When George Floyd died at the hands of four police officers in Minnesota in late May, Father John Hynes and Deacon Ken Pulliam both knew something had to be done half a country away, in the Diocese of Wilmington. They had these thoughts separately but soon joined forces to develop a plan going forward.
Father Hynes issued a statement in early June condemning racism and acknowledging a “cry for justice” around the country. Deacon Pulliam was figuring out what he could do when he learned that Father Hynes had already begun some early planning. The two connected, and the first part of that effort began in late September and continues the evening of Oct. 28 and into November. It is a series of four online forums to discuss racism and how it has affected the lives of participants in various ways.
With the coronavirus pandemic limiting public gatherings, Father Hynes, the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Prices Corner, and Deacon Pulliam, who is stationed at St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington, turned to the public square of 2020, the online assembly. About 60 people attended the first evening on Sept. 30, and that number grew for the Oct. 14 forum. Father Hynes said he was surprised and gratified by the turnout. He said attendees have been engaged despite being online only.
The forums are using material from Father Bryan Massingale, a theologian and professor of ethics at Fordham University. He is the author of a book called “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.”
“This has been one of his passions. Father Hynes has been using that book to provide some structure around the different forums,” Deacon Pulliam said. “When I got involved, we took it a step further and got a little bit deeper. We said we need this to be part of something where we can really help to get a dialogue going within the diocese about what racism really means and how it’s impacting people. Ultimately, what do we need to do in order to help to solve the problem?”
Each of the evenings covers an aspect of racism. The first, for example, was about racism and the family and featured Deacon Pulliam speaking about its effect on his life. Participants are also able to speak about how racism plays a role in their lives. During his talk, Deacon Pulliam talked about growing up near Baltimore and how his father told him to expect to work twice as hard as his white colleagues to make the same process. He recalled hiding in his home to avoid racial slurs and how young Black men were more likely to be drafted for military service during the Vietnam War. His brother, Eric, was killed in action during the war.
“It’s still pretty raw to me still to this day, more than 50 years later,” he told the panel.
He also recalled looking for a home in the Philadelphia suburbs when he received a job offer and was moving from Maryland. He and his wife Barbara were considering signing a contract for a home when a group of white men looked at them with a look that told them, “Don’t even think about moving here.” Shortly thereafter, their real-estate agent called and told them she would not be able to show them any more homes. She had received threatening phone calls.
“We experienced the tyranny and suppression of racism,” he said. “Racism is about intimidation and control and suppression.”
The church’s role in understanding racism was the topic of the second session. The third is how racism shows itself in the corporate world, and for the final session, the leaders will try to bring in some young people to discuss its impact in terms of social interaction, relationships and getting started in the world, the deacon said.
“The goal of these first four sessions really is to bring awareness. To start the dialogue and to bring awareness to what the issues are that are out there … so that everyone starts to have an understanding as to what racism is,” he said.
Father Hynes said he was encouraged that people “spoke from the heart” of their experiences as Black people, Catholics and Americans. “I think it took us a step forward — those of us who are white — appreciating, sensing a little bit, the kind of struggle, the kind of anxiety that a Black American lives with in our country, even after all the progress that has been made.”
He acknowledged the courage it has taken for Deacon Pulliam and others to tell their stories. Their experiences in many instances have been quite uncomfortable.
“It was good to hear all those things first-hand,” Father Hynes said.
Deacon Pulliam and Father Hynes are discussing what will happen in the next phase of this effort. Both agreed that that they would like to expand its reach beyond the three parishes that are involved this time. Those are St. Joseph’s on French Street in Wilmington, St. Catherine of Siena in Prices Corner and Resurrection in Pike Creek.
They hope to come up with action items that can be implemented on a diocesan level.
“What are some of the solutions that we can put in place to help solve some of the issues of racism?” Deacon Pulliam said.
Father Hynes said he will speak with diocesan officials about concrete steps that can be taken on that level. At some point, they may work with churches of other denominations, but at the beginning, “it seemed to me that we needed to have our own Catholic conversation.”
Father Hynes and Deacon Pulliam knew getting attention for this series would not be easy. October is Respect Life Month, and this year they were fighting the elections and other issues for attention. But it is that important to them. Deacon Pulliam said racism is a pro-life issue. All lives need to be cherished and honored.
“To be pro-life, we have to be anti-racism as well. Racism is counter to that,” he said.
The third session, which is on the evening of Oct. 28, is available at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81559529481?pwd=ZFBodkFFeGlWUUFZUjQvenFpeVcrUT09. The meeting ID is 815 5952 9481, and the passcode is 546681.
Contact Deacon Ken Pulliam with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.