‘Give them hope’: How parishes can be a light amid violence and racism

Bishop Oscar Solis Bishop Oscar Solis | Diocese of Salt Lake City

Transforming communities to become more inclusive and accepting places must begin at the parish level, Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City told CNA. 

Bishop Solis is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Island Affairs. He is the first Filipino-born priest to be made a bishop in the United States. 

Solis spoke to CNA on Tuesday to discuss the role Catholics and the Church play in combating racism and creating a more inclusive society, in light of reports that the number of attacks on Asian-Americans in the United States had increased over the last year. A series of shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlors last week killed six women of Asian descent. 

It is vital for different racial and ethnic groups to promote understanding and reduce hatred, the bishop said, noting that ignorance is often the root of racism. 

“We need to learn who we are,” he said. “We have a basic foundation: we're all brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of God, [but] we are not all the same. We are different with each other. And yet there is something common in us.”

It is part of the Christian tradition of hospitality for Catholics to “see each other as who we are; respecting others, [our] commonalities and differences, and recognizing and appreciating our cultural backgrounds and traditions, and even our expressions of faith,” he said.  

Prior to being appointed the bishop of Salt Lake City, Solis was an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He said his work with various ethnic communities in the archdiocese was a “beautiful experience” for him. The archdiocese lists more than two dozen ethnic liturgies at its parishes.

“It's very affirming and inspiring to see that in spite of our differences, the diversity that we have, we can still gather around the table around the altar,” he said.

“That's the beauty of our Church. But we need to proclaim this to the people to give them hope amidst this violence and issues of racism and xenophobia,” he said. 

The bishop pointed to the recent mass shootings at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado and at three Atlanta-area massage parlors as examples of the hatred in society which must be overcome. While the motivations of either shooter are not entirely clear, six of the eight people killed in the Atlanta shootings were women of Asian descent. 

Bishop Solis said the shootings sparked fear and anxiety among Asian-Americans, regardless of the motivations of the shooters, at a time when harassment and violence against Asian-Americans has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt very sad and disheartened by all this happening, in spite of all the efforts we are trying to do all in order to address these racial injustices and racial discrimination,” said Bishop Solis of the shootings. 

“It's something that you have to feel bad and sad and grieve,” he said. “You feel for those lives - wasted lives - you feel for those families left behind, you feel bad for the community living in fear.” 

“It makes us understand the seriousness about the responsibility to not only say something, but to do something about it,” he added. 

The Church, he said, needs to produce a “statement in order to denounce racism and violence,” but must also “extend our support to our communities that are suffering with crimes and sin against each other.” 

“I think the Church has been very strong and loud in this position, regarding racism,” he said. 

The Church has “strongly denounced and condemned, racial discrimination - even hateful rhetoric and especially violence,” said Solis. “It is deeply rooted in our faith, the teachings of the Church, that we are all brothers and sisters with equal dignity. and life is precious. It's sacred and a person's dignity has to be respected and protected and nurtured.”

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However, while the Church’s teachings on racism and dignity are clear, the message must be repeated in order for people to truly grasp it.

“Like the teacher, we need to keep on hammering on the lesson in order for the students to understand what it is all about,” he said. “I think that we need to echo back and repeat it as much as possible in order for the message to sink in,” Bishop Solis said. 

And while the platitudes of diversity and acceptance are commonplace, Solis said it is time to “put some meat into our words” and work towards truly loving one another. 

“Let’s start with ourselves,” said Solis. “The transformation of our society begins in the conversion of our hearts.”

“You know, we have to change our attitude. We need to learn how to see people - with only the eyes of faith, with the eyes of Christ. We need to see Christ in other people.” 

“I believe in the goodness of humanity; that if we can just see and express the goodness and extend that to everyone, they'll change to be something,” Bishop Solis said.

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