At Pentecost, Catholics Find Support in Their Faith During Minneapolis Riots

Faith and forgiveness, alongside with solidarity for the victim and the African-American community’s anguish, are elements of their response to the brutal death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.

A man leaves a photograph at a memorial for George Floyd on May 27 in Minneapolis.
A man leaves a photograph at a memorial for George Floyd on May 27 in Minneapolis. (photo: Lorie Shaull/ BY-SA 2.0)

MINNEAPOLIS — On Saturday evening as protesters came within blocks of the Minneapolis apartment Roz Riana shares with her mother, nearby storefronts were being boarded up and dumpsters emptied of anything flammable in anticipation of destructive elements wreaking havoc, as they had the previous several nights.  

Riana, who has a multiethnic background and is Catholic, prayed frequent Memorares as she figured out how she could get her elderly mother, who has cancer, down from the third floor to a safe location in case looters set her building on fire.  

The death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in police custody on Monday saddened Riana. It also motivated thousands to protest peacefully, while others — who some say came to the state seeking to cause destruction — looted businesses and burned buildings, turning sections of the city’s Lake Street into a war zone.  

“I wasn’t surprised with the anger and outrage of the community, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the turn it took,” Riana said. “It really irritates and upsets me that outside people have come here and used this as an excuse to try to destroy our city, or at least severely damage it.”

On the eve of Pentecost, Riana and Catholics of all backgrounds, decried the violence of Floyd’s death and the subsequent looting and destruction, while praying for the city and for people to turn back to God. 

And a Catholic priest whose parish borders Lake Street talked with the Register about city restoration and caring for his mostly Latino congregation, some of whom live near the violence.


Bishops Respond

Calling the video of George Floyd’s treatment in police custody “gut-wrenching and deeply disturbing” in a May 27 statement, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis called for a full investigation resulting in “rightful accountability and veritable justice.” He also acknowledged the need to respect the worth and dignity of each individual, from civilians who need protection to law enforcement charged with providing protection.

The U.S. bishops issued a statement on May 29 in which they joined Archbishop Hebda in praying for Floyd’s soul and all those who have died in a similar manner.

“We plead for an end to the violence in the wake of this tragedy and for the victims of the rioting. We pray for comfort for grieving families and friends. We pray for peace across the United States, particularly in Minnesota, while the legal process moves forward.”

The world witnessed Floyd’s death, “and it struck a chord because [he] was a living, breathing human being,” said Sonya May of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.  

“Everyone knew that act was wrong,” she said. “You saw the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was happening right in front of you for the whole world to see.” 

At the same time, May said Floyd’s death served as the latest example to non-blacks of the concerns that fellow black people like her have experienced in the way they are treated by law enforcement. 

May said she is praying for the city, state and country during the rioting and has sought the intercession of the Blessed Mother and Pope St. John Paul II, whom she sees as a patron of family life. “Especially since a lot of these kids [who were rioting] don’t have father figures in their life,” she said.


Pastor’s Perspective 

Floyd’s death was heartbreaking, said Father Joseph Williams, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church. “The video is really hard to get through for all of us,” he said. “The first thing that needs to happen is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

There is justification for the anger and unrest but also a need for restoring peace, which is threatened in Minneapolis’ diverse neighborhoods, Father Williams said. “There really is a spirit of anarchy and destruction that’s threatening ethnic neighborhoods and good families that have built businesses and homes,” he said. “Some of them are going up in flames.”

Father Williams’ parishioners have been frightened because many have seen the rioting from their homes. “They can hear it outside of their apartments.”

About 80% of his parish’s 1,300 families are Latino, and many of them are immigrants.

On May 29, the mother of a family of five called Father Williams while a drugstore across the street from her apartment building was being ransacked. Looters had surrounded the family’s car on the street so they couldn’t leave. 

The priest brought them to the parish rectory, where they spent the night in a separate suite. Because some parishioners haven’t felt safe in their homes during the riots, he is working with suburban parishes to provide safe, temporary lodgings for them. 

During the crisis, the parish has been praying and offering Masses for peace and a resolution, Father Williams said.

When the riots began, St. Stephen was preparing to open for public Masses, which were suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The church was to be open to 25% capacity, as stipulated by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, for Masses on Pentecost Sunday, Father Williams said. 


Solidarity, Faith and Forgiveness 

Riana also was looking forward to returning to Mass in person on Pentecost.

“I am hoping and praying for an epiphany for people to realize that we need to turn back to God and make amends for our lives,” she said, adding it was enlightening to see people demonstrating peacefully and cleaning up from the destruction.

The riots have revealed that a need for more solidarity between ethnic groups in Minneapolis, even among people of faith, Father Williams said. “We need to work together, and we have to talk about how we as faith leaders can be a part of that dialogue and that solidarity.” 

A large influx of law enforcement (probably aided by Riana’s Memorares) resulted in a much quieter night in Minneapolis on Saturday.  

Anger over Floyd’s death may linger, but people of faith can help with the rebuilding. “With our faith there is forgiveness and mercy, and I think that’s what we have to think about — forgiveness and mercy and what happened,” May said. “It can take time, but wounds can heal.”

Register correspondent Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.

This story was updated after posting.