Workshop seeks to develop advocates for closing racial income gap

VALPARAISO – Before advocating for a cause, you must understand what you are championing.
This is why the Voice of the Poor Committee of the Gary District of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul hosted a workshop on “Understanding Poverty” for Diocese of Gary faithful interested in supporting Catholic Social Teaching.
“We are trying to focus on education because we need to know ‘why’ (racism exists) to know how to help,” said Tricia Massa, chairwoman of the Gary District SVDP’s Voice of the Poor Committee, in welcoming workshop participants on April 13 at St. Paul. “We need to know the issues that hamper lifting yourself out of poverty.
“We are trying to get more into advocacy,” she added.
Introduced at the workshop was a recent video presentation, “Looking at Institutional and Structural Racism Through a Vincentian’s Lens” by Father Richard Benson, CM, a Vincentian priest.
“Racist incidents still exist,” he demonstrated with a story about six U.S. Secret Service agents who were refused service at a nationwide restaurant chain in Annapolis, Md. “They were good enough to protect the president of the U.S., but not good enough to eat breakfast at a restaurant,” Father Benson noted.
“What would Vincent say? What would (SVDP founder) Frederic Ozanam say? What does Catholic Social Teaching say?” the priest asked. “The issue of racism is a real issue in the U.S., but it is not only a U.S. issue. Racism exists around the world. What does Jesus have to say (about racism) and how does he get interpreted?”
Father Benson suggested that Catholic Social Teaching – whose main themes are the Life and Dignity of the Human Person; the Call to Family, Community and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Options for the Poor and Vulnerable; The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; and Care for God’s Creation – “is not well known to Catholics and could be considered Catholicism’s best kept secret, not trusted by some.”
The Vincentian priest noted that in the SVDP mission statement, “We are called to bring the message (of Jesus) to the poor … but faith without action is empty. Every person is created in the image of God. The poor are our friends, we are called to be connected to them, visit them where they live – in houses and on park benches. Even more, they are our brothers and sisters.”
Father Benson called on Catholics “to relate to all our brothers and sisters as equal, clean our hearts of any hated-based or racist (history), dismantle any social structures that promote racism and modify our own attitudes and words.”
Workshop participants were invited to share their feelings and ideas about how to advocate for Catholic Social Teaching in small group discussions.
“I came today because I’m very familiar with the Voice of the Poor Committee and I believe strongly in advocacy,” said Maggie Cobble, an active member of the SVDP conference at St. Paul and a new parishioner at St. Mary of the Lake in  Gary. “Systemic racism is a terrible thing and I’m trying to educate myself.”
John Konrady, a Crown Point resident who makes home visits as a member of the SVDP conference at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Valparaiso.
“The more I interact with those in the community who need our help, the more I want to know why they need help and how we can help them get a hand up, not just a handout, like paying their NIPSCO bill,” Konrady said. “I like to go on the home visits; we go as a team of two, but Jesus always goes in first, and I see Jesus there as I talk to the clients and I want to emulate Him.”
Konrady said he found Father Bensen “very interesting. I want to do more research about him and about Catholic Social Teaching. This was my first workshop and I hope they have more; it was good to meet people from other SVDP conferences and learn from one another.”
The second part of the workshop was a practical lesson in institutional and structural racism facilitated by Sister Emily TeKolste, SP, of St. Mary of the Woods, a leader of NETWORK Advocates for Catholic Social Justice who works in six states to raise awareness and advocacy for those harmed by racism.
She presented her program by way of a board game that starkly showed the difference between whites and blacks when it comes to U.S. government laws – from slavery to highway construction – and economic wealth. “We need to understand how racism is a political strategy to divide us against each other,” she said. “The people in power want to keep us divided because then we can’t get power.”
Housing laws and practices are the No. 1 issue that drives the wealth gap, she said, and as of 2016 white people own 10 times more net wealth than black people in the U.S. overall, and eight times more than Hispanics.
Ruth Bonacci-Klaese, a Chesterton resident and member of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center in Valparaiso, admitted she “has been a long time coming” to advocate for people in need. The retired special education teacher was struck by a statement she heard that the world has enough food to feed all people, she said, and by a documentary movie she watched about food inequity. “It’s a journey, but this is where I need to go. I will definitely hook up with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul; I want to do what I can to affect change,” she said. “Sometimes, you start within your sphere of influence. I need to listen more and pray more.”
Sister Emily urged workshop participants to begin by calling their U.S. senators to ask for support for the pending Child Tax Credit law that would benefit as many as 16 million low-income children. She also encouraged them to text ‘welcome’ to (202) 347-9797 to get updates from NETWORK. A resource to learn about Indiana Legislative work is the Indiana Catholic Conference, offering updates at


Caption: Maggie Cobble (from left), active in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Paul in Valparaiso and a new parishioner at St. Mary of the Lake in Gary, discusses a video presentation by a Vincentian priest, Father Richard Benson, on institutional and structural racism as seen through a Vincentian lens, with Sue Adam, a parishioner at St. John the Baptist in Whiting, and Kathy Salinas, a Munster resident and parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in St. John. The women were among attendees at an April 13 workshop on "Understanding Poverty" hosted by the SVDP Voice of the Poor Committee at St. Paul in Valparaiso. Ending racism, said Cobble, "has to start with each individual and how they act toward others." (Marlene A. Zloza photo)