On 28th October 2023, a seminar for promoting racial and cultural inclusion in our schools, parishes and wider Catholic community was successfully held at Amigo Hall, next to St George's Cathedral in London. Led by Canon Victor Darlington, Episcopal Vicar for the Southwark Commission for Racial and Cultural Inclusion, the day featured a number of speakers who focussed on different aspects relating to racism, ranging from rooting out systemic problems in parishes, incorporating how we express and share our faith, perceive ourselves and talk to others.
This well-attended seminar attracted interest from across the Archdiocese of Southwark, as well as other dioceses in England and Wales and as far as Europe and Africa. The seminar witnessed two modes of participation, in person at Amigo Hall at St George's Cathedral and via video conference.
This first of its kind, the seminar boldly addressed issues relating to racial diversity in a multicultural ecclesiastical establishment such as we have in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark. Our Archdiocese covers most areas of South East London, Kent and its coastal towns. It was no surprise therefore that the event attracted a wide attendance, born out of the real desire to address concerns and a willingness to engage in the various means by which problems can be overcome.
In his welcome speech, The Most Reverend John Wilson, Metropolitan Archbishop of Southwark, highlighted the continuous need to work together and to make sure that “there is no place for racism in the Archdiocese, whether in the Church, in our communities or society at large”. He explained the steps he took, especially in the aftermath of the ordeal suffered by George Floyd Jr. in October 2020, to carry out a first-hand, fact-finding mission regarding racial intolerance, discrimination and the need for inclusion in the Archdiocese.
According to the Archbishop, in his interaction with young people from the Archdiocese, and his resolution to “listen, reflect and act”, he “heard their distressing experiences of racism today, first hand”. He further acknowledged, that even in the diverse culture and communities of the archdiocese, racism continues to blight our society.
In response to these needs, he said:
“Let me be clear, we have set up a Commission because we want the Archdiocese to be a safe space, a place where everyone without exception, feels the welcome, the mercy and the love of Christ”.
In this direction, he continued, the Church needs to be at the forefront of racial justice:
'Everyone, should stand together with those who continue to suffer injustice and racism. We all need to stand in solidarity and be united with them in calling out injustice.'
Closing his welcome speech, the Archbishop called on all to support the Commission and to share the message of this initiative in the schools, families and parish communities of the Archdiocese in order to create a just society promoting the dignity of all.
Finally, Archbishop John thanked Canon Victor Darlington for his continued leadership of the Commission. He also expressed his gratitude to the members of the commission and all the participants of the seminar while calling on the blessings and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide all during the deliberations that followed.
View the Archbishop's Welcome Speech:
Canon Victor Darlington
Episcopal Vicar for the Commission for Racial and Cultural Inclusion
The Seminar continued with an introductory narrative of the Commission’s activities during its few years of existence. Canon Victor Darlington gave a short history of the Commission since its formation on 29th January 2021.
He started with the shocking ordeal of George Floyd Jr. in the USA, which sparked worldwide protests and awareness about racism and discrimination. Canon Victor then detailed the actual encounter of Archbishop John with some young people in the Archdiocese who participated in a one-hour-scheduled video conference, which eventually lasted over three hours. It was during this conference that the Archbishop embraced the shocking impact of the responses and experiences of these young people and their personal encounters with racism in schools and parish communities.
Soon after, Canon Victor indicated, the Archbishop sent out a letter to all schools and parishes in the Archdiocese of Southwark, requesting institutions and church communities to carry out a proper audit of procedures and processes in order to root out racism or discrimination in any form. Shortly after that, Canon Victor was appointed to head the Commission for Promoting Racial and Cultural Inclusion. The Commission therefore set out with the primary task of identifying, addressing and speaking out against the evil of racism where it exists, and also explored ways to listen, accompany and support victims of racism, with a view to eliminating this infringement on human dignity within the Archdiocese.
Canon Victor indicated that the first task was directed to schools, where he worked with headteachers and teachers to explore ways of addressing any form of racism or discrimination. and sought ways enable inclusion. Promoting diversity, love, and respect to all became a key task. This prompted visits to schools in order to find out what structures and guidelines were being applied in promoting diversity and inclusion.
The Commission also began working assiduously to establish this awareness in the parishes and other institutions via the clergy and other interested individuals.
The effort, in this direction, is to encourage parishes to create hubs of the Commission and to identify activities and hold cultural celebrations that would promote oneness and bring a wider diversity of persons together in the parishes.
During his address, Canon Victor announced that St Margret’s Church in Carshalton Beaches has achieved a very practical and functional hub of the Commission and therefore is the first model of its kind in the Archdiocese.
Furthermore, Canon Victor indicated that the Commission has successfully celebrated two Racial Justice Sundays during which our diversity was colourfully displayed and the messages of love, inclusion and promotion of racial justice were equally highlighted.
