ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Lift each other up in the midst of trauma, poverty and injustice.
That’s the simple but profound advice from Michael Goar as he works through the anxiety and sorrow of clients and employees at the organization he leads, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, during the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact one year ago of the police-involved death of George Floyd.
Many employees of Catholic Charities, and many of the people the organization helps, are Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American, said Goar, president and CEO of the largest social services organization in the Twin Cities, with over 500 employees serving 23,000 men, women, children and families each year.
For them, the police-involved death of Floyd, an African American, May 25, 2020, and the subsequent trial and second-degree murder conviction this April of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who is white, was particularly traumatic, said Goar, who is Black and South Korean.
Last summer, protests focused on racial justice and police reform followed Floyd’s death in the Twin Cities and around the country. Rioting also broke out in St. Paul and Minneapolis and other U.S. cities.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune daily newspaper estimates that over 1,500 locations were damaged in the Twin Cities, with dozens of buildings burned down.
Chauvin’s trial drew national attention. Police and Minnesota National Guard troops were poised for rioting after Chauvin’s conviction, but verdict-related violence did not materialize.
“They lived this trauma in the course of the trial,” Goar said, speaking of the people Catholic Charities serves.
Floyd died after being restrained by four police officers; Chauvin knelt on his neck for over nine minutes.
Besides being convicted for second-degree murder, Chauvin also was found guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter April 20, but has yet been sentenced.
The other three former officers, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao, face trial Aug. 23 for charges alleging they aided and abetted second-degree murder and manslaughter.
All four men also face federal charges.
“The issue of racial reckoning has a tremendous impact on a personal level, not just an institutional level,” Goar said in a May 18 interview with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
He doesn’t leave himself out.
“One thing I recall, when I first saw Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of Mr. (Derek) Chauvin, I felt like that could have been me,” said Goar, who was born in South Korea, adopted at age 12 and raised in south Minneapolis.
“I don’t have a stamp on my forehead that I’m CEO of Catholic Charities. I am a Black man in our community,” he said.
When Chauvin’s trial began in late March, managers were invited to twice-weekly virtual “huddles” to discuss their feelings, needs and the needs of those they work with. A trained facilitator from Catholic Charities’ staff played host and discussions were wide ranging, Goar said.
Held online to help prevent spread of COVID-19, meetings are now offered once a week.
“It helps people to process out loud, express feelings and insights, emotions of hopelessness, sadness and joy,” Goar said. “It allowed us to create a healing community.”
Using trained facilitators, any business, parish or school can offer similar services and support, he said.
Goar, 55, took the helm at Catholic Charities in January, after nearly five years of leading youth mentoring organization Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities and serving in public education before that.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Floyd’s death have been particularly hard on youth, who haven’t developed the coping skills of an adult, Goar said.
School campuses were closed for months last year during the pandemic, limiting youths’ ability to seek counseling or other assistance if they needed it, he said.
Recent violence making headlines in Minneapolis reflects some of the trauma being felt, Goar said. Three young children were struck by stray bullets in the course of two weeks in Minneapolis and one died.
So far this year, the city has had more than two dozen homicides, nearly double the number at the same time last year.
“It’s profoundly impacting our youth,” Goar said of the pandemic, Floyd’s death and the protests and riots that followed in the Twin Cities and around the country. “Young people don’t have the tools and skills to debrief and talk it over. On top of that, you have single parents, food insecurity, homelessness.
“Who will they process with? Who will they talk to? We are witnessing young people disengaging from community norms and engaging in destructive behavior.”
Catholic Charities has a child care center and programs that assist young families and homeless youth 16 and older, Goar said. “Where possible, where we engage, we are very aware” of the difficult environment, he said.
Statistics show that homelessness and a lack of affordable housing disproportionately impact people of color, Goar said. Blacks are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites, and Minnesota is last among the 50 states for people of color graduating from high school, he said.
A 12-member volunteer committee at Catholic Charities has helped lead efforts in the organization to greater equity and diversity, Goar said.
In light of Floyd’s death and the broad discussions about race and racism, it has evoked, Goar said he hopes to find room in the budget for a director of racial equity and diversity who can help employees grow still more aware, sensitive and just in their dealings with one another and those seeking assistance.
All Catholics need to be aware of racial injustice where it exists and the issues of equity and diversity, and the shepherds of the Catholic Church have a critical role in talking to the faithful about this, said the pastor of a historically Black parish in St. Paul.
“That is the purpose for shepherds, to preach the Gospel,” said Father Erich Rutten, pastor of St. Peter Claver, “and to call out injustice, to call out evil when we see it. … If 50 years from now, if they’re looking back and all they see was a silent church, it’s just a great scandal.”
Rutten made his remarks during his appearance on the new “Gloria Purvis Podcast” from America Media. Purvis, who is Black, is a radio personality and Catholic commentator.
During the podcast, Rutten and Purvis discussed issues related to Floyd’s murder.
The priest recalled seeing the video of his death, calling it egregious and traumatizing. He said the parish quickly put together a video “just to try to speak out.” Rutten said he wanted to send a message to encourage “our community to hang on and hold onto each other.”
Purvis said Catholics need to talk about racial justice and she’s praying the clergy can help awaken the consciences of people “who are asleep on this.”
As shepherds, Catholic bishops and pastors, she said, have to do the work of helping the sheep recognize there’s a real presence of evil and help them recognize the structures of sin in the U.S.
The universal church needs to be exactly that — a universal church, Rutten said. “And really, if we have the heart of Christ, that means to reach out specifically to those who are on the margins.”
“And if we’re missing that, that’s not just a feel-good thing,” he added. “That’s a core element of the Gospel. And I think that would change the conversation about race.”
Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Staff writer Barb Umberger contributed to this story.