Nigerian priest decries racism in America

ST. LOUIS (CNS) — It is time for U.S. churches to combat racial injustice in their country and among their congregations, says a Catholic priest from Nigeria who has studied the problem.

Holy Ghost Father Cajetan Ngozika Ihewulezi resides at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in North St. Louis and serves as a hospital chaplain while doing graduate studies. He is the author of a new book, “Beyond the Color of Skin: Encounters With Religions and Racial Injustice in America.”

In his book, which came out in November, he looks at the issue as an outsider. Father Ihewulezi came to St. Louis four years ago as a graduate student, first at St. Louis University, where he earned a master’s degree in historical theology, and then at Aquinas Institute of Theology, where he is earning a doctorate.

He said some hospital patients don’t want a black priest anointing them. “Even now,” he said, “some Catholics still have that prejudice.”

“I see the churches, not just the Catholic Church but American churches, as having neglected the issue of civil rights and racial justice. It is as if they feel everything is OK. But in actuality negative things are still happening, and the continued silence calls for a renewed evaluation,” Father Ihewulezi said.

He said “racial abuse” is similar to sexual abuse in terms of the long-lasting effects it has on the lives of those who have suffered from it. For instance, he said, racial injustice has tended to keep its victims in poverty and has destroyed their sense of self-worth.

“It’s still a problem that has to be pursued as vigorously as abortion or sexual abuse. It’s happening in society and also in the churches,” he said.

For Catholics, he said, “racial injustice is not in line with our faith. There is no justification for that. The Catholic Church teaches that racial injustice should be resisted, even the least bit of it.”

Yet in some Catholic churches whites have refused to sit in the same pew with blacks or shake hands with them, he said. In one instance a pastor suggested that perhaps they’d feel more comfortable at another parish.

“For people to behave that way in a Catholic church is uncalled for and an embarrassment of the faith,” Father Ihewulezi said.

Not everyone is this way, he noted, but that kind of behavior, “especially for us who are foreigners coming here with the impression of America as a place of equality, is insulting.”

His book is “a call for a dialogue to address the problem. You can’t eliminate racial injustice by sweeping it under the carpet,” he said.

Father Ihewulezi said he had been warned that he would get a negative reaction to his book and that it would incite hate groups.

But so far, he has had only positive reaction, he said. Many have welcomed it, especially for his detail on the origins of racial injustice, the churches’ connection to it and why it is still persistent. “Americans love the truth,” he said.

The book also could make a good resource for high school or college students and has been recommended for students in clinical pastoral education, he said.

Social workers and health workers have neglected the issue but need to pay attention to it and report cases of racial abuse, Father Ihewulezi said.

In the book, through interviews with church officials and others, he focuses on steps to counter racial injustice in the churches.

A more welcoming attitude is one response, he said. More interaction between mostly white congregations and mostly black congregations in worship and other activities and a greater emphasis on helping poorer parishes also would help, Father Ihewulezi said.

In addition, he said “it is time for the church to be more active, more vocal” in condemning racism in American society and challenging it in all its forms.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.