This group of citizens meets at the Alpharetta City Hall for Race Relations Dialogues. The dialogue is a former priest’s answer to tackling racial discord among whites and blacks. Photo by Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

Race Relations Dialogue aims for inclusive, peace-loving neighborhoods

On a recent Thursday evening, a racially-mixed group of around two dozen adults met in Alpharetta to watch a Ted Talk podcast on this provoking topic: “How Racism Makes Us Sick.”

Discussions followed, and sometimes those can be raw and personal. “People are transparent,” said Chiquita Walton, who led this particular analysis with a series of leading questions, including an invitation to share personal experiences of discrimination.

“You have to feel comfortable with each other to go to that place,” she said. “We’ve created a sense of trust and a greater sense of community.”

Welcome to the Race Relations Dialogue, an open, secular organization with monthly meetings to discuss issues of racial discord. The goal is a better understanding between races, which in turn could produce more inclusive and peace-loving neighborhoods.

“I think we need to have these discussions. I was kind of surprised that we had something like this in my local community that I could participate in,” said Walton, an African American woman who says she frequently keeps the conversation going the next day at her workplace.

Race Relations Dialogue is the inspiration of Jack McBride, a white, 85-year-old former priest who lives in Canton. The idea evolved from group discussions at a church. McBride attends mass almost every morning at a Catholic church in Roswell, and afterward meets with a regular group of friends for coffee in the church kitchen to talk about current events and how to solve the world’s problems.

When the daily news cycle focused on racial discord around the country, John Dearie remembered how deeply this bothered his friend. Nothing gets McBride’s ire up more than discrimination.

“He kept saying, ‘We need to do something. What are we going to do?’” Dearie said.

McBride has experience bringing together people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. He has, in the past, started groups on race relations, for LGBTQ people, and others. “I love people, and I love to serve their needs,” he said.

McBride was a priest for 10 years, but he’s been out of active church ministry since his marriage almost 50 years ago. He and his wife have children and grandchildren. His first ministry assignment was at a black parish in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s. During the civil rights movement, he was the only white priest from his church to accompany black parishioners to a march in Montgomery, he said. He still remembers the hostility of onlookers and the pushback from diocese leaders.

“I could never stand people being discriminated against. It always bothered me,” McBride said.

McBride began the Race Relations Dialogue in 2018 with help from his coffee group: Dearie, Jim Hynes and Ellen Reuland.

Alpharetta residents Birdel and Edith Jackson regularly attend the meetings, and Birdel has addressed the group on black history. Jackson said he’s there to “stir the pot” and make everyone think. Even those who hate bigotry don’t realize the subtleties of racism, he said.

“I would just urge white people to walk a mile in our shoes,” Jackson said.

Dearie said that these discussions have made him aware “that most black people feel discriminated against almost on a daily basis.”

Bonnie Steadman attended for the first time last fall to hear the Alpharetta police chief talk about racial profiling. It was very informative, she said. Steadman, who is white, said she grew up in a racially diverse community where people got along with each other and she wants to do what she can to make it better here.

The people who come care about racial tolerance, so it’s a lot like “preaching to the choir,” said Walton. But there is a “ripple effect” because participants talk to their neighbors and co-workers, she said. Jackson said he is encouraged when he hears group members say that they now speak up when they hear discriminatory comments out in public.

That’s precisely the response McBride is hoping for as well.

“That’s my goal,” he said, “get them turned on and go out and do something.”

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