One Year After George Floyd’s Killing: Black Catholics Are Exhausted, Yet Hopeful
Racial justice is a noble quest for the Church and society.
The life of a diocesan priest is demanding. But for Father Robert Boxie III, the past year has been especially taxing.
With many Catholics compelled to learn more about the Church’s teaching on racism and its application in the aftermath of George Floyd’s May 2020 killing, Father Boxie has become a sought-after speaker on the topic. The African American priest has presented not only to groups and parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, where he serves as chaplain at Howard University, but across the country.
“I’m happy to do it, but it gets exhausting,” said Father Boxie.
The fatigue the young priest speaks of isn’t primarily physical, but emotional. He says there is a real burden experienced in repeatedly sharing painful accounts of racism — be they historical, such as opposition to the 1965 episcopal ordination of Harold Perry in New Orleans on the grounds that he was Black, or personal, taken from Father Boxie’s own life.
Despite how tiring the work is, Father Boxie says that “it’s worth it” if it means helping others grasp Catholic teaching on the sin of racism. He’s encouraged by widespread engagement on the issue.
“The fact that the conversation is still going almost a year after George Floyd was killed, that’s a sign of hope,” said Father Boxie.
The weary hope expressed by Father Boxie is somewhat emblematic of the perspectives of other Black Catholics who spoke with the Register: confident that the Church — as the Bride of Christ, the redeemer of all mankind — can propose the only genuine path forward to racial justice and healing, while also acknowledging the pain, frustration and confusion that Floyd’s killing and the aftereffects have elicited.
Sister Josephine Garrett, a licensed counselor in Tyler, Texas, and member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, describes what she sees happening at the national level by using a clinical term: racial identity development.
In short, she sees the country collectively grappling with questions of race, as persons come to terms with how race forms part of their own identity and how they relate to others in virtue of it. As it does in the clinical setting, she says this process has produced its fair share of defensiveness and “nonsensical” behavior.
But Sister Josephine says she has gone through her own struggles with questions of racial identity, questions she says she wasn’t confronted with previously because she had never experienced overt, aggressive racism.
The jarring events of the year helped her to see that her limited experience did not necessarily tell the whole story of race relations in America.
Described as an “ongoing discernment” that at times has been painful, she says she has become more aware of how many disparities in U.S. society she previously didn’t stop to think about — from the lack of cosmetic options in drug stores that matched her dark skin to the predominance of depictions of Christ and the apostles as European — are perceived by many people of color as dehumanizing and indications that they are “less than.”
“Over this past year, because of the killing of George Floyd, it hasn’t allowed me to just sit back,” she said.
Joshua Blonski says he has also thought about his race more than ever before this past year, though he’s not sure that’s a good thing. While he has experienced racism firsthand, he says he had thought race relations had genuinely improved over his 30 years of life.
But now, says the dean of students at Providence Academy in suburban Minneapolis, a kind of “hyper-awareness” of race is demanding that all things be considered primarily through a racial lens, which can lead to distortions.
For instance, Blonski believes the U.S. faces a general problem of police violence, but efforts for reform are derailed when the issue is talked about only in terms of racial justice and white supremacy. Additionally, he worries that others will define him only by his race and admits that he feels increasing pressure to do the same.
“I feel like it’s being thrust upon persons of color to make race your entire identity, and that’s a loaded challenge,” said Blonski.
He says he questions what some activists are actually attempting to bring about under the guise of justice and says political rhetoric is making it hard to perform the delicate balance of acknowledging racial injustice and its multigenerational impact, without weaponizing history.
Blonski says he experiences this most acutely when he considers his “game plan” for how to speak about issues of race and racism to his three young children, who are biracial. He says he wants to equip his kids to deal with the possibility of unpleasant encounters but doesn’t want to teach them to be victims. They’re important conversations to have, he says, but it’s difficult to find resources that can help him do it well.
Christ Over Comfort
While Floyd’s killing and its aftermath has called into question many secular responses, Gloria Purvis says it has been more revealing about members of the Church.
The Catholic commentator says she has been “shocked” by the way many of her fellow Catholics have responded to the events of the past year, from downplaying Floyd’s death by pointing to his criminal history to getting angry over the outcome of the trial of his killer, Derek Chauvin.
These responses suggest to her that, when it comes to racial justice, some people with otherwise-pro-life commitments are influenced by an “anti-Gospel” promoted by secular talking heads that usurps the role Scripture and the Catechism should be playing in informing one’s understanding of human life and dignity.
