The cascade of Black people killed at the hands of police in the spring, sparking protests across the country, touched the hearts and minds of the local University Catholic community.
“One of the characteristics of the college student is whenever they see injustice they want to talk about it,” said Father Gervan Menezes, chaplain of University Catholic. “That’s what they did.”
The discussion led to three online town halls on racism for the students over the summer. With the recent shooting by police of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the resulting protests, the students are looking at ways they can take what they heard during the town halls and put it into action.
“I realized a lot of people wanting to do good didn’t really know how to start doing good,” said Maria Aguilera, a Vanderbilt University senior who helped organize the town halls. “I recognize that learning, talking, and acting on injustices is a process and not something that can magically happen overnight. I think a lot of people are at the beginning of that right now.”
The response begins with an individual conversion of the heart, Aguilera said. “The second thing is action,” she added.
University Catholic’s Executive Board is trying to use what they learned from the town halls as they plan activities for the fall semester.
The board is considering “in our events, how are we addressing racism, actively pushing against the barriers that keep us separated by the color of our skin,” Aguilera said.
“We want University Catholic to be a welcoming place for everybody,” Father Menezes said. “In everything we do … we have to welcome everyone.”
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May that led to protests across the country also led to the organizing of University Catholic’s town halls.
“I thought I should be part of the discussion because I’m a person of color and have had my own lived experiences and I’ve thought a lot about race and racism,” said Aguilera, who grew up in Houston, Texas, and is the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants.
“Originally, we had a group of maybe 15 students interested in addressing racism beginning with our UCAT community,” she said.
After that first discussion, Father Menezes said, “We realized we need to do this in a more organized way. That’s when the idea of the town halls came.”
The town halls were organized around three topics, Aguilera said: Justice, identity and belonging, and action.
The first session focused on Church teachings on the virtue of justice, observing the rights of all and the importance of the Mystical Body of Christ, Aguilera said. “We also talked about how our call as Christians goes beyond justice and into charity.”
“The Church has a lot to say about justice” and rejecting discrimination of all kinds, Father Menezes said.
The second town hall included a panel of six African American students and alumnae talking about their experiences with racism.
“It’s hard to hear another person’s suffering and have to acknowledge our role in that,” Aguilera said.
The third town hall featured Courtney Barnes, a previous campus minister, about her experiences as a Black woman in the Church. “She reminded us that God calls His Church to reconciliation, which prompted us to discuss the different ways we could ask for God’s healing in our communities,” specifically within University Catholic, Aguilera said.
The students who participated in the town halls were eager to talk about the issues, but talking about race and racism in America can be hard, Aguilera said. “There was a fear of saying something wrong and hurtful, which is completely understandable.”
“I think I learned to be more charitable when having these conversations,” Aguilera said. “As a person of color, it can be hard when I’m not immediately understood.”
“I think the biggest thing I learned was that the conversation is a long conversation,” Father Menezes said. “We really have to make sure we don’t forget about this.”
“It’s a beginning,” he added. “It’s not the end of the conversation.”
“I am hopeful that hearts are being converted as we speak and more people will begin to care,” Aguilera said, “and I think that’s where it starts.”
The town halls were recorded, and people can listen to them by visiting https://universitycatholic.org/about/townhalls/.