Canon Victor indicates that the Commission is there to help everyone speak out and to listen to anyone who may have experienced discrimination, racism or exclusion within the apparatuses of the archdiocesan establishments.
While thanking members of the Commission, participants present in the hall and those connected online, Canon Victor invited all to use these moments of the seminar to explore avenues of promoting racial and cultural inclusion in order to root out any form of racism or discrimination within our schools, institutions and parish communities.
View Canon Victor's speech below:
Fr Richard Nesbitt: Rooting out Racism
The first session of the Seminar featured Fr. Richard Nesbit and Elizabeth Uwalaka. Fr Richard is the parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima, White City in Westminster Diocese, London. Together with Ms Uwalaka, who is a parishioner, Fr Richard led the participants through “Efforts to root out Racism: The Experience from Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Parish, White City." Their presentation went through a remarkable journey which began in 2020 when Fr. Richard initiated the task of tackling racism in his parish.
He began the narrative of this journey by presenting a brief history and description of White City Estate where the parish is located, from which he hoped that a “a mature conversation about racism” would evolve.
His experience and discussion of racism is drawn from over 15 years of working in White City, which is one of the largest social estates in West London and a very diverse community, with its origins dating back to 1939. These days it is close to the offices of the BBC, the Olympic Stadium and is now being surrounded by many newly built homes.
Elizabeth continued the narrative by explaining the demographic formation of the White City parish community which was formed in its early days by Irish families. Today, that scenario has greatly changed with a wide range of ethnicities.
Though the killing of George Floyd happened almost at the same time, Fr Nesbit informed all that the flash point that opened his eyes to racial issues was the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston which happened in Bristol on the 7th June 2020.
Growing up in Bristol, Richard had seen the statue quite often and had the opportunity to visit Colston Hall. It never occurred to him to find out about the story behind Colston and his monument. But when he did find out about this eighteenth-century slave trader, Fr Nesbit said it dawned on him that all Colston's notoriety was from "blood monies”.
The removal of the statue has been described as '.....the cathartic removal of a memorial to an oppressor of people and an abuser of power who had too long loomed over the people of Bristol. The fact that it is gone is still right for Bristol.'
This is not mere judgemental rhetoric about the history of the eighteenth century, but a moment of clarity that informs us of the truth behind certain historical figures and their actions.
Another awakening happened in July 2020 when Westminster Diocese boldly invited black Catholics to reflect on their own experience of racism “Being Black & Catholic”. There were beautiful responses from a deacon, a priest and two lay people.
At White City, Fr. Nesbitt needed an opportunity to introduce an audit of the parish activities and structures that would root out any form of racism and discrimination. This opportunity presented itself on the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, which featured St Matthew’s parable of the darnel among the wheat field. This was the spark of what he called “The Darnel of Racism”, which he used to interrogate parish community lives, actions and operations that could lead away from love, unity and inclusion. This helped the community to have the courage to speak out, for example, about occasions where a “sign of peace”, by shaking hands, had been refused because of race and colour, This was an experience that his Bishop had shared with him, too.
Fr Nesbit's homily, “The Darnel of Racism”, engendered some electrifying moments after the Masses of that Sunday which encouraged people to dialogue, discuss and reach a closer level of understanding about issues around racism. He informed parishioners that later on that Sunday evening, a video conference meeting would be initiated, and about twenty-five parishioners, mainly black women, gathered to discuss and share more ideas on the topic for the next eight weeks.
This discussion, according to Fr. Richard, opened his eyes about a series of deep-rooted episodes of racism in the past and present, even under his own watch, that he had not noticed. He needed to capture these voices, and therefore formed a group including Elizabeth Uwalaka and decided to invite about twenty other people to tell their stories via social media.
However, no one spoke for fear of the impact and uncertain outcome of voicing such issues on social media. Consequently, Fr. Nesbit and the parishioners decided to publish these discussions in a book entitled “Rooting Out Racism from our Parish”.
Key areas of concern in the parish community of Our Lady of Fatima, White City, during the discussions were:
- Leadership roles within the parish - do they reflect the racial profile of the parish and how are these leadership roles chosen. Greater transparency was needed.
- Making sure that different racial groups were equally represented in parish ministries (Readers, Eucharistic Ministers etc.) and that at major celebrations in the year (Christmas, Easter...) there was a mix of different racial groups taking part in these ministries (e.g. Reading at the Easter Vigil).
- The artwork in the church - how can we bring in a greater diversity of religious imagery so that it is not a sea of white-skinned depictions of Jesus, Mary and the saints.
- Charity work - they had a powerful conversation about the danger of a "White Saviour" syndrome by which it is predominantly white parishioners making appeals on behalf of poor black children.
- The Repository - how to make sure that there is a wide variety of skin colours and racial imagery in the cards, books etc. stocked in the repository.
