violence and healing
As people of many faith traditions plan to gather next month in Oakland to pray for peace and unity in a country torn by mistrust and violence, Catholic parishes in the East Bay have begun to look into ways to complement those prayers with action and hope.
"Each time we as a community came together with 50 plus people," said Rev. Aidan McAleenan, pastor at the north Oakland church. "Each time we prayed but needed more."
The parish, a predominately black congregation known for its activism in the community, had previously responded to several police-involved shootings of unarmed black men across the country by hanging a large "Black Lives Matters" banner outside a parish building. The first banner was torn down earlier this year. A second, larger banner — that is "less accessible" — has since replaced it.
Suggestions raised by the faith community included increasing its involvement in the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a federation of congregations, schools and other community organizations that works together to bring about systemic change, nurture local leaders and improve the quality of life for families. Reducing gun violence and immigration reform are among the issues the group, which represents some 40,000 families, has been working on.
The parish is also looking into providing courses in non-violence, in the tradition of the late civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and putting in place a gun buy-back program to help get guns off the streets. "I'm working with the police chief and Alameda District Attorney to set this up," Father McAleenan said, adding "we would need $20K to carry it off."
Meanwhile across town at Oakland's St. Benedict Parish, Rev. Jayson Landeza, who is of mixed Filipino, Hawaiian and Irish ancestry, asked members of his largely African American congregation to come forward and share their thoughts about the killings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas and race relations in America.
As a person of color himself, Father Landeza said that he was "always aware of my skin color." And as a priest assigned to several suburban parishes in the East Bay he experienced the strange and uncomfortable feeling of being a "minority" in a mostly Anglo community.
While serving in one of those suburban parishes, he recalled that someone once came up to him and asked, "How come you speak English so good?" But over time, as parishioners got to know him better, Father Landeza found himself making friends with and feeling "much love" from many people in those parishes.
This is why an open dialogue about race needs to take place on a larger scale, said Father Landeza.. People need to get to know people who don't "look like you" and learn about the life experiences of other people.
"We have to have many levels of conversation," said the Very Rev. James Matthews, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland. "I know that it's a very difficult subject to broach but we need to confront systemic racism in business, politics and community."
In a statement released last month the National Black Catholic Congress also urged that the conversations must go on. "It is important for Black Catholics to contribute to the ongoing national conversation about the underlying issues which have existed for too long," according to a statement. "These include racism, inequality, poverty and violence. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we must be signs of God's love which promotes justice. Justice promotes right relationships, which includes upholding the dignity of human life."
The U.S. bishops' conference has also responded to the racial divide by appointing Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta to serve as chair of a new task force to deal with racial issues after last month's shootings that left both citizens and police officers among the dead.
"I am honored to lead this task force which will assist my brother bishops, individually and as a group, to accompany suffering communities on the path toward peace and reconciliation," said Archbishop Gregory in a July 21 statement. "We are one body in Christ, so we must walk with our brothers and sisters and renew our commitment to promote healing. The suffering is not somewhere else, or someone else's, it's our own, in our dioceses."
This task will be difficult because America unfortunately has a history of not being able or willing to discuss racism in a meaningful way, said Father Matthews, who grew up in Oakland and became the first African American priest to be ordained for the diocese in 1974.
In 1968, while he was in the seminary, Father Matthews — known by many as "Father Jay" — recalled reading a book called "Black Rage" that was written by two black psychiatrists that examined the "inner conflicts and desperation of Black Life in the United States." The book "helped me form who I am — being Black and Catholic and being Black in America."
"I am not full of rage because I understand where it comes from," said Father Matthews. In addition to his experiences as a black man during the civil rights movement the priest had a unique perspective of the world of law enforcement — his father served as a deputy sheriff of Alameda County. "I heard Father talk about internal problems they had and how those internal problems were addressed."
Likewise, Father Landeza's role as chaplain to the Oakland Police Department and other law enforcement agencies allows him to see both sides of the racial divide. However, the situation is not an easy one. The priest, who grew up with friends who are African American, has a brother-in-law and other friends who work in law enforcement.
As a youth growing up in West Oakland Rev. Leo Edgerly Jr. has experienced being profiled like many other black men. In the early 1970s he can recall "almost always" being stopped by the police when driving in San Leandro or El Cerrito. He wasn't speeding and he wasn't running stop signs or red lights — he was driving while black.
Father Edgerly has been pastor at Corpus Christi in Piedmont since 1999, a mostly Caucasian and financially better off community next to Oakland. Recently, a member of the pastoral council approached him and asked if it was possible for the parish to begin a dialogue with nearby parishes about race in the community.
It is a step in the right direction. "We don't have all of the answers but we are talking about it," said Father Edgerly, who has also spoken out in his homilies about the violent attacks in Nice, France, and Orlando, Florida. "And we need to listen to one another even if we don't agree."
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