CINCINNATI, Ohio – As protests sweep across the United States, one Ohio parish has turned to its city’s black activists and faith leaders for the real story about a pair of related viruses: COVID-19 and racism.
“There’s a saying that when America catches a cold, black people catch pneumonia; I’d say that when the world is burning, black people are catching hell,” said Reverend Nelson Pierce, Jr. during the June 1 livestream, “The Color of COVID and the New Jim Crow.”
St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice at Xavier University – both located in Cincinnati, Ohio – co-sponsored the event, building on work that the parish’s Dismantling Racism Team has been doing since its inception in 2007.
Joining Pierce for Monday’s dialogue were Iris Roley and Reverend Damon Lynch III, key figures in the economic boycotts, legal battles, and subsequent Collaborative Agreement for police reforms that unfolded following the death of an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas, at the hands of Cincinnati police in 2001.
Cincinnati’s positive strides garnered national attention over the next decade, so much so that Roley and Lynch were among those called to Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the police’s killing of Michael Brown in 2014.
Over the past few years, however, talks have broken down in Cincinnati, with the union representing Cincinnati’s police leaving the bargaining table. In recent days, protesters have been calling for those talks to resume as community and city leaders eye an upgrade of the Collaborative Agreement.
Against this backdrop, Pierce, Roley, and Lynch assessed what event moderator Dr. Adam Clark, associate professor of theology at Xavier, named the “utter irony that in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately kills black people, black people are forced to protest the police who disproportionately kill black people.”
In theory, Clark explained, everyone should have had an “equal opportunity of being infected” by COVID-19; instead, studies have revealed stark racial disparities, with black Americans dying at far higher rates than white Americans.
Addressing fears that the most recent wave of protests could exacerbate those disparities, Pierce, senior pastor of Beloved Community Church and faith and race program director at Xavier, said that while most protesters have taken precautions – wearing masks, tapping elbows instead of hugging – it is hard to weigh those consequences “when you’re in reaction mode, when you’re fighting for your life.”
“So many people feel compelled,” he said, “that to remain at home is to do a grave injustice to the moment.” At the same time, Pierce pointed to a long list of ways that leaders could intervene if they truly cared about stopping the virus’s spread in black communities, beginning with offering testing sites in those communities.
Lynch, senior pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church and, according to Clark, the informal pastor for many of Cincinnati’s activists, turned to the prophet Jeremiah for inspiration for this historical moment.
Noting that God’s charge to Jeremiah was to “pluck up, tear down, and destroy, overthrow; then… build and plant,” Lynch said that God gave Jeremiah this “crazy call” because the prophet was “dealing with a wayward nation.”
In America, he continued, “We’ve been trying to build and plant in soil that is fertilized with racial animus, and so we build and plant, and yet we end up right where we were; so, we have to destroy these systems that impact our lives.”
Lynch, Pierce, and Roley expressed shared concerns, however, that ongoing efforts to dismantle racist structures through nonviolent means are being hijacked by outside groups that Roley compared to tornado chasers: “These people chase our pain.”
These individuals have a habit of showing up to protests over racial injustice wearing expensive protective gear, inciting violence, and then quickly moving out, Roley said.
Pierce argued that the disproportionate damage done to black-owned businesses in Cincinnati over the past week adds to mounting video and pictorial evidence that what he once saw unfold in Ferguson – “white people using the legitimate anger of black people as a cover to create violence” – is now repeating itself.
Urging the event’s audience to resist the false “mythologizing of the destructive, out-of-control black person or black community” that has marked American history and still continues, Pierce added, “Don’t forget us when CNN turns to a different story, when we’re not the flavor of the month and CNN isn’t talking about our pain; remember that you live in this city with us.”
Having spent the majority of Monday posting bail for detained protesters, Pierce said, “There’s a movement that I think, I hope, I pray is just beginning to emerge, where people around the world are seizing the spirit of this moment and rising up in a unified voice, and my prayer is that this is a moment where we can begin to move the needle of justice in strong and dramatic ways.”
Clark summarized the event as a “spirited discussion about the national protests as well as the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color,” telling Crux, “Viewers were able to witness the prophetic dimensions of black faith as activists honestly wrestled with the meaning and character of racial duress, critiqued traditional responses and suggested strategies of repair.”
Monday’s event was not a one-off when it comes to facing racial injustice for St. Robert Bellarmine Parish – a predominantly white congregation that gathers for worship at a chapel at the heart of Xavier University’s campus.
“As a Catholic parish, we must confront racism and make it clear that black lives matter,” Jesuit Father Eric Sundrup, Bellarmine’s pastor, told Crux. “The Gospel demands this of Christians.”
Tim Severyn, the parish’s director of social mission, said that the parish’s Dismantling Racism Team has been working since 2007 to “help Bellarmine be a more anti-racist parish,” aid its white parishioners in coming to understand “our privilege and complicity in the sin of racism,” and find ways to partner with others seeking racial justice.
During that time, the parish has joined the AMOS Organizing Collaborative, a network of Cincinnati faith communities that works to foster structural changes for the most vulnerable members of the community.
Last year, the Dismantling Racism Team led parishioners through Lenten conversations around the USCCB’s pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide our Hearts,” and a resource toolkit on race and racism in Cincinnati. The parish curates a growing list of resources for Catholics concerned about racial justice and plans to conduct a pilgrimage to Alabama to visit key sites from the civil rights struggle.
In the more immediate future, Severyn said, parishioners will gather for a Zoom session to reflect on Monday’s panel and discern their community’s action steps.
Jeff Hutchinson, an area high school theology teacher and member of the Dismantling Racism team, is ready, telling Crux, “Listening to how Pastor Lynch, Mrs. Roley, and Pastor Pierce responded to the insightful questions posed by Dr. Clark and by those watching at home, I was reminded of the words of Servant of God Dorothy Day: ‘No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do’.”