Reflections on a book discussion: Sr. Jean and Sr. Sheila

Salvatorian Sisters Jean Schafer and Sheila Novak organized a book event around author Debby Irving’s Waking up White for National Catholic Sisters Week. They offered it as a Lenten project at their Salvatorian parish in Orangevale, Calif. They hosted six discussion sessions at Divine Savior Parish with 14 women participating. In addition to facilitating the book discussions, Sisters Jean and Sheila offered a variety of other resources to “turn the page on conversation about race.” Here, they share how their project unfolded over six weeks.

“Each session was opened with a formal prayer prepared by us. We often used the song ‘Open Our Eyes, Lord’ as part of the prayer. The first and the two last sessions were straight discussion. In two of those sessions we subdivided our group into two smaller groups after the introductory prayer.

“In the second session we showed and discussed two short films: ‘Why American Voter Registrations Are Disappearing’ and ‘Racial Bias.’ During the third session we watched an hour-long film, ‘White Like Me,’ and talked about it for the last half hour. In the fourth session we invited three parishioners to share their experiences as people of color, with time for all of us to ask questions. During the final session we took time to identify some of what was significant in these six sessions and take home a symbol to remind us of what we have committed to do.

“Many participants spoke of having ‘their eyes opened’ or of ‘waking up to a new awareness’ about our role in racism. The session with our black parishioner guests was very moving for the group, since they shared personal experiences that confirmed much of what was in Irving’s book. The videos also complemented what the book was describing. Many of the women said they are now more conscious of how their speech and interactions may affect people of color. For some, it was difficult to comprehend the ‘systemic issues’ that our white culture allows to continue to oppress.

“Gradually, our discussion expanded to include other groups on the fringes, i.e., gay persons and other ethnic groups. We sent our participants the 1979 and 2019 Bishops’ pastoral letters on racism, and a critique of the latest letter by Fr. Daniel Horan OSF, in which he says Church leaders still do not point to white privilege and entitlement as the root of the problem.”

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