Associate Dorothy Dempsey Tackles Race Head On


by Julia DiSalvo

In 2012, when Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Florida, something was triggered in the heart and soul of Associate Dorothy Dempsey, a wife, mother, and senior citizen in urban St. Louis. She went to her pastor at St. Elizabeth, of which she had been a member for over 30 years, and said, “We need to do something.” They arranged a prayer service for the largely black parish and neighborhood. Two years later, when Michael Brown was left dead in the streets of nearby Ferguson, Dorothy took a stand and developed a ministry focused on race and justice issues. This is her story. 

How did you get started?

When I saw Michael Brown, it was like a total awakening. As a mother I thought, “That could be my child lying there.” It got me thinking, “Where have you been?”

Back in the ‘60s, things were really bad, but I was still looking at the news just like the whites were, just going on with life. I wondered why I wasn’t joining some type of group.

A lot of blacks have not awakened to the facts. We have lost something. We have to fight, and my fight is to enlighten others.

What are the main concerns and needs you see?

People need to be educated, and people of color need a fair shake. Many refuse to acknowledge it. Many black men are family men, take care of their children, and still lose opportunities from a lack of education, a lack of jobs, and so forth.

When you talk about human rights and dignity and justice, you almost don’t know where to start. Our parish is cosponsoring a speaker series on diversity with St. Rose Philippine Duchesne [Parish in Florissant, Missouri] to educate and invite people to come together and dialogue. But I’ve found resistance from my own people [of color]. It’s like they don’t want to revisit their experiences because they’re so hurtful and deep. Sometimes you have to dig deep to get to the root of things and know how to move forward.

If you could tell people of color one thing, what would it be?

We cannot give up hope. We have to stick together. As long as there is a God, as long as we depend on Him and Him alone, there can be change—and it will come. That’s something we have to share and try to instill in others.

God made this world; he didn’t mean for it to be all-white. He made a beautiful universe of color—butterflies and trees, flowers of all colors. Why would you think he would make humans of only one hue?

If you could tell the [white] people in power one thing, what would it be?

Get to know us. Stop running away from us. Live next door, and know we pick up trash too. I understand there are white people who definitely do not hate and have all these prejudices. But our clergy, our pastors, must stand up; we can’t be afraid to speak out. I wrote a letter to the archbishop, and he responded, but more must be done. This cancerous thing is going on; don’t you want to put an end to it?

What are you working on/doing now?

I work closely with Metropolitan Congregation United [], a group of churches that come together to fight injustices. They have sponsored “Sacred Conversations on Race + ACTION.” I was able to host a conversation at Sts. Theresa [and Bridget parish on Market St.], and we had quite a bit of turnout and a write-up in the [St. Louis] Review. We even had one big event at Saint Louis University with over a thousand people.

After that, I started a social justice committee at St. Elizabeth’s. Interestingly enough, we have a white and a black co-chair. One of our main events was inviting the police to speak to the youth. One boy talked about how he had been subjected to police brutality, and they really took him under their wings. A young man at another meeting just opened up and was rambling on and on. I couldn’t stop him. You could tell he felt so good that people were listening to him. That’s what it’s all about. 

I invited the alderman of the 21st Ward to our last meeting. We want to have a big clean-up [in cooperation with two local Protestant churches]. We’ll have college students and everyone out in the streets. We’ll try to get the whole area, from the highway down to Natural Bridge. The aldermen from that meeting have invited the priests to come to their meeting.

How is St. Louis and this nation going to come together in terms of race?

That’s a good question. There’s such a division. It’s like everybody’s got their minds made up, like nobody wants to understand other people’s plights. I don’t really have an answer to that. I wish I did. But I hope some changes are being made. I hope we’re making a difference. I hope we’re getting people to think and to realize they have to be a part of this. No one can just sit back and let things happen.

That’s a lot of what you’re doing: making people aware of what’s going on, of what it takes to move forward, and inspiring them to take action…

That’s all you can do, plus pray.


<< Back to News

Change Text Size   A|  A|  A