FAIRPORT — At times, Judy Toyer’s keynote presentation took on the form of a 20th-century Catholic history lesson.
Speaking at Church of the Resurrection this past Oct. 30, Toyer observed that while the civil rights movement was taking shape, some Catholics publicly opposed racism when it wasn’t popular to do so. They included Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement; Thomas Merton, famed theologian and social activist; and Father Claude Heithaus, a Jesuit whose outspokenness led Saint Louis University — where he taught — to admit African-American students for the first time.
During the question-and-answer session that followed Toyer’s lecture, an audience member asked: How might the rest of us make a difference as well? Toyer suggested writing to legislators and attending community meetings — and, most importantly, letting faith be a guide toward honesty and awareness about racism in daily life.
“God is with us,” Toyer, who is African-American, said to the nearly all-white audience.
Toyer, an attorney and longtime social-rights activist, appeared at Church of the Resurrection as part of a six-session series on racism conducted last fall in conjunction with Fairport’s Church of the Assumption. The series concluded Nov. 13 with a “Diversity Cafe” — a fact-based dramatization about racism — at Church of the Assumption.
Among the topics covered during the sessions were structural and hidden racism; the history of segregation and racist policies in Rochester; and race relations. Toyer, who attends Rochester’s Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget and Cathedral Community parishes, emphasized Oct. 30 that Catholics cannot stop at feeling sympathetic toward victims of racism — they also need to speak up and take action. One way to accomplish that objective, she said, is for more parishes to actively embrace the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” released in November 2018.
For their part, Catholics in Fairport are taking the subject matter to heart. According to Bill Wynne, who belongs to Church of the Assumption’s social-justice outreach ministry, the recent six-part series served as a response to the bishops’ letter and also sprang from participation in a two-day workshop on racism in April 2019 at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry that was hosted by the Diocese of Rochester’s Department of Pastoral Services.
Coming up, Assumption and Resurrection parishes will take part in “Sacred Conversations on Race” March 7 and 14 at Rochester’s Open Arms Christian Fellowship Ministries — an inner-city church that, since 2016, has collaborated with the Fairport churches to offer similar discussions. In addition, the social-justice outreach is involved with RocACTS (Rochester Alliance of Communities Transforming Society), a multiracial, interfaith coalition that strives to eliminate racism in such areas as education, employment, housing and criminal justice.
Wynne — who organized the fall series along with Father George Heyman, pastor of Assumption and Resurrection parishes, and Deni Mack, pastoral associate at Assumption — was pleased with the turnouts, saying that attendance averaged more than 40 people per session, and participants were deeply affected. However, Wynne stressed, much work still needs to be done in order to eradicate racism.
“The awareness is distinctly not present in suburban parishes,” he said. “We’re just scraping the surface. This is going to have to be ongoing. I think every parish ought to be doing this.”