With signs in hand and spread out along Grand Boulevard, Catholics came together to raise awareness and to pray for an end to racism.
The prayer vigil at St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church June 27 drew about 350 people. The group listened to several speakers as they read excerpts from a commentary piece by Father Bryan Massingale, a theology professor at Fordham University in New York, recently published in the National Catholic Reporter.
The prayer vigil was sponsored by the Catholic Racial Justice Collaborative, a multiracial group of Catholic lay and religious leaders in 14 parishes across St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County (see related) to take action against racism, provide tools and resources for white Catholics to learn about racism and to uplift the voices of Catholics of color, including Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission co-sponsored the event.
Sister Genevieve Cassani, SSND, opened the gathering with prayer, calling on all “to respect the dignity of every person, the first principle in Catholic social teaching.” Citing the words of Yolanda Pierce, a professor and dean of Howard University School of Divinity, Sister Gen added that we must be humble and listen in learning about others’ experiences of racism, and that “our struggle is not merely against flesh and blood, but those institutions and systems that keep racism alive by perpetuating the lie that some members of the human family are inferior and others superior.”
Bernie Sammons, a St. Clare of Assisi parishioner and founder of Social Justice 4 All, read from Father Massingale’s commentary about Christian Cooper, a young Black man and birdwatcher in New York who was reported to the police May 25 by Amy Cooper. Amy Cooper, who is not related to Christian Cooper, called 911 to say that “an African-American man” was threatening her in New York’s Central Park after he asked her to comply with the park’s posted regulations to leash her dog.
“In short, she decided to call the police on a Black man for nothing more than politely asking her to obey the park’s rules. And made up a lie to put him in danger,” Father Massingale wrote. “By her own admission, she acted out of reflex. No one taught Amy Cooper all of this. Likely, no one gave her an explicit class on how whiteness works in America. But she knew what she was doing. And so do we. We understand her behavior. We know how our culture frames whiteness and folks of color. We know how race works in America.”
St. Alphonsus pastor Father Steve Benden, CSSR, said he hadn’t given much thought about the issue of white privilege until recently when he was pulled over by a police officer in a traffic stop. He was let go with a warning. “Was it because I was a 60-year-old white man, that I was treated in such a way? Maybe. Would a Black 60-year-old man have been treated differently? Maybe. I have heard stories from my African American brothers and sisters where it was different.”
Holding signs with messages like, “racism is a public health emergency,” and “stop economic genocide,” the group paused for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in memory of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police after an officer knelt on his neck. The names of 80 Black people who were victims of encounters with police also were read aloud.
Eight-year-old Tamara Johnson, who held a bright green sign that read “my life matters,” said she was encouraged by the people who came to the event at the Rock Church. She said it was important for people to gather, because “Black lives matter,” she said.
Velma Bailey, a member of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis, helps lead Camp Sun Splash, a summer youth camp and leadership training organized by St. Louis Torchbearers 2, and held annually in Fairground Park. The program originated as an effort to provide training for children to develop skills to take action against strangers, gun violence and bullying, but has since expanded to include other programs.
“I came because we want to promote equity in our community,” Bailey said of the event at the Rock Church. “People need to see that Black people and white people and everyone, when they join together, can make the change that we need in our community. People can’t work alone.
“This is the whole essence of what Jesus was about,” Bailey added. “Regardless of your denomination, if you’re a follower of Christ, He died for all lives. He wanted all of us to work together.”
Catholic Racial Justice Collaborative includes 14 parishes in St. Louis
City and St. Louis and St. Charles counties. They include:
Mary, Mother of the Church
St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church
St. Claire of Assisi
St. Elizabeth, Mother of John the Baptist
St. Francis Xavier “College” Church
St. Margaret of Scotland
St. Matthew the Apostle
St. Pius V
St. Rose Philippine Duschene
For more information on the collaborative and how to join, call Kathy McGinnis at (314) 369-3821.