Catholics Grapple With Racism and Witness Amid Volatile Demonstrations
Across the U.S., many Catholics are trying to witness to peace on all sides of protests and riots following the police-related killings of African Americans.
MINNEAPOLIS — Standing amid the throng of clergy that had marched to the very spot where George Floyd died, Archbishop Bernard Hebda listened to the prayer and short talks at the somber memorial held there on June 2 in Minneapolis. And he felt within himself the anger about the severity of racial discrimination in society and the constant threat of police brutality his people had been feeling.
“It really hit home,” he told the Register. The shepherd of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis walked in silence with hundreds of Christian and other religious leaders from that spot. They viewed the local businesses destroyed by riots that exploded out of the protests over Floyd’s killing. With other Catholics silently praying the Rosary, they together walked to another site in St. Paul, where everyone prayed for the 46-year-old black man and for the restoration of peace and justice in their communities.
“Religious leaders have been trying to find out: How do we bring faith to bear on this difficult situation?” he said, adding that Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul had convoked a number of religious leaders asking for their help.
Indeed, demonstrations against racism and alleged instances of police brutality have spread through more than 350 cities and towns across the U.S., including the rural heartland, with demonstrators cutting across political lines. A Monmouth University Poll released June 2 found that 76% of Americans — with majorities across all races, political parties and political ideologies — believe racial and ethnic discrimination is “a big problem in the United States,” and a combined 78% said the anger behind the protests is fully or partially justified.
The protests ignited over a video shared widely on social media that showed now ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling for almost nine minutes on the neck of Floyd, who was suspected of purchasing cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd’s death followed upon growing national outrage over what critics are terming law enforcement failures in the killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
Many Catholics from coast to coast, both as groups and individuals, have discerned a call to do their part for peace and justice while providing a compelling Christian witness amid the demonstrations.
Archbishop Hebda told the Register that St. Albert the Great parish, which has provided “a great presence in the community,” kept 34 neighbors safe under its roof during the Minneapolis riots. He noted that the pastor, Dominican Father Joseph Gillespie, has been actively out on the streets talking with people, “giving them hope in the midst of their troubles.”
Archbishop Hebda said some neighborhoods served by their parishes have suffered catastrophically.
“People lost their homes, especially parents with small kids,” he said. Those parishes, he said, have been working together to put people in hotels or in other parishioners’ homes.
The Church has also been mobilizing to keep people fed since grocery stores have been burned down and public transportation is suspended. At one of their schools, three blocks from where Floyd was killed, Archbishop Hebda said, “They’ve been reaching out to parents with food in that area.”
“One of our parishes in Minneapolis, Incarnation Catholic Church, served meals 1,300 families that Sunday,” he said.
Archbishop Hebda said the local Church will be addressing more intentionally and carefully the sin of racism through the parishes, especially as many parents of black or biracial children are concerned for their future. He was grateful that Pope Francis sent out a message of solidarity in a June 3 general audience, condemning racism and calling out violence as self-defeating.
“That will be a big boost for our Catholics and the community at large,” he said.
Louisiana and Kentucky
Thousands reportedly have gathered in the greater New Orleans area for more than a week to peacefully protest against racism and perceived excessive force by law enforcement.
Catholic leaders on June 5 also held a prayer service and peaceful march, “Requiem for the Black Children of God,” led by Archbishop Gregory Aymond. The event started at the New Orleans archdiocesan chancery and ended at Notre Dame Seminary, calling for peace in their communities and the end of racial injustice.
Jill Cabes, a Catholic who works at St. Mary’s Dominican High School, told the Register that it was important for her to join with a larger group of people willing to come together, including with people of other faiths, and turn to God, asking him to bring “healing, unity and peace.”
“Our country really has a lot of hurting, and when people are in pain or wounded, God’s the one that can bring healing and comfort,” she said.
“And I wanted to be a part of that.”
In the Archdiocese of Louisville, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville wrote a May 29 letter to Mayor Greg Fischer, telling him he backed the peaceful protests and called on him to investigate Breonna Taylor’s death and work for a “compassionate community that does not tolerate racism in any form.”
Louisville remains a segregated city, with a heavily African American and poor west end and a predominantly white and affluent east end. Father Tony Cecil, who serves as an assistant pastor at a parish on each side of the city, St. Martin de Porres and Epiphany Catholic Church, said his churches are “two very different communities.”
His African American parishioners who grew up under legal segregation policies feel upset that so little has changed since the civil-rights era.
“Here we are 50 years later, and the issue of race is still such a painful and prevalent thing in our country,” he said.
Epiphany Catholic Church is a member of “Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together” (CLOUT), an organization of religious congregations that works for the common good, including with issues of race.
Claire Morgan, an Epiphany parishioner involved in the organization for the past two years, told the Register that the last few days have felt both “emotionally draining” but also have felt “invigorating” because they’re seeing momentum for positive changes that CLOUT’s members have worked for decades to achieve. She said CLOUT is also spearheading the discussion on how to develop “community-oriented policing” that integrates police officers with community leaders.
“We have to have compassion for each other and stand with one another,” she said.
Father Cecil said he gave a homily for Pentecost, the first Sunday they had all returned for public Mass, calling on his parishioners to not be “colorblind,” but to recognize the “indescribable beauty of color” that God has created in such diversity and brought together in the Body of Christ.
He said, “We have to call out the sin of racism by name and send it back to hell, where it belongs.”
From New York to L.A.
Catholics are trying to provide outreach and witness amid the challenge of closed churches in many locales.
Before the pandemic, the Church of the Blessed Sacrament Church on 71st Street in New York was a hub of social outreach and ministry. The pastor, Father David Nolan, told the Register that the church remains open for private prayer, but cannot do much beyond that until it can reopen for public worship and other gatherings in Phase II of the state’s phased reopening plan.
Until then, he said, “People can come in and pray.”
Over in the Los Angeles metro area, Catholics had also not yet reopened their churches when the demonstrations began and riots broke out.
Merrick Siebenaler told the Register the trip back home from St. Monica Catholic Community’s church on the vigil of Pentecost, with cars on fire and shattered glass lining the road under his headlights, was “driving from war zone to war zone.”
But the next day, dozens of St. Monica parishioners came out to help clean up their community after the riots. Siebenaler, who serves as the parish’s director of development and strategic communications, said peaceful demonstrations are continuing in the community.
Siebenaler recognized real “anger, hurt and pain” exists in the community. Santa Monica is part of the symbol of tech-startup success in Los Angeles. Siebenaler noted the affluent area, with its “influencer culture,” is called “Silicon Beach” but profoundly disconnected from the city’s lopsided inequality and vast homeless population. In this city, he said, a studio apartment alone can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per month.
St. Monica’s is reaching out to interfaith leaders to soothe community tensions and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance before forming concrete plans for action.
“Generally, people are trying to preserve hope and respond with love,” Siebenaler said.
In Los Angeles, Deacon Jim Carper told the Register that, at the encouragement of Archbishop José Gomez, they had Eucharistic adoration in the parking lot for Pentecost at St. Bernadette Catholic Church, where he serves as parish-life director.
He recalled how one African American man stood at the gate, who was neither a parishioner nor Catholic, and asked for a blessing. The deacon came forward with the monstrance and blessed the man who, deeply moved, thanked him.
“Right now, our jobs are to get close enough to people to love them,” he said. “Because nothing else is going to save our world.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.