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'Authentic racial reconciliation,' from the heart of the Church

The founders of a new initiative say the Catholic Church could be a leader on discussions about racism and discrimination — but right now, it’s not. Their new project, the Before Gethsemane Initiative, aims to address that.

Chenele Shaw, co-founder of the Before Gethsemane Initiative. Courtesy photo.

“The Church should be leading on these issues, and she’s not right now, unfortunately,” the project’s co-director, Maria Benes, laments.

She told The Pillar that in recent months, she’s been told about incidents of racism and Catholic contexts.

“I’ve heard at Catholic schools, Asian students being told to go back to Wuhan, many of whom are not even Chinese. Wrong regardless, but a lot of them in this case were being told to go back to Wuhan because of the pandemic. I’ve heard even of the n-word still used in some Catholic schools.”

That kind of language is a problem, and Benes wanted to be part of the solution.

Benes reached out to Chenele Shaw, a former youth minister and theology teacher who is passionate about creating a welcoming environment for racial minorities in the Church.

Benes and Shaw hit it off. Soon, the women decided to launch the Before Gethsemane Initiative.

The name is meant to evoke Christ’s prayer for unity and conversion in John 17, before his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The founders of the Before Gethsemane Initiative say there are a lot of obstacles to Christian unity — and attitudes about race are among them.

“There’s a lot of political allegiance that happens in the Church that kind of strays us away from our universal call to holiness and the idea that we’re called to love one another,” Shaw told The Pillar.

“Sometimes that can get muddied up into the truth of what we’re being called to be -- Catholics that live consistent life ethics. It can get muddied up by believing we have to be perfectly aligned with one political party or the other. Therefore, there’s a lot of gaps on either side.”

That’s why the group’s co-directors put adherence to Catholic teaching at the forefront: every publicly-associated member signs a fidelity statement declaring strict adherence to key Catholic teachings: the inherent dignity of every person from conception to natural death, the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and abortion as an intrinsic evil.

The group’s co-founders want to bring racism and xenophobia to the fore of conversation among Catholics.

Benes said the group aims to address racism and xenophobia from a Catholic lens – promoting prayer and fasting, education and difficult conversations as the road to repentance for those who inflict racism on others, and forgiveness for those who have experienced it. They hope to help people suffering from wounds related to racism to find healing, and to help unify the Church, and inspire conversion, through fasting and prayer.

The vision for Before Gethsemane

When Benes and Shaw started telling people about their project a few months back, interest in the group grew quickly. Within 24 hours of reaching out to people about the initiative, Benes was connected with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Fr. Josh Johnson, and former EWTN Radio host Gloria Purvis, who saw her show cancelled in December 2020, after complaints from a radio syndicate about her discussion of George Floyd and other topics connected to racism.

“Finding Chenele and a lot of people on our board was honestly through me saying a prayer to the Holy Spirit, then doing a Google search,” Benes says. “I found this site for Catholic speakers of color. Honestly most of us have not met in-person before, except for a few of us.”

Benes and Shaw say Catholic groups and a few bishops have expressed interest in their work.

Before Gethsemane hosted its first conversation Oct. 14, with a virtual gathering of 30 Catholic school principals, and a school has agreed to partner with them.

Benes and Shaw say they aim to help lead conversations in different settings to help people at all education and age levels recognize and address racism.

“Our hope with our initiative is to be able to address people in the Church with both education and with healing opportunities,” Shaw says. “So we’d like to provide education like workshops, bible studies, etc., but also healing and mental health resources for Black and brown Catholics.”

They’d also like to offer racial reconciliation retreats, collaboration with Catholic counselors and awareness and sensitivity training to Catholic organizations like schools and parishes.

Shaw heads the spiritual and mental health pillar of the organization, while Benes handles the piece on facilitating challenging conversations.

Shaw stresses that as Catholics, racial reconciliation necessarily involves forgiveness.

“We like what Fr. Josh Johnson has said a lot about that,” Shaw says. “People that commit acts of racism are not only called to say sorry and apologize, but also to change their ways. And the people called to forgive acts of racism are not only called to forgive but to also go through the process of healing, which works together.”

Authentic racial reconciliation

Difficult conversations are right up Maria Benes’ alley – as a second grader, she feared she would have to watch her parents get divorced.

“My parents almost got divorced over political and religious differences. But they decided to stay together, and they learned to work through things,” Benes recalls.

“They still don’t agree on everything, and in fact there’s a lot they still don’t agree on. But I grew up learning how to have difficult political conversations at the dinner table. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about helping bridge the political divide with God at the center.”

Benes carried that skillset into her career and expanded upon it. She holds a masters in international affairs, with a concentration in conflict resolution, and she has spent five years teaching students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln the art of participating in tough political discussions.

Maria Benes, co-founder of the Before Gethsemane Initiative. Courtesy photo.

“I developed a curriculum for how to teach students how to have controversial political conversations,” Benes says. “A lot of it is related to emotional intelligence.”

Her eight tips for difficult conversations are preparation, relationship, avoiding “whataboutism,” vulnerability, listening, using “I” over “we” statements, admitting when one is wrong, and assuming the other person has the best of intentions.

“Whataboutism” refers to an attempt to divert attention away from the topic at hand by making a counter-accusation.

“It’s like if someone says, ‘Well, your political party doesn’t care about healthcare,’ or ‘Your political party doesn’t care about abortion,’” Benes says. “Certainly some mortal sins are worse than others. If something is a mortal sin, we can acknowledge that without having to say, ‘Well, this mortal sin is worse.’ At that point, we are not striving for excellence.”

In the years Benes taught people how to have challenging conversations, she says students only broke out into fights twice. Both times, they were breaking one of her rules.

“In one case where there was this open fight between two students, it was actually because they broke [the rule on using “I” instead of “we” statements]. It was two Latino students that had very different past experiences -- one, his father was a legal immigrant who had a six-figure salary and was doing very well in the United States. The other one, she grew up super poor, had a ton of family members, some of whom were not here legally. And they were both using ‘we’ statements as if they were speaking for all Latino people.”

Before Gethsemane will modify its approach based on the age and education level of participants. The organization is using a Catholic human dignity curriculum from the perspective of Catholic social teaching. For older students and adults, it will make use of a multimedia curriculum about Catholic social teaching, called Connected.

“When I talked about controversial issues with my students, I would pray and fast for them at least a week, if not more in advance. Then I’d get to the classroom early and sprinkle holy water around the room, sprinkle blessed salt,” Benes says.

That’s a tradition the leadership of Before Gethsemane will continue.

“So we actually do a lot of this stuff when we go into schools. We will start praying and fasting,” Benes says. “So the group we have right now, we will pray and fast for them as a team before we even go and see them.”

In the words of board member Janine Christiano, “We are not going to solve this problem without God.”

Next steps

“We have so many secular initiatives that I think are doing a great job on the education and awareness piece, but this is really ultimately about a change of heart in all of us. And that’s not going to come apart from God,” Christiano said.

Benes and Shaw say they’ve both experienced God at work in their project, and they know it is possible for all Catholics to feel welcomed in the Catholic Church, whose very name speaks to the idea of universality.

The group submitted paperwork for the organization to reach 501c3 nonprofit status earlier this month.

“I hear the IRS is really backed up right now, unfortunately. With the pandemic, it may be up to a year before we get that back,” Benes says. “Once we get that, we can do state filings for non-profit raising. In the meantime, we’re able to start going into schools and parishes.”

For now, they’re fundraising, and praying for the work ahead.