NEW YORK – When Bishop Roy Campbell, Jr., considers the Church’s role on issues of race in 2021, he looks back at the civil rights marches of the 1960’s when “a lot of people with collars” marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others.
“Has it come to that? I think so,” Campbell, an auxiliary bishop of Washington told Crux.
And he’s not alone in that belief. Today, on the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd – a Black man killed by police officer Derek Chauvin – Catholic leaders reflect on the renewed attention paid to racial justice this past year, and acknowledge the essential role of the Church on the long road ahead.
Campbell likens the importance of racial inequality to that of abortion, which is the preeminent issue for the U.S. bishops. Going forward, he wants to see the bishops advocate for justice for all people with the fervor they advocate for the unborn.
“Once we’re born, if we’re not treated with the same dignity that we want for those that aren’t born, then we’re not doing what we need to do and the church has to be a leader in that,” said Campbell, who is also the president of the National Black Catholic Congess. “This is our moral responsibility. Human life has limitless value in the eyes of God and that is from conception to natural death.”
Campbell fears without that commitment the conversation could fall by the wayside. Therefore, in addition to leadership from the U.S. bishops, he said it’s important for all people to move forward with dialogue and actions as simple as “treating others with the dignity with which we want to be treated.”
Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, who serves as a member of the U.S. Bishops Conference Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, told Crux that in order for there to be lasting change people first need to look inward.
“How many friends do we have, or people just say to themselves, ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body?’ We’ve all heard that phrase,” Dewane said. “Right now, it kind of sends shivers up my spine because I think we all have to look internally on this one.”
“The outward is maybe the easier one, that’s why we go to that and I think it’s too easy to flip right over and look at the police. OK do that, I’m not arguing that changes need to be made,” he added. “But I think long term if we’re going to address this problem it has to be to look inside.”
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, a group of parishioners at St. Benedict Catholic Parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago got together to share personal experiences and learn more about the history of racism and how they might be unintentionally contributing to the problem.
Parishioner Kim McMillian told Crux these conversations have made her realize that “everyone isn’t equal and there is an awful lot of injustice in the world and people who have to fight just to be noticed, just to be treated equally, and they shouldn’t have to stand alone.”
On Tuesday, the group will host an ecumenical prayer service marking the anniversary of Floyd’s death at the church to recommit themselves to the work of the past year.
“By using the anniversary of the death of George Floyd as a date for us to kind of recognize where we started the conversation, and also to realize we haven’t gone as far as we need to, to make sure we keep remembering, we keep talking about, we keep interrupting,” McMillian said.
Deacon Mel Tardy, the president of the National Black Clergy Caucus, said another point of dialogue is policing, including changes to how funding is being used and increased efforts to improve relationships between the police and local communities.
Tardy said the video of Floyd’s death showed people “the humanity of someone in that situation perhaps for the first time.”
He also spoke about systemic racism and the role that plays in expanding the conversation.
“To say that something is an isolated incident, I don’t have anything to do with it, I’m a good person, is very different than there is systemic racism in place,” Tardy said. “And if I don’t become an anti-racist person to work against that systemic racism I am perpetuating the system.”
Going forward, Tardy hopes the church will grow out of “a tendency to be silent.”
“We are the most diverse religion there is but yet we tend to be those who build up walls as opposed to try and use the gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring us all together,” Tardy said. “The church has the opportunity. It also has the mandate, the call, to go out and preach the gospel. A gospel of unity. For the church to do anything else is not to be the church.”
Gloria Purvis, whose new America Media podcast “The Gloria Purvis Podcast” launches on Tuesday, still finds the rhetoric of some lay faithful in the wake of Floyd’s death “shocking,” and a reason to believe “across the board the church needs work.”
Equally as shocking, she told Crux, was the silence of church leaders in response.
“I can’t imagine clergy didn’t see members of the flock being unsure or outright hostile to George Floyd’s humanity. To us getting justice for George Floyd,” Purvis said. “We need that same kind of full throated talk, which our clergy rightfully do in defending life in the womb.”
As for the lay faithful, she said it’s important to commit to advocating for justice.
“Those of us that say we love and believe (God) we need to follow him into this area of confusion and hatred in our country and bring light and meanwhile be willing to take our blows in trying to do that,” she said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg