SPRINGFIELD, Illinois – A Mass in the Diocese of Springfield, Ill commemorated the anniversary of racially-motivated riots that destroyed black-owned business and homes in the city, and left at least 13 people dead during a three-day period in 1908. A priest of the diocese encouraged Catholics to counteract hatred with the spirit of universal brotherhood and childlike love.
Monsignor David Hoefler, vicar general for the Diocese of Springfield, celebrated the Mass Aug. 14 at Saint Patrick Church. He emphasized the universal origin of the human race and the need to imitate the receptivity of children.
“We have one set of parents, Adam and Eve. That’s why we have one savior because he came to save…the human race, all races,” Hoefler said in his homily.
Christ came “that we all might be recreated, reunited, brought together, reconciled with God. It’s not just something that’s supposed to be meant for heaven for later, but hopefully we are working on that now,” he added.
On Aug. 14-15, 1908, nearly 5,000 people rioted violently throughout the streets of Springfield after trying unsuccessfully to lynch two black men, suspected of rape and attempted rape, who were believed to be held at a local jail. When it was discovered that the men were not at that jail, the mob destroyed African-American businesses, homes, and killed at least eight people. Five rioters were also killed during the melee, and an infant died during the riot as well, after her family’s home was destroyed.
Human brokenness and violence between people are nothing new, explained Hoefler. He pointed to conflict between Adam and Eve in the scriptural story of creation, and to racial hardships faced by Jewish people during the time of Christ.
He said that Adam and Eve each acted in self-interest at the time of their downfall, distancing themselves from one another.
“Instead of checking with each other, instead of having a communion or a communication with each other, they started going their own way,” he said, noting the couple did not ask for forgiveness, but instead blamed someone else or something else.
“[Adam] throws his wife under the bus – ‘she did it.’ Scapegoating they call it. So the Lord goes to Eve, ‘what did you do?’ ‘It did it!’ Blames the serpent, Satan.”
The results of sin were immediate, he said and led to the murder of Abel by Cain. The priest said the same thing occurred during Springfield’s riots; that people made scapegoats of racial minorities rather than taking responsibility for themselves.
“People acted out of hatred, bigotry, racism, and they let their emotions run wild – destroyed property, and, worse, killed their brothers and sisters, other human beings. It gets that way all too easy. That was played out over, and over, and over again by this street.”
He pointed to parallels among the Jews of Jesus Christ’s time on earth.
“When Jesus was born… he came into the one of the most abused races that existed at the time,” he said. “He came into the depths of our suffering and the worst of it all. He assumed the worst that had been known to that point in history and redeemed it from there.”
However, the only way to embrace redemption is through a child-like spirit, he said, reflecting on the words of Christ in the Gospel of Mark – “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
“In other words,” Hoefler said “a child is somebody that does listen, somebody that likes to learn, somebody that doesn’t impose other things onto other people, somebody that receives in all innocence what another says, somebody who receives people for who they are.”
“It’s the way we should be: that kind of innocence, receptivity, open heartedness.”
He gave a few examples of people who have put to practice this receptivity, noting especially the people of Rwanda. Next April, he said, it will be 25 years since the Rwandan genocide – a brutal slaughter, in which an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, primarily Tutsis, were killed in the span of a few months, between April and June in 1994.
Hoefler said now the country is one of the safest places in Africa because the two groups learned from their mistakes. The people, he said, knew racism would perpetuate unless love was chosen over hate, namely listening to others and embracing forgiveness.
“God never asks something of us that he isn’t willing to do himself,” he said, noting that Christ provided an example of this receptivity.
“He spent thirty years listening to the human the race… listening to his community, his town, and his people. He spent thirty years before he began speaking, being quiet, noticing the injustices, realizing what needed reconciliation, and then he went to move for healing.”