Protesters gather next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial for the August 28, 2020 “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march on Washington 2020 in support of racial justice. (CNS/Reuters/Erin Scott)
Three years ago, I converted to Catholicism during the Easter Vigil.
I attended Mass for the first time as a graduate student in Florida and felt prompted to convert.
Mass was, and still is, a life-changing experience, a space where I learned to blend the traditions of my childhood and family faith, including a commitment to a personal relationship with Christ, with the Catholic sacraments that I encountered and received.
During that devotional three years ago, I internalized that we are baptized and confirmed as part of our commitment to the body of Christ. We are called to be witnesses, in all aspects of our lives, from our families to our work to our neighborhoods.
Three years later, as we enter the third year of the pandemic amid various international humanitarian crises, and as we enter a season of rebirth, renewal and refocusing, what is our Baptismal calling demands of us, especially at a time when our nation and church feels more polarized than ever? What does that require of an institutional church that for many of us has often been complicit in enforcing the gates of white supremacy?
Pope Francis reminded Catholics to listen to the voices of those protesting around the world. He added that leaders, in particular, must “listen to the voice of their citizens and salute their just aspirations ensuring full respect for human rights and civil liberties”.
Francis encouraged protesters around the world to organize and fight for justice “without succumbing to the temptation of aggression and violence.”
Protesters gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the August 28, 2020 “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march in Washington 2020 in support of racial justice. (CNS/Reuters/Andrew Kelly)
To become the Church that, as Francis asks, truly listens, we must continue to promote and uplift the most marginalized. Black people demanded that our voices be heard, from the streets to the benches. Black Catholics, Black people in America and around the world are exhausted, mentally, physically and spiritually, especially as bigots continue to fan the flames of racism, white supremacy, bigotry and mock democracy and the rule of law, from legislation attempting to ban critical race theory and queer studies to the repeal of laws such as New York’s “walk as trans” law. (I’m proud to say that my daytime boss, leader and mentor, New York State Senator Brad Hoylmanchampioned the repeal of the “trans march” in the New York State Senate, which was signed into law Last year.)
The embodiment of my baptismal call as a Catholic, black and bi, was lived in the march against racism.
In the summer of 2020, from June to July, anti-racism uprisings took place across the country following the death of George Floyd. I organized in my community in New York, and in my home parish of St. Charles, I shared my personal experience with racism and organized a prayer service, alongside my great friend, colleague and co-leader of Young Professionals. The service, which was covered by our local Catholic news channel, was a moment of true judgment for our church community in Brooklyn Heights, a predominantly white and more affluent parish.
The following August, I decided to drive from New York to Washington, DC, for the annual March on Washington. I saw many people coming together even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we all felt more called to be there than ever before. With the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Floyd, everyone at the Washington March was there for a real reason. The goal of the 2020 march was to shine a light on our country’s issues, including issues of systemic racism, and the continued fight that the civil rights movement began with leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. .
One of the most powerful speakers was Letetra Wideman, sister of Jacob Blake. Her speech was incredible due to the sheer fact of what she said, considering the recent loss of her brother. “God prepared me. America, your reality is not real. Fulfilling your illusions is no longer an option.” she said, adding, “Black America, you have to stand up, you have to fight, but not with violence and chaos.” After the speeches we walked from the Lincoln Memorial to start the trail to the Dr. King Memorial and Black Lives Matter Plaza. As we walked through the city, I felt calm and had a sense of peace as I walked with these people.
Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, eldest son of slain civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., his wife Arndrea Waters King and other leaders begin the ‘Get Your Knee Off Our Necks’ pledge march in Washington 2020, following a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 2020 in Washington. (CNS/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
The March on Washington, and all the protests I have witnessed, these spaces are models of what the alliance can be for Catholics and as a larger church in the fight for racial justice. As Catholics we are supposed to come together to fight against racism, bigotry and for justice and truth. As we enter our season of Lent, we should remember all the struggles we have faced over the past year.
Our baptismal calling invites us to organize and come together as Catholics, especially as divisions continue to grow in our church and around the world. As Catholics, we must continue to push the institutional church to become a church that truly goes to the margins, one that becomes the field hospital that Francis imagines us to be. In this time of Lent, let us hold this call in every space where we gather, from our parishes to our walks to our classrooms.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be a light to the world and to be and also be a guiding light in difficult times. When I think of what Christ did in times of trouble, I see that he stood firm in his values and uplifted those around him who needed his help. That’s what I see when I walk the streets of the city. This is what it means to believe that black lives matter.
The church in this time of Lent is called to be a witness. We must embrace King’s testimony and, as a church, join modern social justice movements and become the leader in the fight for equality for all, especially black people.
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