- Music - how do we make sure that we have a diversity of musical styles which reflect our multicultural community and rich cultural heritage.
- Sign of Peace - how do we challenge clearly racist behaviour and attitudes manifested in our daily parish life – e.g. at the sign of peace where some black parishioners regularly experience rejection by white parishioners.
The book, "Rooting out Racism from Our Parish" which tells the full story and the actions taken to promote racial inclusion in Our Lady of Fatima Parish in White City, can be read in full with the permission of the parishioner authors in this link:
In the afternoon we heard from Susan Elderfield, who is the Advisor for School and College Chaplaincy in the Archdiocese of Southwark Education Commission, and
Programme Convenor for the Chaplaincy and Youth Ministry Apprenticeship at St Mary’s University.
She has the privilege of supporting Chaplains who believe deeply in their role and feel a sense of responsibility to develop the Catholic life and mission of their schools. After enjoying an extensive career in teaching, she turned her attention to school Chaplaincy to engage young people in faith formation and spiritual accompaniment.
As a member of the Commission, Susan has led the first Headteachers Conference on ‘No Place for Racism’ and alongside her colleagues, she also delivers in-service training for Schools and Colleges in Southwark and Westminster Diocese on Equality, Diversity, Dignity and Inclusion.
Susan interviewed two young adults: Helen Ijeoma and T'iana, from Nigerian and Jamaican backgrounds respectively, who talked honestly about their experience of the Church as women from ethnic backgrounds, deliberating on their experiences so far as well as hopes for the future. Together they reflected on the importance of identity, explaining that in many cultures people receive a name by which they are publicly recognised, but also a 'real name' that speaks of their provenance and family history. Susan highlighted to need for people to recognise who we truly are, since we are all formed 'in the image and likeness of God'.
Helen Ijeoma went on to speak about the incredible experience of attending World Youth Day in Lisbon last summer, highlighting the fact that is held in a different country and in different parts of the world each time it takes place. Describing the experience as 'refreshing' she explained that the occasion helps young people, and those accompanying them to see, acknowledge and celebrate the vast array of different cultures that make up our world.
Nana Churcher is an award-winning international Talk Show Host, speaker, radio host, author, mentor, executive producer, and philanthropist. She is a parishioner at the Catholic parish of Lady of Mount Carmel and St. George in Enfield.
Nana is the recipient of Women Worship Gospel Music Awards: Best Female Author of Year 2023 and Best Female TV/Online Presenter of the year 2023. She is perhaps best known for her talk show, ‘The Nana Churcher Show’ which streams live on Omega TV UK every Sunday at 2 pm. She released a best-seller book: ‘The Power Of Your Words’ a self-help book that encourages people to be mindful of their choices of words on themselves or others.
During her short but powerful talk, she encouraged participants to be true to themselves saying
'See yourselves as an agent of God',
wherever you go, you will shine'.
- Nana Churcher
Furthermore, she enboldened the participants to act according to the world they want to see around them; 'being the change' themselves rather than expecting others to behave in a way that makes a difference. Ultimately she encouraged everyone to both 'walk the walk and talk the talk' and lead by positive example in positive words and actions. Encouraging the concepts of gratitude and joy, she pointed out that it was important to build people up rather than tear them down through negativity and criticism.
Andrea grew up in Mumbai, India. Her parents instilled in her a keen sense and need to ensure that whatever she did had to be in the service of God and all His people.
Growing up she was part of the Legion of Mary, contributed to the parish youth movement and was a Confirmation Catechist; a role she continued when she moved to the UK. Andrea is now the Parish Safeguarding Representative for St. Margaret of Scotland RC Church, and Co-Chair of the newly set up Parish Racial and Cultural Inclusion Group
During her talk, Andrea described the process of setting up the Parish Racial and Cultural Inclusion Hub, describing the inspiration and encouragement they experienced to make helpful changes in both collective parish mindset and tangible action. These included having a variety of artwork reflecting the ethnic background of saints and ensuring that demographic representation was implemented with regard to parish responsibilities. Many of the changes that the parish had been able to engender reflected the work undertaken at White City by Fr Nesbitt.
Andrea described the importance of awareness and expressed the hope that the seminar would enable people to see what is possible to achieve by embracing some positive and considered changes.
Reflecting on the Seminar
All of the participants enjoyed time discussing, reflecting and feeding back on various questions that arose as a result of the different speeches, There was also plenty of time to chat informally over some delicious food. The Seminar was a great success and will serve as a foundation to promote awareness of the important work being undertaken by the Commission for Racial and Cultural Inclusion, with the goal of eradicating racism and promoting love and respect in all areas of our beautiful Catholic family.
We pray that our Chrisitan values will help us open our hearts to compassion for one other, where all are equally recognised and valued for being made in the image and likeness of God,
To learn more about the Commission's work, please visit their webpages on this site