ST. PAUL, Minnesota — As an African American pastor who serves as a chaplain in the Minneapolis police precinct where the white officer charged with murdering George Floyd worked, the Rev. Charles Graham believes he is exactly where God intended.
“God is putting us where he wants us to be,” said Graham, pastor emeritus at Macedonia Baptist Church in Minneapolis and chaplain at the 3rd Precinct for six years. “I know it’s my job to show the hope. We might as well learn how to live together.”
Graham and other Twin Cities faith leaders who minister to communities historically ravaged by racial injustice know their neighborhoods are also the most vulnerable to poverty and crime. Most of the worst looting and vandalism this week struck long-established Native American and African American areas that more recently became home to large groups of Hmong, Somali and Latino migrants.
Firm in their denunciation of brutality and racism, the religious leaders believe that using faith to build bridges between law enforcement and the communities they police will ultimately keep everyone safe.
“We’re better together,” said Joan Austin, a minister at New Creation Baptist Church in Minneapolis and a chaplain in the 5th Precinct, which was engulfed in violent protests the night after the third precinct was torched. “I lift (officers and congregants) up in prayer every single night.”
Praying with police officers before they go on duty, bringing them into meetings with the communities they serve but often don’t live in, and trying to break down mutual fear and suspicion are some of the ways in which chaplains serve both their congregations and their precincts.
“The reason I work with the police department right now is that I want to help the culture change,” Graham said. “Some policemen think they’re in charge of black folks. If you’d treat me as someone that’s important too, it would be so much better.”
Even as he struggles with his own sense of helplessness Carl Valdez, a long-time deacon at Incarnation/Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Catholic Church, has been spending long hours at the 5th Precinct where he’s chaplain, urging the officers not to give in to anger or that same helplessness.
“There’s a culture of ‘the community is against us and we have to pretend that we’re not angry or afraid with all that,’ ” Valdez said.
Working at a parish that is the spiritual home of a large Spanish-speaking community that often carries the memory of abuses in home countries, he knows how crucial it is to build relationships.
Before he became chaplain, multiple squad cars showed up at the church after a neighbor called police on a group of Latinos there. It was a family doing volunteer repairs to the century-old building.
Since then, the parish community and the police have held regular dialogue. Uniformed officers shared tamales at the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe and kept an eye on traffic during pandemic food drives in which 90 tons of food were donated to nearly 3,000 households.
“Poor people and those on the margins are more likely to be preyed upon and building good relationships with law enforcement is crucial to protect this community,” said parish priest Father Kevin McDonough. “My message now is, stay the course.”
Across town in St. Paul, the parish priest of the historic African American Catholic parish of St. Peter Claver was similarly confident in the power of faith to bring healing and renewal, but he also worried about whether the church and its school would remain unscathed, with a gas station vandalized on the same block.
“We didn’t expect we’d be a target, because we’re standing with the community. But most of the damage wasn’t done by protestors,” Father Erich Rutten said Saturday afternoon, as two dozen volunteers boarded up windows and doors with plywood.
Two miles down the interstate highway, that would be closed two hours later in an effort to prevent more violence, the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul celebrated the first public Mass there since the pandemic.
To the faithful in masks scattered throughout the huge historic structure, Father John L. Ubel admitted being “nervous,” but said being able to gather together again for the solemnity of Pentecost — with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit bringing the fearful apostles the courage to go out into the world — couldn’t come at a better time.
“We’re meant to gather,” he preached in his homily. “But so too we’re called to live in community. Our differences are not to be a source of division. The Lord has not abandoned us, has not abandoned our cities.”