Talking About Race on Campus

College ministry leaders ready to dialogue with students about George Floyd’s death and related events.

Above, participants take part in a candlelight vigil on Aug. 30 in Minneapolis. The community gathered in the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Ave. to honor Jacob Blake, 29, who was shot on Aug. 23 by Wisconsin police officers. George Floyd died while in police custody as summer began, on Memorial Day, in Minneapolis.
Above, participants take part in a candlelight vigil on Aug. 30 in Minneapolis. The community gathered in the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Ave. to honor Jacob Blake, 29, who was shot on Aug. 23 by Wisconsin police officers. George Floyd died while in police custody as summer began, on Memorial Day, in Minneapolis. (photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The fall semester is starting, but many college students are still thinking about the unrest throughout the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Campus missionaries, ministers and leaders are anticipating students’ need for dialogue and prayer as they process their feelings about racism, violence and justice.

Leaders will seek to help students bridge cross-cultural barriers while sharing the Gospel and reflecting on the injustice of racism, as well as the ongoing peaceful protests in many U.S. cities and violent riots in others that have resulted in nearly $900 million in damage nationwide. 

Floyd’s death divided Americans when they might have come together after COVID-19 isolation, said Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio.

“We had an opportunity to come together as a people, as a nation, and we had this tragic thing happen that once again divides us,” he said. “The disunity, the hatred, the distrust, the suspicion, the abuse — it’s absolutely not the work of the Lord. … We need to be able to recognize that and call it out and make concrete steps to break that down and come together again.”

Part of that breakdown has been over racism, thrust into public consciousness by Floyd’s death. Catholic bishops and leaders have identified racism as a sin, as taught by the Church, and a major national problem; and campus ministers and others expect that students will want to talk about it.

The wounds and hurt caused by racism are legitimate, and we can’t minimize them, said Mario Dance, a mission supervisor for the Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota-based St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO), a college ministry that builds relationships with students and forms them in the Catholic faith and life. 

There is basic Church teaching on how we should handle sin, and we need to oppose it, said Dance, who is training missionaries this fall on intercultural bridge-building. 


Dignified Response

Especially in light of Floyd’s death, Catholics have much work to do in lifting human dignity in the United States, said Jeff Runyan, senior director of international relations and the FOCUS 153 program of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a Catholic outreach seeking to share the Gospel with college students and equip them for Christ-centered evangelization and discipleship. 

“We also recognize that, ultimately, only in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can there be authentic reform, reconciliation, healing and repentance,” Runyan explained. Before going out on campus, FOCUS missionaries learn about human dignity and how to listen to those who have suffered from racism. They’re also reading the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”  

At this moment, students are dealing with many issues.

“The students are wrestling, but they’re wrestling with a lot,” said Rosie Chinea Shawver, campus ministry director at the University of Southern California Caruso Catholic Center in Los Angeles. Not only are they wrestling with racism, but also COVID-19 and being at home, drug abuse, suicide and mental-health issues, she said, adding, “Through all that wrestling … the mission of Christ in general is bigger and stronger than all of this.”

The Caruso Center will encourage students to pray and reflect on America’s history and their interior feelings through the lens of being sons and daughters of God, Shawver said. The ministry offered webinars about being a Catholic and racial injustice during the summer and this fall will focus on conscience formation and the consistent ethic of life.

Father Pivonka said he hopes some of Franciscan University’s Black students will tell their stories on campus. He also wants to make African American art, saints and speakers more visible, while encouraging dialogue about police enforcement and human dignity.

When the response to racism becomes violent and destructive, Jesus would not advocate it, Dance said, adding that it is a worldly response that shows spiritual disconnectedness.

Social media and COVID-19 haven’t helped this connection, but, rather, have brought more loneliness and isolation, said Nathan Metzinger, SPO’s vice president for mission. Social media hasn’t proven to be a fruitful way to build bridges, Dance said. 

“We’re not going to shine while we’re yelling or destroying property,” he said. “The ways that we shine are by showing mercy, grace and love to our neighbors and the people around us, regardless of what color they are, and to build relationships with people that may have been hurt by racism and communicate love and mercy to them, as well.” 

As campuses focus on addressing racial injustice, it’s also necessary to have conversations about what constitute healthy expressions of protest, anger, frustration, hurt and trauma, said Michael St. Pierre, executive director of the Stirling, New Jersey-based Catholic Campus Ministry Association, which has 600 members at 350 colleges. 

“That’s a helpful conversation, and I think that when one sees property damaged or one sees people’s neighborhoods destroyed or a Target looted or something,” he said, “I think it takes a very savvy conversation facilitator to take a student through that, because I don’t know any student who would condone the destruction.” 

As students consider their response to the ongoing civil unrest in light of Catholic social teaching, Shawver said she thinks the incidents of violence and other aspects of the Floyd response will come up in conversations. 


Alternatives to Violence

Whether or not students have attended protests, Father Pivonka expects discussion of Floyd and racism will center around positive ways they can make their voices heard and bring attention to the problem. 

Students have told him they want to work for racial justice but can’t support the Black Lives Matter Global Network because they couldn’t support elements of its platform, which promotes the end of the nuclear family and is Marxist in nature. “We’re looking at other ways that they can bring light to this issue without necessarily being part of that organization,” Father Pivonka said. 

Fighting racism isn’t St. Paul’s Outreach’s primary mission, but God can work on it while missionaries encourage young people to deepen their faith and experience the Holy Spirit, Dance said.

“We’re building bridges to people who disagree with us on a lot of different things,” he said. “That’s the whole of point of evangelization — to bring people home to God and to the message of Christ.”

FOCUS missionaries accompany students in life — including in their pain — and as they do so, there is an opportunity to point them to Christ, Runyan said. 

The FOCUS 153 program reaches students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, promoting human dignity.
The FOCUS 153 program reaches students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, promoting human dignity.(Photo: Courtesy of FOCUS 153)

The ministry’s 153 program equips missionaries to reach students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. The name refers to the story in the Gospel of John of the apostles’ miraculous catch of 153 fish, which was said to represent all the peoples of the Earth. 

Along with ministering to diverse students, Runyan said, FOCUS works to support its missionaries of color and diverse backgrounds through enculturated outreach, evangelization and fundraising.

Regardless of how students and leaders approach issues related to George Floyd’s death, they should remember that we need the Lord’s help to solve problems of racism, division and violence, Dance said.   

“This is a spiritual work at its core, and if we approach it from that,” Dance said, “then this is not us fixing things, this is God fixing things.” 

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The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

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