19 June 2020, The Tablet

BAME people face racism in Church and society

BAME people face racism in Church and society

Painted mural of George Floyd in London.
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

Black and minority ethnic people are facing racism and discrimination in British society and in the Catholic Church, according to leading black Catholics. The pandemic has highlighted inequalities.

“We are shocked but not surprised to see protests breaking out across the USA and in other parts of the world – including here in the UK,”  said a statement last week from the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ). “May George Floyd rest in peace, and may his family see justice done” it added in its briefing, ‘Police, Black People and Racial Justice’.

CARJ supports Black Lives Matter. Mrs Yogi Sutton, Chair of CARJ, reflected: “I am appalled that year after year brutality on our fellow beings still occurs because of racism”. She supports peaceful protests: “How else are people to show solidarity; however, history shows, the protests are not sufficient means to bring about change.” 

Mrs Sutton told The Tablet his week: “The police are under intense scrutiny at the moment, and that is entirely right, however, we must not forget to scrutinise our other institutions including the Church.”

Despite having many people from BAME communities in our Catholic parishes and schools, “yet we have no BAME bishops in the Latin Rite Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and most of our BAME priests are from abroad.” She suggested tha, “no Catholic establishment should be monochrome, for example all the executive members from all the Catholic Organisations in England and Wales are white. Why?” 

She called for “root changes to the structures within society and within the church” and would like to see seminaries “training future priests to understand, accept and acknowledge the variety of cultures within the Church”.

Also, “young people in our schools should be studying Black History and Black Literature to understand their true history and to see one another as fellow citizens and fellow Christians,” she said.

She suggested the 1999 Report – Serving a Multi-Ethnic Society, from the Bishops Conference should be revisited, which asked Catholic organisations to review themselves in the light of the 1999 Macpherson Report and its “useful definition of institutional racism”. 

Alfred Banya, a married deacon based in Southwark Archdiocese, who, as the head of chaplaincy at King’s College Hospital in London, raised early concern about the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people from BAME backgrounds, said BAME voices must be listened to.

“It is not good enough authorities deciding who should represent BAME when they conduct reviews such as the recent one on disproportionate impact of Covid,” he told The Tablet.

“In the past, almost every local authority area had a Race Equality Council with specific remit to advocate for victims of racial discrimination” but “these have been replaced in almost all areas with equality and diversity bodies, which has diminished focus on racism at the local level.” On the issue of tearing down statues associated with racism, he felt community and faith leaders should “systematically review how such images and symbols can be removed and, where appropriate, relocated  in  museums  for  educational purposes,  so as  to avoid  people  being  left  with no option but that of taking the matter into their own hands.”

Banya also challenged the Church to address racism. “We have a tremendously large number of people of  BAME background in the Catholic Church in this country, and it would be encouraging for the BAME community to see representation of black and asian people in the hierarchy of the Church among the bishops of England and Wales”.

He called for more racism awareness training in seminaries. “Participatory and interactive workshops that explore the root causes of discrimination, prejudice, racism, as well as the role of priests, lay people and parishes in identifying and tackling this, is the type of training I would recommend is reactivated,” he told The Tablet. He fsaid the MA in Catholic social teaching run as part of diaconate formation by St Mary’s University has modules which could be made more widely available, as they are very relevant to tackling social inequality, including racism.

Bishop Paul McAleenan, auxiliary in Westminster with oversight of all matters concerning Ethnic Chaplaincies and the work of the Permanent Diaconate, told The Tablet: “The disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on members of the Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities compounded by the Black Lives Matter movement has rightly focused attention onto the status and treatment of the members of these groups, individually and collectively”.

He added: “The Church too has an obligation to be involved in this task, encouraging, inspiring and enabling members of BAME communities to contribute to its life including assuming roles of leadership.”

He welcomed a growing number of BAME priests, seminarians and permanent deacons in England and Wales. Of 154 seminarians for England and wales, 25 are from a BAME background. There are 10 lecturers and members of formation staff from a BAME background in seminaries training seminarians for England and Wales. However, Bishop McAleenan said: “As the demographics of the Church in England and Wales change the question arises, are the ethnic and racial origins of Church leaders reflecting this change?”

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to highlight racial discrimination. “It is by now clear that not all communities are affected equally by the pandemic – deprived communities such as refused asylum seekers and migrants are disproportionately affected,” Sarah Teather, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS UK) told The Tablet.

“There is growing evidence that BAME communities are at increased risk from COVID-19 and that being forced to sleep rough increases risk of infection,” she added, “and it is beyond time for the government to act to ensure a safe place for everyone.”

Many of the JRS UK’s refugee service users, who are predominantly BAME, are still on the streets during the pandemic or facing homelessness. JRS feels this is directly linked to hostile policies that enforce destitution on people refused asylum and others without immigration status. JRS UK drop-in services remain suspended, but it continues to provide emergency support to 316 people including advice and casework, emergency food and toiletry package deliveries, and financial grants enabled by its Emergency Hardship Fund.  


BAME Inequalities and structural injustices in both society and in the Church have also been highlighted by Dr Vincent Manning, chair of Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support. Disproportionate numbers of BAME people are living with and affected by HIV in Britain. He said many BAME communities lack trust in NHS services and health-care treatment and this has led to late presentation with disease.

“The current public health crisis serves to highlight the ways in which black people living with HIV/AIDS in this country are treated with hostility,” he said. “The pandemic exposes how state-sanctioned policies, laws and systems increase their vulnerability, resulting in significantly poorer health outcomes and poorer life-chances generally.”

BAME people with HIV/AIDS are vulnerable not only because of poor health but also multiply-disadvantaged by social situation and structural discrimination. Dr Manning feels migrants are especially at risk, having spent years battling the immigration system.

“The conditions of applications to remain in UK for health-care or other reasons enforce separation of families often for years of lengthy and stressful legal processes,” he said. “If people with HIV/AIDS are eventually successful in gaining leave to remain, this is often temporary, and by the time it is granted they are often ‘crushed’.”

Dr Manning said: “The disproportionate suffering inflicted by this coronavirus upon BAME communities challenges us to reconsider whether or not we tolerate poverty, suffering and structural vulnerabilities, as inevitable aspects of Black experience in the UK and internationally?”  

And for people living with HIV, faith is far more important than within the general population. A 2012 study of Black Africans receiving treatment in London showed that 91 percent were Christian. He said that the fact that so many Black Africans with HIV/AIDS present late, due to ignorance or denial, “ought to challenge us in the Church to think whether we are doing all that we can to improve health outcomes with those same people who attend our churches each week.”

JRS UK invites financial donations to its Refugee Friends Hardship Fund at https://www.jrsuk.net/hardshipfund/, or donations of food to its centre. To find out more phone JRS UK on 020 7488 7310 or email uk@jrs.net.  @JRSUK

https://caps-uk.org/   @PositiveCath







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