PORTLAND, Oregon — Like most Catholics across the country, Tony Jones has been following intently the recent events of pain and protest.
Feeling emotionally depleted, he sought the wisdom of his mentor, Robert Hughley — a 94-year-old black man whose grandparents were slaves.
Six days prior to speaking with Hughley May 31, George Floyd, an African American, died after being pinned under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. A video of Floyd pleading with officers while saying, “I can’t breathe,” went viral, sparking protests around the country, including in Portland.
As chairman of the African American Catholic Community of Oregon, Jones has been asked to share his thoughts about the death of another unarmed black man with many people recently.
On Pentecost Sunday, though, he needed the solace and perspective of his longtime friend.
Hughley is an Army veteran who spent his life working for civil rights and serving as a respected public school administrator and spiritual leader for Portland Catholics.
“How are you, my friend?” Hughley asked when he picked up the phone at his assisted-living facility in Portland.
“I told him, ‘Bob, I’m tired. All this news is exhausting, all the emotions around it,'” said 58-year-old Jones, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Northeast Portland.
Hughley had two things to say.
“He told me: ‘Leave it at the feet of the Lord. Bring all your anguish, pain, grief, cares, the things beyond your control to the feet of the Lord,'” said Jones, who admitted he’d found himself in tears on recent days.
“I was crying because I couldn’t hug my people,” he said. St. Andrew Church is not yet holding public Masses due to the pandemic.
“Normally if we were going through a major crisis, we would gather for Sunday Mass, sing our songs that comforted,” Jones told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. “We would have embraced and grieved together.”
But Jones said he needed to be reminded that despite that inability to gather in person, and “in spite of all the anguish and the grief, we are to bring our pain to the Lord.”
“He can carry it all and we can walk anew,” said Jones. “And soon enough, we’ll be back at his feet, because it’s too damn heavy a load to carry alone.”
The second thing Hughley told Jones: “Jesus teaches us to love.”
Jones, a convert to Catholicism, said that in his 10 years of walking with the Lord, “I know that love means standing up for the rights of others.”
Friends have been asking what they can do to fight racism.
“I’ve been telling my white brothers and sisters, ‘You need to stand up and protest, to speak up. Say it when people aren’t looking at you.’ It may not be easy, but we have to raise our voices.”
Jones believes black people will continue to die at disproportionately high rates in police custody and systemic racism will persist until the social systems in the country are rebuilt “from the inside out.”
In a capitalist system enacted by whites centuries ago in the United States, “there’s a false narrative of rugged individualism, that if I succeed then why can’t everyone else do that?” he said. “Not all capitalism is bad.”
“But if a black person can’t decide to go on a walk in Central Park, if they cannot walk to the corner grocery store safely, then how are we supposed to participate fully in this system?” he asked.
His reference to Central Park in New York was about a recent incident there in which a white woman called the police after a black man asked her to put her dog on a leash.
Jones said Portlanders often pride themselves on being progressive, “but we have many problems here too.”
One example: the rising racial disparities in poverty rates. According to a 2019 Multnomah County report, 35 percent of black households in the Portland metro region meet the federal definition of poverty, whereas only 14 percent of white households do.
Jones believes that along with speaking up, social change will come through elected leaders, and he encourages every person of color to vote. “You don’t need to have money to vote; you turn in the paperwork, and you have the power.”
Jones, who grew up poor, added that volunteering to help at food pantries or to read to young black kids, is “part of this work toward justice.”
“As Christians, as Catholics, this is what we are all called to do — to love, to take action,” said Jones. “So let’s go do it.”
Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.