'From our active listening,
the voice and will of God will emerge'
Rev. Jayson Landeza
I write this from Albuquerque, New Mexico, as I am attending the Annual Training Seminar of the International Conference of Police Chaplains (July 11-15), an organization dedicated to the training and support of those of us involved in police chaplaincy work.
Like many of you, I am still reeling from the tragic events of early July. With the killings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, race relations in general, and that between the African American community and law enforcement in particular, have become forefront in the public discourse. It was within that context that I felt it necessary to devote significant time during our July 9-10 liturgies to provide a safe space for St. Benedict parishioners to express their anger, sadness, frustrations, experiences, fears, hope and faith relative not only to the events of the week, but to the African American experience related to these and past tragedies, and the ongoing desire for communities of color to be heard and to have their experiences acknowledged by the larger populace.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that I am obviously not African American. A person of color, but not black. Yes, I grew up in West Berkeley, which at the time was heavily African American and Latino; my elementary school was a healthy mixture of African American, Latino and Asian, as was my high school, though in high school I encountered more Anglos than before. My late brother-in-law, who was my best friend in high school, was African American.
Yet as news of the recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas began to emerge, I felt myself woefully inadequate to stand in front of my largely African American parish and say anything that could be of any solace or comfort. I have not walked in your shoes.
My parents never lectured me about how to react when pulled over by the police. Only once did I ever feel profiled on a car stop by the Oakland Police Department — this before I was their chaplain — and when I was questioned by the officer as to why I was where I was, I pointed to Sacred Heart rectory on 40th and Martin Luther King, and said, "I live there." At that very moment, in 1999, the officer quickly and apologetically responded, "I'm sorry, Father. Have a good evening." Period. That's it.
African American folks, since the days of slavery, have had people lecturing them about how they should be, how they should feel, how they should respond, how they should live, how they should express their faith. My decision to allow a sacred space during what would ordinarily be the homily time was an acknowledgment of my inadequacy to give full expression to the voices of African Americans, particularly at this time when the dialogue is focused on the injustices that they have experienced as a community.
What we heard last week during that sharing time and sacred space was a level of frustration, pain, hurt, fear and hope that can only come from voices who have first-hand knowledge and experience of such injustice. There was a common recognition that as a country, we have gone backward regarding race relations. There were multiple stories of having to convey to sons and grandsons the proper deportment when interacting with law enforcement; mothers who continue to worry about their GROWN sons regarding police; the need to continue mentoring, guiding and working with and listening to our young African American men and women and acknowledging their experiences, especially their anger and hurt.
Folks reminded us of the need to vote and participate in the electoral process, recognizing the stakes at hand in the upcoming election. As if we needed further encouragement, someone mentioned that folks died so that African Americans would have the right to vote. And as always a manifestation of the resilient faith of the African American community, there were clarion calls to root ourselves in prayer and scripture, based in the words and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Still many in the assembly that Sunday spoke about having moved from the Deep South to the East Bay, believing that racism and discrimination would be non-existent, but soon discovering that both were alive and well here in California, detailing their experiences relative to the housing and employment market and beyond. Folks acknowledged the advancements and successes that the African American community has achieved, but lamenting that there remains a long journey ahead.
When the St. Benedict family shared the July 9 and 10 weekend, at both the 4:30 p.m. Saturday evening liturgy and the Sunday morning 10 a.m. combined liturgy, tears were shed and stories shared, a lived experience that connected our African American parishioners to the uniqueness of their journey. Taken within the church context, this was also their faith journey.
Since an overwhelming majority of St. Benedict parishioners are African American, I felt that this was a safe place for folks to share without the glare of skeptics and critics who would lack the understanding and compassion needed to empathize with the African American experience at this time of deep racial conflict and strife, particularly as it relates to law enforcement. Something of what transpired may not have worked in the large, suburban, predominantly Anglo parishes in the diocese, but perhaps those places most sorely needed to hear the voices and pain of their African American parishioners, however daunting such sharing could be.
You, the African American community, must lead us in how to respond.
We need to listen attentively and responsively to the voices of the African American communities within our parishes and heed their advice and suggestions as a means of responding, which is what I attempted to do at St. Benedict. I know that from our active listening, the voice and will of God will emerge, pointing to the direction of healing.
It is also no secret that for the past 16 years, I have worked extensively with law enforcement. I am a chaplain to seven law enforcement agencies — five local and two federal, most notably the Oakland Police Department, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, and the San Francisco divisions of the FBI and the ATF. I also feel and acknowledge their pain, not only in the light of their recent loss in Dallas, but the many sacrifices they make on behalf of the communities they serve.
My brother-in-law is a sergeant with the Oakland Police Department, and quite a number of friends and extended family members work in law enforcement, as do quite a number of our African American St. Benedict parishioners, both active and retired. Along with them, we have a particular and unique role in helping to foster the healing that needs to take place between communities of color and the police.
Over these past couple of weeks, I have been in a place to listen and experience the voices of people in pain who are feeling alienated, disrespected, isolated and ignored. Holding that pain is not an easy task, nor is it my job alone.
When we truly establish a place and space, whether in a personal one-to-one situation or in a parish worship context such as last week, we listen and hear each other personally, with the hope that we can acknowledge the Christ in each other, and be his healing presence at this crossroad in our lives as Americans.
(Father Jayson Landeza is pastor at St. Benedict Parish in Oakland, and a chaplain to several law enforcement agencies.)
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