In virtual panel discussion, Isaiah McKinnon and Archbishop Vigneron say Church has a responsibility and opportunity to open people’s hearts

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DETROIT — No one can solve the sin of racism overnight, but making progress begins with open, honest conversation. 

That was the idea behind an Oct. 12 panel discussion featuring the leader of the Archdiocese of Detroit and the city’s former deputy mayor and police chief, who joined a virtual audience to discuss the tense racial climate and how Catholics can play a role in working for racial justice. 

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron joined Isaiah (Ike) McKinnon, Ph.D., in a virtual panel, “Agents for the New Creation: Responding to the Sin of Racism,” which was moderated by Catholic radio talk show host Teresa Tomeo.

During the hourlong panel, the archbishop discussed the theological and moral response to the sin of racism, while McKinnon, who served as Detroit’s police chief from 1993-98 and its deputy mayor from 2013-16, brought his wealth of experience and knowledge to the discussion.

McKinnon currently serves as associate professor of education at the University of Detroit Mercy. 

While both men acknowledged how racism has impacted the nation both historically and in 2020, they led with a message of hope, highlighting the human capacity for goodness, both at home and in the community.

McKinnon, who is African-American, shared harrowing stories of facing racial discrimination both as a young boy and as a police officer, from being denied entry to restaurants to facing gunfire even from his fellow officers early in his career. 

However, he began by reflecting on the example of his father, who was born in Alabama and whom McKinnon called “the greatest person I’ve ever met.”

“He suffered through a lot, but he always talks to me about the good in people,” McKinnon said. “He said, ‘Son, there is good and bad, but just think about the good in people and what you can do for them and they can do for you.’”

People participate in a rosary to pray for an end to racial discrimination June 7 at the Basilica of Ste. Anne in southwest Detroit. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

McKinnon said his father would have him read aloud passages from the Bible at a young age, and would ask him to explain them. 

“The point behind that was to get me to understand the Bible more and understand the goodness of people,” McKinnon said. “The way I see this is, we are all God’s children. And if we love God, we are supposed to love each other. If we abide by that, so many of the problems that we’ve had and experienced throughout the years would not exist anymore.”

Archbishop Vigneron enthusiastically agreed with McKinnon.

“The idea that everyone has a wonderful gift to share is so very important,” the archbishop said. “We limit ourselves by acts of prejudice or racism. We are denying ourselves the gift of good that other people can offer. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

McKinnon emphasized the importance of engaging with and communicating with others as a way to heal racial division, adding those who treated him cruelly because of his race didn’t really want to get to know him.

Archbishop Vigneron said this engagement and communication is similar to the mission of the early apostles, who sought to change hearts by sharing the love of Christ.

“If you can manage to open your heart to someone else and they can reciprocate, by the grace of God — even though there is sin in every heart — by the Holy Spirit, (racism) can be overcome,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “St. John Paul the Great used to talk about the ‘exchange of gifts;’ if you have an authentic meeting where everyone is honest with one another, everyone is changed and you can’t walk away without being a little better, a little different.”

The opposite, both men agreed, is remaining closed in upon oneself, which limits growth and opportunities to recognize God’s gifts in one another.

When Tomeo asked the panelists about the Church’s role in the conversation, McKinnon said it’s important for parishes that are ethnically and geographically different — from those in the inner city to the suburbs — to dialogue with one another in order to tear down walls of division. 

While parishes have a role to play, the archbishop agreed, changing hearts must ultimately start with individuals. 

Archbishop Vigneron greets parishioners at St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills in this file photo. While parishes can play a role in breaking down racial barriers, the archbishop said, it must start with individuals. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

“One place to start is for people to renew their commitment in prayer and to ask the Holy Spirit (for help),” Archbishop Vigneron said. “People aren’t going to be able to resolve all the problems all at once, but God doesn’t ask that. He puts in front of us the sphere in which we can make a difference.”

The archbishop suggested people begin by asking the Holy Spirit, “What do you want me to do today?” he said. “You put on my heart that you want me to respond, but what do you want me to do?” 

Archbishop Vigneron said he tries to foster dialogue by encouraging the archdiocese’s pastors and leaders to cultivate grassroots efforts within their own communities to heal racial divisions and keep the conversation going, reflecting upon the example of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

“What those heroic people accomplished serves to me as a testimony of what God can really do when we let Him work in our midst,” the Archbishop said. 

‘Agents for the New Creation: Responding to the Sin of Racism’

The hourlong panel discussion between Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron and Isaiah (Ike) McKinnon, Ph.D., is available to watch on the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Facebook page.