TAMPA — During Mass, Catholics offer each other the sign of peace by shaking hands with those around them
But black Catholics Gerri Drummond and Dale Brown can recall times when white parishioners avoided the ritual, or deliberately changed pews so as to not sit near them.
For Brown, who grew up in New Orleans attending black Catholic churches, it has been surprising to be on the receiving end of such treatment decades later in Tampa Bay area parishes.
Jamaican-born Drummond, also a lifelong Catholic, said it was even more startling for her since she had never experienced racism before moving to the United States in 1983.
A parishioner at St. Peter Claver, a historically African-American parish in Tampa, Drummond sits on the St. Petersburg Diocese's Life, Justice and Advocacy Committee and its racial justice committee, formed more than a year ago to confront prejudice.
"I have been pushing for this for a few years, because I see it in the community and I see it in the workplace and I see it in the church and I think that the church should be addressing it," she said.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg, encompassing Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Citrus and Hernando counties, will hold its first public meeting on the topic today at Tampa's St. Lawrence Catholic Church. Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of the diocese of almost half-million Catholics, will attend.
"Racism is a sin that divides our communities," said Parkes in an email. "Healing racial division is a journey and our upcoming listening sessions and dialogues are only a beginning."
Following the racial violence in Charlottesville a year ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established a committee "to focus on addressing racism and the urgent need to come together as a society to find solutions."
In 1979, church leaders responded to similar concerns and issued a pastoral letter, "Brothers and Sisters to Us" and declared racism evil.
Parkes said discussions about "how to confront the sin of racism" had begun in the local diocese before Charlottesville.
"We watched community conversations dissolve due to unresolved anger or defensiveness," he said. "Knowing that there must be a better way, we began to research methods of civil discourse that would allow people of faith to apply church teachings to the most challenging issues of our day.
James Cavendish, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida, will be a moderator.
Cavendish, who has examined issues of inclusion, race relations and racism in the Catholic church, has been a consultant to U.S. bishops. His work with church leaders had its genesis with his research and dissertation while in graduate school at University of Notre Dame.
More recently, bishops wanted to know how well the church had met the goals set their 1979 pastoral letter.
"In that pastoral letter, they made several recommendations for how the Catholic church in the United States could be a more inclusive church," he said. "And it called on the church to confront instances of racism within its own walls."
His research published in 2004 showed there had been "very good progress," he said, "but it is clear that there's a lot of work to do still."
He said the discussion about race is especially important now, because of "the current political climate, which seems accepting of intolerance," Cavendish said.
Brown, director of the diocese's Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute and liaison for its Black Catholic Ministry, will join Cavendish in moderating.
"I'm hoping that people will be willing to come out and say what they feel, say what they're thinking. ... That people will attend and be open about the issue of racism and how it affects them in their everyday lives as well as in the church," said Brown, who worships at St. Peter Claver and speaks candidly about her own experiences.
Brown said she and other black Catholics have talked about people not drinking from the shared communion cup after them and wondering about their reason.
"I have the experience of people not sharing the peace with me, but sharing with others who are white," she said.
These are things that should be discussed, said Brown, adding that she hopes people will "examine their biases and hopefully begin to broaden their understanding of the difficulties and experiences of those that have felt not only discriminated against, but left feeling like second-class citizens in the church and society."
Carlos Flores, associate director of the diocese's Office of Hispanic Ministry, said he wanted to be part of the racial justice committee because of his work with fellow Hispanics.
"I want to make sure their voices are heard, especially with the way things are going on in society, in our country, with immigration," said Flores, who was born in Puerto Rico.
"It's not until you come together and share with each other that we can get a real appreciation for the other person, regardless of race."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.