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Issue Date:  November 16, 2007

-- David A. Gawlik

Dominican Sister Jaime T. Phelps
Call to Action sets about unfinished work on racism


The Catholic reform movement Call to Action is getting back to its roots -- tackling racism, one of the issues that brought it to life in Detroit 30 years ago.

The theme of this year’s national conference was “From Racism to Reconciliation: Church Beyond Power and Privilege.”

Racism, whether in the church or in society, “goes beyond personal prejudice and settles into the bones of institutions,” said Tom Honore, leader of Call to Action’s Anti-Racism Team. It is a cancer eating into the bones of society and church, he said.

Call to Action met here Nov. 2-4. About 2,000 people attended and most of its 52 chapters were represented.

Eradicating racism is more than just a convention topic. Racial justice was part of the action plan proposed by the U.S. bishops at Call to Action’s foundational meeting in Detroit in 1976. Call to Action reasserted it as an institutional goal in 2001.

On the first night of the 2007 convention, board copresidents Patty Hawk and Paul Scarbrough reported progress toward that goal, which Scarbrough acknowledged had been “excruciatingly slow.”

“This is our time of challenge,” he told the delegates. He then talked about a five-year effort to put ending racism prominently on the Call to Action agenda.

To reach its goal of racial justice, board members and executive staff underwent antiracism training, and developed a strategic plan with the help of Crossroads Ministries, an Illinois-based organization that helps institutions build more inclusive structures. The antiracism team was established and trained to take what it has learned to the entire Call to Action network. Talks, presentations and training sessions were scattered throughout the three days of workshops at this year’s convention.

“This weekend is a tangible sign of the efforts of Call to Action’s Anti-Racism Team,” Scarbrough said.

Hawk told delegates that “this weekend will be another step on a healing, loving, energizing, thought-provoking, transformational journey.”

But there was some question about whether the membership was behind this initiative. Attendance at this year’s convention was down by about a third from previous years, and many attributed this to the convention topic.

People look forward to coming to the Call to Action conference to meet people of like mind, to let down their hair and to celebrate, Honore said. When they talk about their experiences in church, there is some pain involved, “but not the kind of personal pain that is required to deal with racism.”

“People intuitively know that if you invite them to come and deal with racism, that is not going to be a totally good feeling session,” he said.

Lower convention attendance might be a good thing, said plenary speaker Eddie Moore Jr., director of diversity for the Bush School in Seattle and founder of the White Privilege Conferences. “It’s OK because it will allow us to find out who is in the way and who is on the way,” Moore told the convention. He said his job was to challenge the group further.

“You’re going to end racism?” he asked. “This system that is such a huge engine of benefits for you white folks, that benefits you so much -- you’re going to end it?”

“I don’t believe you,” said Moore, who was born and raised in Florida. “I came out of a segregated environment. … I was taught that you would never ever fight for anything that would benefit me. You are going to have to demonstrate that you have done something.”

“I’m not convinced that your saying so will make it so,” Moore said. He urged the group to take daily actions to end racism.

Other plenary addresses were delivered by Dominican Sr. Jamie T. Phelps, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, and journalist-commentator Richard Rodriquez.

After its consultation with Crossroads, Call to Action has a 50-page strategic plan that it is implementing. Honore outlined three immediate steps the board, executive staff and antiracism team are working on.

First and foremost, he said, the antiracism team will be training state chapters. Education is essential, he said, to get people to understand better “the systemic, institutional and structural conditions that we live in where there is privilege for some and disadvantage for others.” The team presented a model of their training program at a pre-conference session Nov. 2.

Secondly, the group will use its JustChurch network to support “victims of systemic racism,” Honore said. JustChurch is a one-year-old project that uses nonviolent action strategies and “new activist technology” -- e-mail lists, Web logs and such -- to focus national Call to Action membership on specific, local issues.

Honore said the JustChurch network will be used to support, for example, the Jena Six and inner-city parishes that are threatened with closing.

The third step will be “to encourage all of us to find ways locally to start to deal with racism as we know it at home,” he said. “To join with other groups, to lend our shoe leather and our bodies to peace and justice activities locally.” They wanted to avoid a “top-down” activism, he said.

Honore said Call to Action wouldn’t necessarily be recruiting more minority members.

“That would be a happy result, but we are not looking at diversity as a first goal,” he said. “To become an inclusive, antiracist organization, we are not looking to have different colored faces in our midst without first having dealt with the cause for there not being a lot of different colored faces in our midst.”

Delores Huerta, the cofounder with the late César Chávez of the United Farm Workers of America, was honored with Call to Action’s 2007 Leadership Award.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

On the Web
More coverage of the 2007 Call to Action convention is available on Highlights from the plenary addresses, a proposal for making theology education more inclusive and an overview of antiracism training appear on the Daily News Feed.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2007

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