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Marie Kenyon was stunned to see about 400 priests, deacons and Roman Catholic churchgoers come to a lecture about African-Americans, race and the church last month. And she’s the head of the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Peace and Justice Commission who organized the event.

Catholics are taught to love and care for the marginalized, to call people who are different from them brother and sister. But when most Catholics go to Mass on Sundays, even high-ranking leaders say parishioners don’t hear much about arguably the biggest social justice challenge for not just St. Louis, but the nation: racial inequality.

“You know how people are,” Kenyon said. “This is not a comfortable subject. This is not going to church and hearing, ‘Baby Jesus loves you.’ This is talking about uncomfortable stuff that we haven’t been talking about in church.

“We want to talk about it, but we just didn’t know if other people wanted to listen.”

To pray and ponder this issue, the Peace and Justice Commission — a decades-old initiative that the archdiocese resurrected after Michael Brown’s death in 2014 — is holding a first-of-its-kind “Crossing the Delmar Divide” pilgrimage at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, along with the North City Deanery Interracial Committee.

Some parishes have held prayer services and a few forum discussions since the events of Ferguson, but generally the church has shied from talking about race. Leaders of some of the region’s largest parishes say that’s true even as the archdiocese seeks to serve minority communities through its schools and social service programs.

“They don’t hear this from the pulpit,” said the Rev. Tim Cook, pastor at the predominantly African-American Sts. Teresa and Bridget parish in north St. Louis. “I’m not sure why. I think some of them are afraid that it might put their parishioners ill at ease, they might not like it. Too often that’s the case.”

But this disappoints and distances those who are African-American and makes some think that parishes should be doing more if they care about social justice.

“If anybody should be bringing it to the table, it’s the churches,” says Carolyn McKenzie, 68, an African-American parishioner at Cook’s church. “The church is the moral authority in the community, and they do need to discuss all these problems.”

‘Closing our eyes’

The question of how, and how often, the Catholic Church addresses issues of race came into a rare spotlight last month with a lecture by Bishop Edward Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, who is one of only six African-American U.S. bishops who head a diocese.

“Sadly, I know many African-American Catholics who do not believe that their black lives matter in the Catholic Church as much as white lives matter,” he said during the talk, which was also hosted by the Peace and Justice Commission.

Part of the issue is that only 10,500, or 2 percent, of St. Louis’ Catholics are black, a percentage that roughly matches the nation’s ratio of black Catholics. There are about 10 predominantly African-American parishes out of the archdiocese’s 187.

Braxton suggested there are so few black Catholics because “historically, the church has not been actively engaged with black communities.”

He has said the only time the U.S. church as a whole took an explicit stance on racism was 37 years ago, in a lengthy pastoral letter penned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The letter criticized low minority representation in church leadership and wasn’t afraid to call racism “an evil which endures in our society and in our Church.”

“We have preached the Gospel while closing our eyes to the racism it condemns,” it read. “We have allowed conformity to social pressures to replace compliance with social justice.”

Not a popular topic

At many parishes, issues of race rarely come up during Mass, which is the central point of participation around which Catholics base their religious life.

Some Catholic leaders who spoke to the Post-Dispatch said race isn’t a popular go-to topic for homilies, which is the Catholic equivalent of a sermon and the only time during Mass when the priest can speak freely and at length. Typically, homilies are more about Scripture than current events, in a church that some say tends to emphasize service and good works over political activism.

A 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops report found that 36 percent of American Catholics hadn’t heard a homily about racism in the past three years.

The Rev. Mitch Doyen of the primarily white Assumption parish in O’Fallon, Mo. — the archdiocese’s third-largest church, with about 9,800 Catholics — said he spends two or three homilies a year talking about social justice. He frames such homilies the way many Catholic priests do: by sidestepping specific terms like “racial divide” and talking generally about the importance of being kind to “all of our brothers and sisters.”

Why?

“Well, part of it might be that I’m just afraid,” Doyen said.

If he says “Delmar Divide,” people in the pews will already have their own opinion and won’t really listen to what he’s saying, he said. It’s no longer preaching but “politicking” at that point, he said.

“Rather than me preach about how to heal the racial divide in St. Louis, the only way is for white people to be friends with black people, which means we have to reach out and form relationships with people who are different from us,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the time to break open the social issues, in a 10-minute homily.”

The Rev. Art Cavitt, an African-American pastor of the predominantly African-American St. Nicholas parish in downtown St. Louis — which has about 130 member families — says that’s part of a larger problem the Catholic Church struggles with: connecting Scripture and tradition to “real-life, up-to-date, 21st-century experiences.”

Joseph Brown, an African-American Jesuit who teaches at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said when it comes to social issues, “right to life” is the top priority for most bishops.

“But if we’re saying that black lives matter, how does the church incorporate that into a right to life and dignity and safety and security and welcome?” he said.

The archdiocese prides itself on its Catholic schools, several of which are in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and enroll a significant number of non-Catholics. The archdiocese’s St. Charles Lwanga Center, directed by Cavitt, caters specifically to African-Americans and provides marriage preparation sessions, retreats, young adult ministry and other services to about 7,500 people out of its center in north St. Louis.

Many parishes also hold their own events that may not explicitly be about racial disparities, but subtly encourage interaction across racial and city-county lines.

For example, St. Joseph in Cottleville, the archdiocese’s largest parish, with 17,620 Catholics, holds a toy drive for Mother of St. John the Baptist in north St. Louis every Christmas, and makes a point to have its parishioners wrap the gifts with members of its sister parish. It also donates collection money to the parish school, a common practice among larger and wealthier churches.

“I think the archbishop would like parishes to interact with parishes that are very different from theirs, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said the Rev. James Callahan, the pastor of St. Joseph. “That’s where our primary emphasis is.”

Cook hosted a “Sacred Conversation about Race” at Sts. Teresa and Bridget last year and a choir concert in July that invited people from different parishes, as well as a Seventh-day Adventist church, to sing together.

And priests always ask their people to pray. But Braxton and Brown stress that prayer alone is not sufficient.

“I think it’s not enough to say we believe in this, let’s have a prayer service, we have to pray about this, we have to pray about this,” Brown said. “No, what you have to do is pray for the strength to do something courageous.”