Black Catholic community hopeful for ‘a season of change’

Peaceful protestors filled the streets of downtown Nashville on June 4 during a youth-led Black Lives Matter march. Above, a protestor displays a sign of George Floyd, whose killing by a white Minneapolis police has sparked nationwide actions against police brutality and new dialogue on racism in America. Photo by John Partipilo

Marching through the streets of downtown Nashville with thousands of others standing up for racial justice and demanding change was a “spiritual experience” for St. Vincent de Paul parishioner William T. Robinson Jr., an African-American and a lifelong educator and activist.

Robinson has seen his community struggle for too long, but at this moment, he feels hopeful. “This feels real,” he said. “The diversity of people coming together for the common good … the empathy is there, people are invested in this.”

“To everything there is a season,” Robinson said. “This is the season for change.”

Robinson’s friend, fellow St. Vincent parishioner and brother Knight of Peter Claver, James E. Callahan III, also participated in the Black Lives Matter march and rally in Nashville. He described the need for the march as “tiresome,” as he named a litany of black men unjustly killed, from George Floyd to Emmitt Till.  

But now, “there’s a very strong tenor of hope, looking at the other groups coming in,” Callahan said. “When our Caucasian brothers and sisters say, ‘Hey, we don’t agree with this,’ that’s when you start to get real movement.”

‘Sin that cries out for justice’

“This moment is really the boiling point,” said Dr. A. Hannibal Leach, a professor of political science at Fisk University and a Catholic convert. The killing of Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, “forced America to gut-check itself.”

The systemic racism that has plagued America since its founding “isn’t something to be swept under the rug any longer,” Leach said. 

Like Robinson and Callahan, Leach feels hopeful that real change will spring forth from this moment. “I see political and religious leaders more open to speaking about complex, nuanced issues surrounding race, more than I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s good,” he said.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding issued a statement on June 2 in response to Floyd’s killing. “Now, more than ever, the principles of justice and mercy embodied in Catholic Social Teaching and rooted in the respect for the human dignity of each person guide our efforts to work toward healing,” he wrote. 

He also called attention the justice work that the Diocese of Nashville is already engaged in to lift up vulnerable and historically disadvantaged people: “Our trust in God calls us to address a wide range of human needs including affordable housing, senior housing, and the support and assistance of many services provided by Catholic Charities of Tennessee” he wrote, in addition to offering quality educational opportunities through Catholic schools. 

Bishop Spalding also shared the words of Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

“The killing of George Floyd was senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice,” Archbishop Gomez wrote. “We should all understand that the protests we are seeing in our cities reflect the justified frustration and anger of millions of our brothers and sisters who even today experience humiliation, indignity and unequal opportunity only because of their race or the color of their skin. It should not be this way in America. Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.”

“We’ve seen the Catholic Church step up, and not shrink back,” Leach said, praising Pope Francis and Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, in particular, as outspoken voices against racism. 

“Scripture calls for the promotion of life. If you’re a faithful person, you’re called to be a guardian of human life,” Leach said. He pointed to Christian leaders including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist minister Will Campbell, and St. Oscar Romero as those “standing with the people, bringing the gospel of life into reality.”

Realities of systemic racism

Callahan, a lifelong “unapologetic Catholic,” who attended predominately white Catholic schools growing up and described his younger self as “a choir boy with a dashiki and braids,” has always felt called to stand up for life, especially the lives of marginalized people of color. 

As a member of the national executive board of the Knights of Peter Claver, Callahan works to promote the dignity of black life, from conception to natural death. 

“Being black you are marginalized before birth,” he said, noting the high abortion rates among African-American women. And black households languish at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, without equal opportunities for advancement, Callahan said. Black men have a higher rate of death through street violence, as well as inside the judicial system, he said, dying in prison or executed by the state. “That’s not a natural death,” he said.

“When I hear ‘I can’t breathe,’” Callahan said, referring to Floyd’s plea shortly before he died in police custody, “I think of it as a people who can’t breathe, not just in one aspect of life, but in every aspect of life.” 

That’s why Callahan is marching in the streets and dialoguing with people, engaging in the uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations about race. 

Leach encourages Catholic lay people to more fully immerse themselves in the social teaching and mission of the Church, “ensuring that historically deprived communities have access to things like quality education and health care, good, living wages, housing.”

To better comprehend the history of the African-American struggle, Leach suggested visiting historic sites like the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which explores the history of slavery, lynching and racial segregation in the United States.

“Try to understand how racism has impacted communities of color for generations” Leach said. Encountering that history, “you can appreciate the progress, but recognize the steps that are still necessary to take” to achieve true equality, Leach said. 

James E. Callahan III, right, Knights of Peter Claver national executive board member, and William T. Robinson Jr., both of St. Vincent de Paul Council #5,  are pictured at St. Vincent ahead of participating in a recent Black Lives Matter march in Nashville.

“See where communities of color are coming from when we talk about systemic racism,” he said. “It’s embedded in political attitudes and social conventions of everyday life.”

The status quo thinking “that black people are less,” are unfairly profiled, and are not given equal opportunities to white peers, must be disrupted, Callahan said. 

While it’s easy for most individuals to truthfully say that they didn’t cause systemic racism, people have a harder time seeing how their white privilege has benefitted them.

“Go to a bank and your loan approval rate is three times that of an African-American with the exact same financial profile. Those are the harder things to see,” Callahan said.

Witnessing more people acknowledge their privilege has been affirming, Callahan and Leach agreed. “It’s good to see white allies and friends speak to those realities,” Leach said, which is a step towards building a more just and inclusive society.

Christian responsibility to act

“Christ was against excluding people,” Leach said, noting Jesus’ encounters with prostitutes, lepers and tax collectors described in the bible. “We’re called to follow his example. In times of darkness, the example of the faithful is to bring the light of Christ to these types of situations.” 

In his homily on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, Bishop Spalding challenged the congregation to embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit, gain a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ, and take that spirit out into the world. 

“When I know the person of Jesus, when I know the kind of love Jesus had for others, then when I go outside of this church, I bring that light, that enlightenment, that fire to others,” Bishop Spalding said. “So I see the world in a different way, I see every person in a different way, and I call them to a higher way of life. Each of us has that calling in Christ Jesus because each of us has been given the spirit.”

Elaborating on his homily later that week, Bishop Spalding said, “We can appreciate the diversity instead of allowing it to become a moment of confusion and fear. By the work of the Holy Spirit we become one in Christ.”

“The greatest challenge of privilege is seeing it from a different person’s perspective,” Callahan said. “Even if it’s not impacting you, it is impacting another person, another human being, a child of God. Once you accept that, you have to get involved,” he said, and no longer remain a “silent witness.”

“As a Christian, you always have the responsibility to speak out against injustice, racism, discrimination,” Robinson said. “Evil prevails when good people do nothing.”