TAMPA — Bishop Gregory Parkes listened as parishioners in his diocese — black and white, Hispanic and Asian — called out racism in the Catholic church and offered suggestions for its eradication.
They had braved earlier thunderstorms Wednesday to pack Higgins Hall at St. Lawrence Catholic Church to deliver an embarrassing message.
As the evening ended, Parkes stood to address the crowd. "I am shocked at some of the things I heard tonight. We're talking about the church. This is not something that is happening in some neighborhood," he said.
One of the first speakers recounted what he overheard as he and two other men waited for a priest to hear their confessions: ' "Have you heard about Black Lives Matter?" one man asked. "Yeah, they don't matter,"' the other responded. "Keep in mind we were going to confession."
A young black woman who works at a local center where retreats and conferences are held, was still upset as she recalled learning that one of the center's guests had asked, "Why do they have a black girl running the front desk?"
"I never felt so humiliated," she said, but spoke of being grateful about the way her manager took care of the matter.
Earlier, Parkes had encouraged "openness and honesty" and called racism a sin. He heard white speakers ask for more diversity in Catholic schools and for more Catholic schools in disadvantaged areas. Parkes also heard of the dismissive treatment of Hispanic migrant workers.
Racism is often talked about as being a black and white issue, said one speaker, who asked that notices of sessions like Wednesday night's be publicized in both English and Spanish.
"Who are we leaving on the sidelines when we talk about racism?" she said.
Gerri Drummond, a parishioner at St. Peter Claver, a historically African-American parish in Tampa, asked that the diocese's Black Catholic Ministry be re-established on its own, rather than fall under the umbrella of the multicultural office. She also called for more diversity training for priests and said putting an African-American, African or Caribbean priest in charge of a predominantly black parish "is not necessarily a good fit."
"We need more non-white priests in the pulpits," said Eric Mukasa Theodore, urging that the diocese's vocations office put more emphasis on recruiting priests and sisters of color.
Trinidadian-born Theodore, who attends St. Peter Claver and is a former Benedictine monk, said seminaries should be more welcoming and drew laughter when he said they should offer dishes like chicken and goat curry. "I don't have anything against spaghetti and sauerkraut," he said.
"We want to be part of this to say this is our church too and they should work harder at opening the doors. And vocation directors and seminaries are a good place to start," he said the following day.
Also present Wednesday was Bishop Shelton Fabre, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad-Hoc Committee Against Racism and head of the Houma-Thibodaux diocese in Louisiana. Fabre is one of the nation's nine active African-American Catholic bishops among 456 active and retired bishops.
He led a prayer for peace and spoke about the committee the bishops created to address racism following the violence in Charlottesville. Fabre said he is traveling to other listening sessions nationwide and that the bishops have already drafted a pastoral letter to address racism. The letter will be approved at their gathering in Baltimore this November.
Locally, more sessions are being planned, with the next one on Sept. 15, at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa.
"Changing hearts and minds is really more of a marathon than a sprint," said Sabrina Burton Schultz, director of the diocese's Life, Justice and Advocacy Ministry.
"We are excited to continue to look at new ways to help people apply their experiences, their faith and the teachings of the church to this very challenging issue."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.