By Jim Letourneau
NACC Board Chair
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This quote has haunted me – perhaps for years – but especially since George Floyd’s death led to a cascading series of cries for racial justice.
I used to work in a Catholic healthcare organization where the CEO himself led our efforts for diversity and inclusion. Every ministry within the system was expected to appoint a diversity leader, articulate a strategic plan addressing diversity and inclusion, and address health disparities within their facility.
That was in 2006. I led the effort for my ministry. We had strategic goals and rolled them out to the edges of the organization. Each goal had identified outcomes that we were expected to meet or exceed.
And here we are in 2020. Have we made any progress? At the system’s corporate office, I can name Black senior executives. That is an important step, but true progress requires so much more than visual models. I am a person of privilege as a Caucasian male … and I find myself frustrated, angry, and dismayed at racial prejudice and discrimination. My attempts to be in solidarity with people of color fall far short of appreciating their experiences.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other similar laws, as monumental as they were, could not change people’s hearts or attitudes. I believe conversion of heart happens when we listen to one another’s stories and experiences. As chaplains, that is our strength. We hear stories of those we serve every day. We bring a skill set that can lead to social change… if we knew how. I’ve been intrigued with the Faith Matters Network, which seeks to integrate faith with social movements. It seems that some chaplains have been able to use their listening skills in a meaningful way leading to cultural transformation.
Conversations dealing with race can be fraught with emotion. If we are conflict-avoidant, if we shrink back at the perception of anger (which I confess is my tendency), these inclinations can hold us back from the good we can do. Having a listening heart means opening ourselves up to the possibility that we can and will change. Listening admits that I may not know the truth or have all the answers. Listening humbly acknowledges that my perceptions may be wrong. Chaplains are trained to be emotionally intelligent and not to react thoughtlessly but to respond with intention, sometimes despite our feelings. It’s not always easy to carry out in practice, but it is something we can offer to address the effects of racism.
The USCCB’s Subcommittee on Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service recently recommended that NACC equip its members in matters related to restorative justice. We do not see this as a new required competency, but we as an association will seek to provide tools for our members to use as needed. How can we restore the disenfranchised and isolated members of the human family to our community? Through conversation.
As the NACC Board Chair, I feel responsible for our response to systemic racism. I’ve said before that we cannot be the same as a result of all we’ve witnessed this year. A draft of a strategic plan devoted to racial justice has been presented to our Board, which has advised me to engage more members with the plan. In the coming weeks, representatives from our committees, panels, and commissions will respond to the draft with their suggestions for possible implementation. Select NACC members participating in the Hispanic and African-American networking calls will also offer their perspectives. We hope to roll out this plan by the end of the calendar year, but doing it effectively is more important than doing it quickly.
May we all continue to pray for social change and an end to systemic racism. It begins with each one of us.