Arlington diocese’s new advisory council aims to help bishop confront ‘the evil of racism’
A new advisory council of 14 Black Catholic priests, deacons and laypeople will look to assist Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia with identifying practical steps to address racism.
The Diocese of Arlington recently announced the creation of its Bishop’s Advisory Council on Racism, which the bishop said will develop and oversee the implementation of a diocesan plan he hopes will include achievable ways to combat racial bigotry and bring about positive change.
“I thought it was very important, especially at this critical time in our nation, to put together an advisory council of leaders to help me to understand how we as a diocese can do more to listen, hearing people’s stories, acknowledging them and accompanying people who have suffered from racism, and to find out what would be some concrete steps and actions that we could take in confronting the evil of racism, which would necessarily include transforming hearts,” Bishop Burbidge told Our Sunday Visitor.
The bishop added that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” will be the “playbook” that guides the council when it starts meeting this month.
“I want this council to help me see how we have responded to the wisdom found in this document,” Bishop Burbidge said. “I know we have more we can do, so what is it that we can do?”
The Bishop’s Advisory Council on Racism is one of the latest steps that Church leaders across the country have taken this year amid a national reckoning with systemic racism that began in large part when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. The incident was caught on video.
“I was brought to tears when I saw that video. I really was. Even as I’m speaking with you now, I’m crying. It was so horrific,” said Sharon McCarter, a Black Catholic lay member on the new advisory council in Arlington.
McCarter, a retired government official who still serves in relief and recovery efforts as a FEMA reservist, told Our Sunday Visitor that she appreciated Bishop Burbidge’s decision to create the council, adding that it “says a lot about his character.” She received a notice in August asking her to consider joining the council.
“I really felt that I couldn’t say no, because it is such an important issue,” said McCarter, who hopes council members — who come from backgrounds in the private and public sectors, as well as the military — will come up with concrete plans to work within parishes and local communities to “eradicate” racism.
“I believe that many people are racist because either they’ve been taught that from the time they were babies or they really haven’t been exposed to other cultures, or if they have been exposed to people of other cultures, maybe for whatever reason … it wasn’t a good outcome, so they think all people of that race are bad,” said McCarter, who added that it will be important for the council to create opportunities for people of different backgrounds to get to know one another.
“I truly believe that we are all made in God’s image, so I think if we’re going to live the way that God has told us to live, then we have to come up with ways to make people understand and love one another no matter what the color of one’s skin is,” McCarter said.
Bishop Burbidge first announced his intent to form such an advisory council on Aug. 1, during a prayer service on racism. On Sept. 9, the memorial of St. Peter Claver, Bishop Burbidge celebrated a special “Mass for Peace in Our Communities.” In March 2021, the Diocese of Arlington’s Peace and Justice Commission is scheduled to host “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” a forum to address racism, which will include Mass and a panel discussion. That forum was originally scheduled earlier this year, but had to be rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We certainly know racism is an extensive issue that impacts all of society, even throughout our great nation,” Bishop Burbidge said. “We understand that we are to do our part, to certainly entrust it to God and ask him to bless our efforts, our initiatives and our endeavors, to bring about what he wants for his people, which is justice, equality, reverence of life and respect for the dignity of all human persons, without exception.”
Bishop Burbidge also hosted a well-attended diocesan listening session on racism last year where local Black Catholics and other people of color shared their personal experiences with racism.
“We heard stories about how people were ostracized in neighborhoods or separated, how they could not do the same things as other people with a different color of skin could, and how people in their workplace felt they were not treated as fairly as others,” said Bishop Burbidge, who added it was evident that racial-inflicted wounds “are still there” in the community.
“Those wounds take a long time to heal,” Bishop Burbidge said. “Hopefully this advisory council will also help me in understanding how we can heal the wounds of people who have experienced them.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.