SEATTLE – On a sunny Sunday afternoon, parishes in the South Seattle Deanery gathered for prayer, Scripture, thought-provoking speeches and uplifting songs, all part of an outdoor racial justice vigil at Immaculate Conception Church.
“For us people of faith, racism in this country is our original sin, a sin against God and against humanity,” said Father Maurice Mamba, priest administrator at Immaculate Conception. “But we are here because we believe that fighting racism is deeply a spiritual battle; that the most powerful weapon at our disposal is prayer.”
Deacon Joseph Connor of Immaculate Conception Parish, who helped organize the July 19 vigil, said the gathering was intended not only to remember George Floyd and other Black people killed by police officers, but also to pray for mercy, strength and courage to continue working for justice and peace, “to heal our broken community and to inspire all of us to model solidarity as Catholics in the South Seattle Deanery … against injustice and inequality.”
South Seattle Deanery parishes represented at the vigil included Immaculate Conception, Christ Our Hope, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. James Cathedral, St. Joseph, St. Patrick, St. Paul and St. Therese. Speakers at the event talked of the need to overcome systemic and personal racism by seeing all people as children of God who have inherent dignity and value, listening to and understanding the stories of those who have experienced racism, and building the kingdom of God on earth by working toward peace and unity.
Fighting injustice and racism is the work of the entire body of Christ, said Gregg Alex, a St. James parishioner and executive director of Matt Talbot Center, a recovery and treatment program of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.
Jesus’ prayer on the night before he died was “that we be one,” Alex told those gathered. “It’s not God’s purpose for us to be apart and about our own, it’s about us being one and about each other.”
The question, Alex said, “is what are we doing and what are we saying when we see injustice as it lives in our communities? We are here today because the church, like our community and our nation, is struggling with this issue. And like Jacob, who wrestled with God in Genesis 32, we, too, must emerge from this struggle with a different walk.”
Archbishop Paul D. Etienne speaks to those gathered at a racial justice vigil at Immaculate Conception Church July 19. “An initial part of our Catholic response to racism is one of encounter, that we may meet those who have been directly harmed and impacted by racism,” the archbishop said. Photo: Stephen Brashear
In his remarks, Archbishop Paul D. Etienne noted that many people “are uncomfortable with the slogan Black Lives Matter, partially because they want to say all lives matter. All lives are sacred, true; however, it is important at this time to realize the specific needs of Black people … to know and feel and experience the same genuine equality this nation has enshrined in our constitution,” he said.
That doesn’t mean that Black lives are more important than others, the archbishop said, “but we wish to acknowledge that there is something drastically wrong in our society today that has a legitimate demand of our attention, awareness and action.”
Still, he said, “some may ask: ‘Why should I care? I did not have slaves. I am not a racist. What do I have to apologize for?’”
Catholics can take their example from Good Friday, when “we all take ownership of our role in crucifying Jesus,” Archbishop Etienne said. “We seek repentance for those who came before us. The same is true in this moment and in our nation’s history of mistreating a whole class of people. When we acknowledge this history, along with present and personal accounts, we help these people feel authentically heard and received.” (See his complete remarks below.)
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was in attendance but not in uniform because “I just wanted to be here as an African-American woman, as a member of this community and as a person who strongly believes in my faith,” she said.
Best said she is “working for justice and fairness in every way that I can” and asked “all of you faith people out there to send your prayers … and to let your voices be heard. Continue to lift us up in thoughts and prayer and know that our Seattle Police Department is here working for you.”
State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish who represents the 37th legislative district, told those at the vigil that fighting racism requires diligence and steadfastness.
“It is about showing up to be converted. It’s about showing up to be changed,” Saldaña said. “It’s about showing up to transform yourself and everything you thought was the way it should be … because it’s not working.”
She urged those gathered not to internalize the racism “that we have breathed since the day we were born, and instead to breathe in the Holy Spirit, to breathe in the blessing of this community that’s with us, and to exhale together a new possibility.”
Near the conclusion of the vigil, Immaculate Conception parishioner Ngozi Oleru read the names of 30 people she said were killed by Seattle police in the past decade, each name followed by the ringing of bells by Deacon Steve Wodzanowski of St. Joseph Parish.
“We want to say enough is enough,” Oleru said. “We don’t want to read any more names. Let this be the last time we’re going to do this.”
Watch the vigil video on Immaculate Conception’s Facebook page.
Read Archbishop Paul D. Etienne’s complete remarks below:
In the Gospel of today’s liturgy (Matthew 13:24-43), Jesus gives us three parables regarding the kingdom of heaven which can be likened to weeds among the wheat, or a small mustard seed that becomes a large plant where the birds take shelter, and finally yeast which permeates an entire batch of dough. Jesus came into the world to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and the conversion of life. Thus, I want to begin my remarks today by acknowledging a couple of realities that flow from this.
