Bishops visit Selma, Montgomery in 'powerful encounter' with legacy of racism

A group of U.S. bishops and other participants pose outside the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Ala., during a recent pilgrimage to Montgomery and Selma. The museum displays the history of slavery and racism in America. This includes the enslavement of African Americans, racial lynchings, segregation and racial bias. (OSV News photo/Catholic Mobilizing Network)

(OSV News) -- A group of Catholic bishops recently traveled to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, in what trip organizers called a "powerful encounter" amid the nation's long-running reckoning with racism.

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre of Louisville, Kentucky, former chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, and current committee chair retired Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of Chicago hosted a March 18-20 "Bishops' Lenten Experience" in the two cities, which were the endpoints of a five-day, 54-mile nonviolent march led by civil rights leader and pastor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in support of voting rights for Black Americans. At its March 25, 1965, conclusion on the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery, Rev. King told the 25,000 participants, "There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring."

The bishops' visit to the sites, which was closed to media, had been coordinated by the committee on racism and the Washington-based Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works closely with the U.S. bishops to end the death penalty, promote restorative justice and advance racial equity.

Joining Archbishop Fabre and Bishop Perry for the three-day gathering were Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, California, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and Bishop William M. Joensen of Des Moines, Iowa.

Among the stops on the itinerary were Montgomery's three Legacy Sites -- the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park -- the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, renamed in honor of King, who served as its 20th pastor from 1954-1960; and the City of St. Jude, founded by Passionist Father Harold Purcell as part of what he called "a long-cherished ambition" to work directly among Southern Black communities. The parish complex's now-closed hospital treated those injured during the March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday" clashes, and tried to save the life of activist Viola Liuzzo, who was killed on the final day of the Selma to Montgomery march by Ku Klux Klan members.

The group also journeyed along the National Historic Selma to Montgomery Trail, and while in Selma silently crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state and local law enforcement had attacked peaceful civil rights marchers -- including future Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020) -- who were attempting to transit on Bloody Sunday.

Following their time at the bridge, participants met for prayer and dinner with staff at the Edmundite Missions. Founded in 1937 by two Society of St. Edmund priests, the missions serve the area's most impoverished communities by providing meals, education, youth and senior services.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, told OSV News the tour focused on three lines of inquiry.

"What is the relationship between the nation's past and modern-day systems of oppression, particularly related to the criminal legal system?" said Murphy. "What is required of the church, its leadership and its faithful in order to be ministers of reconciliation? How can the church play a more active role in truth-telling to move our ministries forward?"

"Locating ourselves within these pivotal places of the civil rights movement during this trip was an opportunity to engage in intentional and potentially challenging conversations about the legacy of racism -- in our society and in our church," she said.

Bishop Perry told OSV News that he was particularly moved by his visit to the Legacy Museum, which "powerfully traced the slave trade through emancipation and the summary execution of Blacks -- mostly Black men -- in an effort to preserve distance between the white and Black communities on through the civil rights struggle.

"I don't think anyone can journey through the exhibits without registering great emotion in the face of the human devastation involved in our American history," he said.

"The meticulously prepared exhibits in the museum vividly portrayed the depth of oppression and the anguish of families torn apart by the cruel separation of slave children from their parents, husbands from wives," wrote Archbishop Gudziak in a March 21 reflection posted to Facebook. "The beatings, rapes and fundamental indignities endured are unimaginable. I found it not easy to fall asleep after this experience. It is imperative that every American become acquainted with this history; it is a history that every American needs to know."

He added that "the journey along the path of the civil rights movement from Selma to Montgomery and the visit to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, were both disturbing and inspiring.

"Slavery, racism and the marginalization of Native North American peoples and African Americans represent the original sin of our nation," said Archbishop Gudziak.

Bishop Perry told OSV News that eradicating racism is a matter of "conversion of mind and heart," admitting that "this whole issue of race differentiation is probably one of the slowest pieces of the human situation that we know of and experience from day to day. And it's hard to get people to turn around attitudes or entrenched perceptions of one another.

"We continue to work on it to make sure that that conversion becomes a reality," said Bishop Perry.

The upcoming feast of Pentecost presents an opportunity for faithful to recommit themselves to "the value of diversity in the Christian experience from the beginning," he said. "Can we allow others to voice and celebrate their cultures in our schools and churches and workplaces?"

Quoting the U.S. bishops' 2018 pastoral letter on racism, "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love," Bishop Perry said, "Only by forging authentic relationships can we truly see each other as Christ sees us."


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