“At the root of it, I think there’s a fear of losing temporal power,” said Purvis of what she sees as the refusal of too many Catholics to even be open to addressing racism in the United States. She says thinking critically about the ways slavery and racist laws shaped American customs and policies might mean experiencing discomfort or upsetting political coalitions, both of which shouldn’t be an issue for someone who has conviction that Christ has won the ultimate victory.
“If we believe in him, we shouldn’t fear, and we should not respond out of fear,” she said, adding, “We love the martyrs until we might have to be one.” Purvis says that Catholics should also not use the problematic elements of some secular approaches as an excuse for not pursuing justice. She said this might be a real temptation for those who want to engage but don’t see an easy way to do so.
“Guess what? The devil’s going to be working hard to turn you off of pursuing and finding the truth.”
The Church Has the Answers
Purvis and others interviewed for this story say there’s more work to be done in terms of addressing racial injustice in the United States, but they’re confident that the Church has the needed answers.
Purvis points to the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as essential for combatting racism, which she says is even more of a spiritual problem than it is a policy one.
Blonski says the Church has a “wealth of knowledge” about the true source of human dignity and the need to overcome racism, such as the Vatican’s 1988 document “The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society,” while Sister Josephine says the Church has both the “duty and the authority” to speak out against racial injustice, which is a barrier to “the final realization of the unity of the human race” that God wills (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1045).
Father Boxie says the Church has a “real opportunity” to lead in this moment, when people are desperate to hear a message of justice that promises overcoming, and not merely managing or even exploiting, racial divisions.
“We have to propose a path forward for the culture, because the culture does not have the answers,” said the diocesan priest, suggesting that the Church’s credibility is on the line, especially for those who might be estranged from the Church because they’ve been mistreated on the basis of race in the past. “We do have the answer in Jesus Christ, and we have to be true to who we are.”
Most people interviewed for this story agree that one of the biggest obstacles to making progress on racial issues in the United States is the way in which the issue is framed in the media and politics.
Father Boxie says the polarized landscape seems more geared toward generating conflict than understanding, which makes it difficult to get to what Servant of God Thea Bowman called the “true truths” about racial injustice, free of spin or polish. Blonski spoke of a need to cultivate a desire to get to the truth, not merely to win.
Sister Josephine says it might be challenging to talk about something like race, which can leave one feeling vulnerable and exposed, but for the Christian, there’s no other way.
“If we’re going to be people faithful to the truth, we have to have difficult conversations,” she said. “And we have to figure out how to do them right, how we can arrive at conclusions that make us even more authentic and sincere followers of Jesus Christ.”
The religious sister says she has experienced this most fruitfully in the context of concrete relationships in her own life.
For instance, when a friend wrote something that she felt was racist and was personally hurt by, she prayed about it for a week before deciding to engage. She approached the encounter not as an intellectual debate to win, but simply as a dialogue with a friend and a fellow child of God.
Sister Josephine says it can be a “challenge of faith” to believe that these types of small conversations can make a difference, but they’re the only way to lead to true change and transformation, which can then have an impact at a broader level.
“People who write policy are not likely to change without an encounter,” said the sister, who said Catholics need to focus on conversion of hearts and proclaiming the Gospel, as well as political advocacy as an extension of that primary mission.
In their role as leaders at educational institutions, both Blonski and Father Boxie have also seen the power that simple, honest and humble conversations about such a divisive issue can have.
At Providence Academy, students regularly have opportunities to have constructive conversations through the Symposium Society, which Blonski helped found when he came to the school five years ago. The most recent symposium, held shortly after the police shooting of Daunte Wright only miles away from Providence Academy, focused on questions of racial justice. Blonski says it was important for students of different races to exchange their stories and experiences and to grow in empathy and a shared desire to seek the truth together.
At Howard, which is a historically Black university, the Newman Center has held several joint sessions on racism with the Catholic Student Center at the nearby University of Maryland.
Only two sessions were originally planned, but Father Boxie says that students found them so helpful that a third was held. The sessions give students a chance to talk about their own experiences related to race and thoughts on current events, while also being formed in the moral vision of the Church.
Father Boxie says young people are “hungry” to have these types of conversations in a faith context, adding that the Church needs to be able to provide them going forward.
“We have to propose a solution in Jesus Christ to our students and to our young people,” he said. “And hopefully that will have an effect, here on campus, but also beyond.”