ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The Men’s Ministry group at St. Peter Claver is a reflection of the parish it’s affiliated with, historically founded as a faith home for St. Paul’s African American Catholics.
Most of the group’s nine core members are Black, though men from other ethnic backgrounds participate, too. What unites them is their faith and friendship in Christ. It has motivated them to gather on the second Saturday of the month for over 20 years to pray, read Scripture and discuss current events.
But even with this common foundation, members of the group found themselves taking different viewpoints on the topic of conversation at their July 10 meeting: Black Lives Matter.
Circled up in the parking lot of St. Peter Claver — their normal meeting place, Day By Day Cafe, wasn’t available due to COVID-19 restrictions — the six men in attendance, along with St. Peter Claver’s pastor, Father Erich Rutten, shared their perspectives on this social phenomenon with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
From NBA courts to suburbia yard signs, Black Lives Matter has become a ubiquitous presence amid the nation’s ongoing conversation about racism and reform following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody May 25.
For some, like 79-year-old Cedric Waterman, “Black Lives Matter” is a statement of fact that needs to be said in a country where, even after slavery and discriminatory laws have been abolished, the lives of Black people still seem to be undervalued.
“It’s a cry of ‘What about me?’ Does my life matter?” said Waterman, who believes BLM also is a rallying call for reforming the way law enforcement interacts with the Black community.
Others, like Bill Butchee, 71, don’t disagree that they and their fellow African Americans face discrimination, but they question whether Black Lives Matter is the proper vehicle for change, and express deep concerns about what they perceive as an anti-family, anti-Christian ideological agenda associated with the movement.
“They say they’re about saving Black lives, but when you stand back and look at it from a panoramic view, there’s more to it than that,” he said.
The conversation that took place in the parking lot of St. Peter Claver is one that is playing out within the Catholic Church across the country. From Catholic Twitter to bishops’ statements, parish bulletins to dinner conversations, Catholics are trying to make sense of Black Lives Matter and what a faithful response looks like.
It’s a task made difficult by confusion over what exactly those three words refer to: a simple message, a broad movement, or particular organizations and agendas that take the name?
Historically, “Black Lives Matter” first emerged as #BlackLivesMatter, a social media hashtag that began to be used after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death the year prior of Trayvon Martin, an African American teen.
The phrase provocatively makes the case that, despite the end of slavery and legalized discrimination, Black people still face unequal treatment in the United States, particularly in interactions with law enforcement.
The statement “Black Lives Matter” has been criticized by some for elevating the concerns of one group, and is sometimes rebutted with “All Lives Matter.”
But those who use the phrase often argue that, because of the ongoing effects of systemic racism in the U.S., the injustices faced by African Americans deserve special attention. Some have made this point by comparing it to the Good Shepherd’s preferential treatment of the lost sheep in the Gospel parable.
Black Lives Matter also can be understood as a broad movement calling for racial justice, but even in common usage, there are some discrepancies in how the movement is understood.
Wikipedia describes BLM as a “decentralized movement” that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to protest “incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against Black people,” while the dictionary.com entry states that BLM is “a political and social movement … emphasizing basic human rights and racial equality for Black people campaigning against various forms of racism.”
Black Lives Matter made the transition from online moniker into a boots-on-the-ground movement after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when protests and demonstrations began to be carried out under the BLM name. BLM demonstrations in Minnesota have included a 2015 march to the State Fairgrounds, a protest at the Mall of America later that year, and a 2016 demonstration that shut down I-94 in St. Paul.
The number of BLM-associated demonstrations has surged since Floyd’s death on May 25. The New York Times reported that between 15 million and 26 million people participated in protests through the month of June, which would make BLM the largest mass movement in American history.
A Pew Research Center analysis showed that #BlackLivesMatter was used 47.8 million times on Twitter between May 26 to June 7 alone.
When it comes to Catholic engagement with Black Lives Matter, there’s a consensus among some leaders that distinguishing between the broader movement and problematic organizations that bear the name is a key place to start.
In comments submitted to The Catholic Spirit, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, said that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” “fits within Catholic social teaching regarding the intrinsic value of each person as created in the image and likeness of God,” and “places before us this reality that Black lives have not always been afforded intrinsic and equal value.”
Fabre, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, added that “it is entirely possible to give a positive response to the concept of Black Lives Matter … without being beholden to an organization with objectives that are in conflict with the Catholic faith,” and that the church must always respond to social issues “through a Christian worldview.”
Many Catholics who have taken part in BLM-affiliated events say the focus is simple: protesting the perceived unjustified use of lethal force by police against Black people, and calling for reform. The topics that concern other Catholics about Black Lives Matter — Marxism, transgender ideology and even support for abortion rights — don’t necessarily come up.
“I went to three (BLM) events here in the Twin Cities, I heard a lot of speakers,” said Bernard Brady, a theology professor at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. “I don’t remember hearing anything other than calls for racial justice and changes through the police.”
At St. Peter Claver, Father Erich Rutten considered spray painting “Black Lives Matter” on the plywood when the parish was boarded up during looting after Floyd’s death.
He said the phrase is important to many of his parishioners as a powerful, succinct expression of a deeply held conviction, and that the agenda of particular problematic BLM groups “doesn’t get talked about in regular life.”
He added that he is sometimes concerned that Catholics “write off” the entire idea of “Black Lives Matter” on the basis of the actions of individual groups and activists, as a way to excuse themselves from asking difficult questions about race and privilege.
For Justina Kopp, 29, the Black Lives Matter sign in her yard ties seamlessly together with the Marian garden outside the window of the master bedroom and the St. Francis of Assisi statue by the front step.
“Mary and Francis defied a lot of societal norms,” said Kopp, a parishioner of Holy Family in St. Louis Park. “And that’s what this moment calls for.” Kopp said the combination of Catholic piety with a call for racial justice “paints a very complete picture” of her faith and the way she wants to witness to her neighborhood.
“To acknowledge that racism is evil, I think you have to be able to say ‘Black Lives Matter,'” Kopp said. For her, the three words signify a message, though she adds there’s a “good heart” in the movement.
Liedl writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.