Catholic college leaders urged to bridge racial divides on campus

Father Bryan Massingale (CNS/Fordham University)

Father Bryan Massingale (CNS/Fordham University)

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic college leaders were encouraged Jan. 29 to take steps to heal racial divides on their campuses during an annual meeting in Washington.

Father Bryan Massingale, a theology professor at Fordham University in New York and author of “Racial Justice in the Catholic Church,” acknowledged that Catholic colleges and universities likely have diversity plans and strategies in place, but he said such guidelines will simply sit on the shelves unless there are concrete actions behind them.

“What’s at stake is our integrity,” he told the college presidents and leaders at a workshop during the Jan. 28-30 Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities meeting.

He urged them to pay particular attention to the urgency of what African-American students are experiencing today as highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Father Massingale said Catholic colleges leaders need to be aware of  the Catholic response to this moment of racial turmoil and urged them as a first step to recommit to their sponsors and founders. “They worked for the marginalized. Tell and own that story,” he said.

He also urged them to provide training in anti-racism, forums for dialogue, curriculum revisions to include voices of people of color and also to make sure campuses have diverse faculty members.

“College presidents need to let everyone know this is an issue they are viscerally committed to,” he said, urging them to step out of their comfort zones and also to assure students that “intolerance in words and postings won’t be tolerated.”

He said school leaders also need to look at the policing on their campuses, pointing out that as an African-American he had been trailed by a campus safety patrol on a campus when he was not wearing his clerics but a hoodie. This is a “huge concern” on campuses, he added, pointing out that African-Americans are still disproportionately viewed suspiciously.

Father Massingale also experienced police presence when he recently gave a talk at a Catholic college and learned that plain-clothes police officers were in the audience because school officials feared there could be violence during a talk on the Black Lives Matter movement. Officers weren’t in place for other lectures, he noted.

The priest, who teaches courses in Catholic social teaching, said when it comes to talking about racial diversity, his students at first don’t know how to talk about it and also feel uncomfortable. When he asks them how they are feeling, they list any of the following: nervous, hopeless, paralyzed, afraid, tense, worried, guilty, angry and ashamed.

It’s OK to feel these emotions, but don’t get stuck there, he tells them, which he seemed to be echoing to the hotel ballroom filled with college leaders.

He said campuses need to show solidarity with those people of color who often feel a lack of inclusion saying they get daily insults with subtle and blatant messages that they don’t belong.

The priest told the college leaders what he tells his students — that racism and isolation are obstacles to solidarity. Campuses need to be concerned about all their members: “recognizing the humanity of those who are not like us,” he added.

But showing solidarity in the midst of conflict, isn’t easy he said, warning that college leaders could likely face resistance.

He urged them to be hopeful and he left them with the last line of his recent book: “What is now does not have to be. Therein lies the hope. And the challenge.”

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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