office; and Maj. Wes Priddy, jail administrator with the Sheriff’s Office.
“Our hope is that these meetings can begin a conversation about the fact that racism continues to live under the consciousness of all of us and that this prevents us from living the peace and justice which God desires,” said Barbara Budde, director of the diocesan Office of Social Concerns.
She said the hope is that participants will bring these conversations to their parishes so more people can participate and understand the life experiences of others.
“While we have made great progress, justice and peace still don’t exist as they should and we hope we can move forward in a courageous way to really be the one family God desires,” she said.
Joyce James, a racial equity consultant from Round Rock, facilitated the January event and noted the Austin Police Department was contacted about sending a speaker but did not respond.
Event co-sponsors included Holy Cross Parish, St. Austin Parish, St. John Neumann Parish and the diocesan Office of Black Catholics.
Budde welcomed those in attendance and read a letter of welcome from Bishop Joe Vásquez:
“I enthusiastically support the goal of this gathering, which is to provide an opportunity for courageous conversation around the issues of racial justice and peace.
“This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the march on Selma and the beginning of the grape boycott in California. Over these 50 years we have seen much progress, but we have not always taken the opportunity to address the cultural formation that has shaped all of us and our society. As a community, these deep and often unconscious feelings and attitudes have kept us from experiencing the full flowering we envisioned from the civil rights movements of five decades ago,” the bishop wrote.
Missionary of St. Paul Father Basil Aguzie, pastor at Holy Cross Parish, said that following the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., police last August and the chokehold death of Eric Garner by police last July and the public reaction that followed, people in parishes and the diocese wanted to provide a forum to allow for dialogue and discussion and ways to “and move forward.”
“We want an ongoing conversation so we can understand one another and yield positive results,” he said.
Bledsoe said the police shootings and the reactions of many in the African-American community indicate that this issue had been “developing and brewing for some time.”
Bledsoe noted the U.S. Conference of Catholics wrote a pastoral letter on racism in 1979 and most Catholics are unaware of it.
“I don’t think anybody’s read it,” he said.  
Van Steenburg he would use the word “fear” to describe how whites and people of color have reacted toward one another.
“Fear comes from ignorance,” he said. “Fear transcends to anger. We have to find ways to roll back the fear. It’s not easy. If we don’t, we’ll have the same thing over and over again.”
So what can be done?
Long said the Travis County Sheriff’s Office has a citizens’ academy that allows civilians to learn and see what the department does.
Van Steenburg suggested people from churches regularly get together for meals with people from churches in other parts of town. This offers everyone an opportunity to get to know one another and diffuse that fear.
Rodriguez said people of color –– including herself –– make certain assumptions of whites as well.
“I never dealt with it until I moved here,” said the Brownsville native. “I was with a group of people talking about racism and one white woman said she had felt discrimination. I had to legitimize her emotions.”
Bledsoe said unfortunately race baiting makes good politics. 
“It’s intended to divide. That’s why race discussion needs to be kept out of politics” and remain with communities, he said.
To read the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on racism visit www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm.