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Baltimore archbishop's pastoral letter on racism a 'significant step'

Archbishop William E. Lori
Archbishop William E. Lori (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

The recent release of Archbishop William E. Lori’s pastoral letter on racism, The Journey to Racial Justice, marks a significant step for Baltimore’s Catholic community, and, let us hope, for Baltimore City as a whole.

Two aspects of the statement in particular are noteworthy. First, the statement doesn’t simply denounce racism. Importantly, it takes ownership for the Catholic Church’s participation in this sin, going all the way back to her early involvement in the institution of slavery. By honestly acknowledging this shameful past and its long-lasting effect on the church and society as a whole, the statement offers hope for understanding the roots of racial division that still plague us today.

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Secondly, the statement includes very specific recommendations for action. Those recommendations include a commitment to implementing a series of dialogues on racism throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore; conducting a diversity inventory at every level of the Archdiocese; and working to attract diverse members of the clergy, archdiocesan, parish and school staff, and parish communities.

Archbishop William E. Lori has released a pastoral letter inviting the area’s half-million Catholics and others to reflect on — and to continue applying — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s principles of nonviolence.

Importantly, the goal of all of these actions isn’t simply dialogue and reflection. The goal is to lead the people of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, from its leaders to the people in the pews, to identify and implement the actions needed to change the personal and institutional biases that allow racism to exist in our community.

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I commend the leadership of my church for having the courage to admit our past wrongdoing and our continued participation in personal and institutional racism, and for committing to concrete action to bring about change.

I had the privilege of serving as a member of the statewide task force appointed by Maryland’s Catholic bishops to assist in drafting the statement. From that experience, I am well aware of the challenges the church faces as we address the issue of racism, particularly at a time when our church’s leaders are facing a serious crisis of faith in their moral authority.

The first new Catholic school built in the city in decades will be named after a woman who started the first-ever Catholic school for black children.

No doubt many within and without our community will say we should focus our efforts on other issues, most especially the continuing crisis of the church’s past handling of child sexual abuse. Many in our community will insist there is no need to examine their own or their institution’s attitudes toward race. Many who have suffered the effects of racism in our church will be skeptical that anything will really change.

But at a time when we are witnessing incidents of racial hatred, anti-Semitism and intolerance toward our immigrant communities such as we have not seen in decades, the church is — laudably — refusing to remain silent, and refusing to remain idle. These latest manifestations of racism highlight what those of us in the African-American community know all too well. Despite the advances our country has made in erecting stronger legal protections against discrimination, institutional racism is alive and well — in our economic, criminal justice and educational systems, in health care, employment and political enfranchisement. Nowhere is this fact more evident than right here in Baltimore City.

Archbishop William Lori announced that all schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore will receive 3D printers as part of a technology initiative. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Talking about race may be one of the most difficult conversations we can have in this country, and certainly in our city. It will take a sustained educational effort to open minds and hearts to the reality of what many see as our country’s original sin, followed by specific actions to change this reality. But it is my hope — and prayer — that by owning and taking action to address the issue of racism today, the church can help bring light for all, in Baltimore City and beyond, as we move forward on the journey to racial justice.

Skipp Sanders (usualis@aol.com) is the former executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture and formerly served as deputy state superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education.

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