"We must be the change"

Deacon Casey chairs Diocese's campaign to lift up the voice of faith against racism

Over the 56 years of his life, Deacon Casey Walker says he’s personally experienced racism on a few occasions.

He was stopped by the police for “no apparent reason,” he’s been subject to racial slurs, and “the uneducated stereotypes that are thrust upon you based on culture,” says Deacon Casey, who was ordained in 2018 and serves St. Basil Parish in Vallejo.

“Sometimes statements or actions that end with ‘I didn’t mean anything by that’ or ‘you are being way too sensitive.’ I’m not so concerned with racism against me. I have found ways to deal with it, but I’m more concerned with my 13-year-old son and how society will treat him and his understanding of the world.”

For these reasons and a personal conviction against prejudice and racism in society and in the Catholic Church, Deacon Casey didn’t hesitate to say yes when Bishop Jaime Soto asked him to chair the diocese’s anti-racism campaign, which was begun in 2019 following the publication of the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”

That letter described “the ugly cancer” of racism in the nation, and commented on issues such as anti-Muslim sentiment, xenophobia, police brutality and mass incarceration. The bishops asked Catholics to work “for the end of racism in all its forms.” The bishops instruct priests, deacons, religious brothers and sisters, lay leaders, parish staffs and all the faithful “to endeavor to be missionary disciples carrying forth the message of fraternal charity and human dignity.

This means, the bishops add, “educating themselves, reflecting on their personal thoughts and actions, listening to the experience of those who have been affected by racism, and…developing and supporting programs that help repair the damages caused by racial discrimination.”

“No person of color wants to be the victim of racism and no white person wants to hear about white privilege, but both are very real,” Deacon Casey notes. In parishes and schools, and among the Catholic faithful, “we need to have conversations from all sides about the words we use and our actions, and how they are perceived and received by others, and be willing to acknowledge when a change needs to be made and take responsibility for the change and sharing it with our children and families.”

Deacon Casey and his wife, Andrea, have been married for 29 years and have three children, Casandra, 25, Adriana, 22, and Gabriel, 13. They have been members of St. Basil Parish since 1999, and Deacon Casey received the sacraments of initiation there during the Easter vigil in 2003.

He was born and raised in New Jersey near Fort Dix Army base, as the only boy among five children. His father spent his career in the Army and Casey was raised in the Baptist church. “When my dad was deployed, my sisters and I would get picked up by the church bus and go to Sunday school and then church. When dad was home, the family would get in the car and go to church together. I didn’t know much about what was happening faith-wise, but I enjoyed reading the stories in the Bible.”

He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and studied electrical engineering. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy, he was trained as an electronics technician and a nuclear reactor operator and served in Sarasota Springs, New York, and also was assigned to a fast track submarine. After completing his Navy service, he took a job with Exxon Oil refinery (now Valero) in Benicia, and he recently celebrated 25 years of work there.

Deacon Casey noted that the diocese’s Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism was established in April 2019, in the aftermath of high profile police shootings throughout the country and in Northern California. “The Sacramento area was dealing with the Stephon Clark shooting and Vallejo was dealing with the Willie McCoy shooting,” he says. “Our group was initially made up of members of the Black Catholic Ministry, some educators, legal community representatives and clergy. Our focus initially was the black community within the parishes of the diocese, but with the ultimate goal of expanding the group’s membership and reach.”

Since its inception, the committee has sponsored awareness events, such as “Racism in Our Church,” for clergy and lay leaders in June 2019, a conversation with Bishop Sheldon Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; and in conjunction with Ministry Days 2019, five showings around the diocese of the multimedia live production of “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” which tells the heroic story of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the first African American Catholic priest.

The history of racism in our country is centuries old and unfortunately still thrives today. As a nation and as a people of God, we are making improvements but the going is slow. We must be the change if we want it to occur.
- Deacon Casey Walker

The committee has held more than 15 listening sessions: with diocesan lay leaders and clergy, and in parishes and Catholic high schools, where participants shared their experiences of racism. At each session one or more committee members are present.

“We try to create a sacred, safe space for people to tell the story about their experiences of racism and we let people know that everyone has to have an opportunity to share and we take copious notes,” Deacon Casey says. Some parish listening sessions have had several to 15 people attend, while one parish had 60 people participate. The committee intends for listening sessions to continue on an ongoing basis. Two parishes in the diocese have developed programs to continue to address racism and one parish is in the process of doing so.

“What the sessions allow us to see is if there is racism and/or bias, and it’s a huge subject,” he adds. “There are some common themes and we hear a lot about the dignity of who they are and not being accepted culturally. Many Latino and Filipino Catholics expressed what they had gone through in their parishes and their efforts to organize cultural activities or devotions and not being accepted by pastors who were not willing to engage with a certain group or culture in the parish. Once they are perceived as not being welcome it is difficult to overcome that or for someone to tell them different.”

The 12 committee members are working on recommendations to Bishop Soto that will result in a long-term sustainable and diocesan-wide program to work against racism. Two members of the committee, Jason Javier-Watson, assistant principal of St. Francis High School in Sacramento, and Ernest Uwazie, director of the Center for African Peace and Conflict Resolution and chair of the Division of Criminal Justice at California State University-Sacramento, are putting together a workshop training module on how to have constructive and open dialogue around the issues of race and bias. The target audience could be teachers, catechists, school administrators and parish leaders. Deacon Casey says the committee is also looking to expand its members to have more diversity and to be more involved in ecumenical and interfaith groups and efforts to address issues of racism in the broader community.

There is much work still to be done in combatting racism and discrimination, Deacon Casey says. “The history of racism in our country is centuries old and unfortunately still thrives today,” he concludes. “As a nation and as a people of God, we are making improvements but the going is slow. We must be the change if we want it to occur. Many of my brother clergy do recognize but more must recognize this need. Anti-racism, anti-discrimination and dignity for all mankind should define the church at every level.”


About the Diocesan Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism and other resources at www.scd.org/openwideourhearts.

(In header photo: Adriana Walker, Deacon Casey Walker, and Paulist Father Bart Landry on the steps of St. Basil Church in Vallejo.)

Catholic Herald Issue