First, our God is not distant. God created all things, all of creation, and every human person. This same God, through his Son, Jesus Christ, entered into the world, and even more intimately became one of us. Clearly, God wants to be in relationship with us, and desires that we be in relationship with him, with each other, indeed, with all of creation.
Next, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of heaven. Part of the proclamation, which we find in the Lord’s Prayer, includes an instruction to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. What else could that mean other than that we, too, are to work to establish this kingdom of heaven here on earth? And how could that mean anything other than working for justice and peace? Each of us are destined for judgment — by God alone. Each of us are destined for the kingdom of heaven.
As we gather today to pray for the wisdom to know how to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth, I wish to recite a few words from St. Paul to the Romans:
“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of justice, peace, and the joy that is given by the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way pleases God and wins the esteem of men. Let us, then, make it our aim to work for peace and to strengthen one another.” (Romans 14:17-19)
My friends, we gather today to address the evil, the sin of racism, and specifically to prayerfully consider its deadly impact on our people as well as explore our response to heal this social wound. The killing of George Floyd by law enforcement officers touched the conscience of our nation, and perhaps the worldwide family. It raises a serious question: Why do unarmed Black men continue to die at the hands of law enforcement officers? More broadly, we are faced with a serious challenge to acknowledge the painful history of the Black people in our country, to better understand how people of color still experience racism in our society today.
Our starting point as Christians is the basic understanding that every human life is sacred precisely because each person is created by God and bears an image and likeness to the same Creator. Many people are uncomfortable with the slogan Black Lives Matter, partially because we want to say all lives matter. All lives are sacred, true; however, it is important at this time to realize the specific needs of the Black men, women and children to know, feel and experience the same genuine equality this nation has enshrined in our constitution. When we say Black lives matter, we are acknowledging that much work needs to be done to address the injustices still experienced today by so many people of color. To recognize this simple principle that Black lives matter is not to diminish in any way the sanctity of every other human life, nor is it to say that Black lives are more important than others. But we today wish to acknowledge that there is something drastically wrong in our society today that has a legitimate demand of our attention, awareness and action.
I am consciously aware I stand before you today as a white man, as well as a pastor. As a white person, I cannot speak with much authenticity about the weight of burden experienced by our Black brothers and sisters. As a pastor, I want to listen to you and learn about your experience. Thus, an initial part of our Catholic response to racism is one of encounter, that we may meet those who have been directly harmed and impacted by racism.
Our Catholic teaching is clear about the dignity of every human person. We also know that when people experience racism, abuse and repeated injustices, they can be gradually robbed of their dignity. Listening leads to understanding, which helps us overcome indifference and builds renewed commitment to work for justice — carrying out our core mission as Catholics to build the kingdom of God for all people. We must be willing to encounter on a personal level those who are different from us, to acknowledge them as a brother and sister in Christ and members of the one family of God.
With racism come many fears: fear of others, of violence and divisions, fear that I may need to look more closely at any biases that I may share, and my own indifference. However, when we overcome our fear, through personal encounter and dialogue, we are equipped for the work of accompanying one another in the journey that brings about systemic change in our economy, health care, education, housing, incarceration and our judicial systems so that all people experience equal access, opportunity and protection. Accompanying others who are in need gives them hope and helps to renew their own sense of dignity, and gives them a concrete experience of fraternal charity and the knowledge that they indeed matter.
Such personal encounter and accompaniment invites us to open our hearts to one another. This begins with and is made possible by opening our hearts to Jesus Christ who offered his life for our salvation. This invitation to open our hearts is given to us in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, says the Lord. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door to me, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
As Catholics, as Christians, we believe that true unity among all people is possible through Jesus Christ. St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians says as much: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). My friends, our faith demands that we confront and overcome this sin of racism.
As we become more personally engaged in the work of justice, more personally related to those who experience racism, we will be challenged to conversion. Let us hear again Jesus’ invitation to repent, for the kingdom of God is in our midst.
Some may ask: “Why should I care? I did not have slaves. I am not a racist. What do I have to apologize for?” We can take our example from Good Friday; while recalling the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, we all take ownership of our role in crucifying Jesus. We seek repentance for those who came before us. The same is true in this moment and in our nation’s history of mistreating a whole class of people. When we acknowledge this history, along with present and personal accounts, we help these people feel authentically heard and received.
Working against racism is hard to combat, and far easier to ignore. But each of us now must take up this work, for it is the work of the Gospel. Let us ask the Lord to heal our culture and any mentality that is blind to the ongoing injustice of racism. We ask for insights into this new way of living the Gospel, of living as true children of one Father, God.
Please allow me to close with the Scripture quoted at the beginning:
“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of justice, peace, and the joy that is given by the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way pleases God and wins the esteem of men. Let us, then, make it our aim to work for peace and to strengthen one another.”