Parishes respond to civil unrest across the nation

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Father Thomas Walsh spent about three hours on June 3 cleaning up the neighborhood around St. Martin de Porres Parish, 5112 W. Washington Blvd. He worked with parishioners, volunteers from the neighborhood and people who drove in from the suburbs.

Walsh said people did more than sweep up broken glass and pick up trash.

“They were down in the dirt, pulling up weeds, working together,” said Walsh, noting that while there was some looting over the weekend of May 30-June 1 in his neighborhood, it was worse further east on Madison Street.

The looting erupted in the wake of mostly peaceful protests following the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“It’s been hard,” Walsh said in a telephone interview. “I had to do a lot of deep thinking this week.”

He thought about what his community of mostly black parishioners needed to hear from him, a white priest. He thought about what his neighbors told him as they cleaned up the blocks around the church.

“In the church, some of the people are confused,” Walsh said. “They have a hard time believing that these things are happening in this day and age, that what happened to George Floyd could happen to a person.”

People in the Austin neighborhood don’t have a problem believing it. They know the inequities they face in everything from education and employment to health care and housing. They see the way COVID-19 has ravaged their community and other black and Latino neighborhoods, said Walsh, who has spent nearly all his ministry in black communities.

“There is an anger about why do all these things keep happening?” Walsh said. “Not a rage that leads to destruction. It’s saying, ‘This has got to stop.’”

In his Sunday reflection for June 7, posted to the parish’s Facebook page, Walsh said he knew his parishioners needed to hear him — a white Catholic priest — say, “Black lives matter. George Floyd mattered. Ahmaud Arbery mattered. Breonna Taylor mattered. Laquan McDonald mattered.”

Walsh said sometimes people seem tired of talking about racism.

“The reason we’re still talking about it is that we haven’t properly dealt with it yet,” he said in his reflection. “Racism is nothing new, even in the church.”

The same church that would not educate Father Augustus Tolton in the 19th century made things difficult for Walsh’s black classmates when he was in the seminary. When they would complain about racism, they would be told, “It’s not that bad,” Walsh said. “If they kept complaining, they would be called ‘angry black men’ and seen as a threat.”

Father David Jones, pastor of St. Benedict the African Parish, 340 W. 66th St., likened the killing of Floyd at the hands of police to the killing of Jesus.

“The parish is trying to respond to this murder just as she responds to the murder of Jesus Christ,” Jones said in an email from his Englewood parish. “It is difficult because we do not hear the voice of God in the conversation. People here do not simply empathize with the George Floyd, we identify with his disbelief. We are burdened by the Catholics who do not recognize this evil in our church. That boy’s knee on that man’s neck is symbolic of the systemic issues that disproportionately change the DNA of the black community.

“St. Benedict Parish would rejoice upon hearing a word of solidarity from our sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus.”

The parish is praying and working to meet the needs of its people, Jones said, trying to “comfort our elders who are betrayed by that which they thought was a battle already won” and reaching out to see that the needs of children in the community are met.

“We are doing our best to keep the focus and the faith on the need for systems to evolve.  Much more than tossing out bad apples as scapegoats needs to be done,” Jones said.

A daily Zoom conference has included medical professionals, meditation experts and spiritual leaders to help give parish leaders tools. The parish, known for its art, is also working on a new piece.

“We are developing an art project that will juxtapose kneeling for prayer, kneeling for justice and kneeling for murder,” Jones said. “We are clear that right now we are just recuperating from the blows.  Amidst all the questions of reopening the church is one of ‘for what?’”

Those are perspectives that parishioners at St. Teresa of Avila Parish, 1037 W. Armitage Ave., need to listen to, according Mark Neuhengen, the parish’s director of evangelization and parish mission.

Neuhengen is organizing an online book club for parishioners and others to read and discuss Father Bryan Massingale’s “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.” As of June 11, 67 people had registered.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Neuhengen said. “It’s an emotional issue for a lot of people. We’ve had people who are gung-ho about it. We’ve had people who are simply not. But for us, in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, this is an issue that needs to be addressed in our community. This is how we need to apply the Gospel in our community right now.”

Doing so over Zoom is in many ways not ideal, but it has allowed people from other parishes and even other dioceses to register for the reading group, Neuhenger said.

The parish website also included a message from the pastor, Father Frank Latzko, about racism and white privilege that said, in part, “Those of us who are white must take a good, long look in the mirror and see clearly how privileged we are. As white people, none of us has to think and worry daily about our race and how we are constantly being treated and looked at by those in power. I have never been afraid of the police because I have no reason to fear.”

The experience of black people in Chicago and around the country is different, he continued, and institutions including the church must take long, hard looks at themselves and then take action.

Many pastors in the archdiocese posted their own messages on websites, in bulletins or delivered them in homilies or online prayer services.

St. John of the Cross Parish in Western Springs held an online prayer service June 9, in addition to posting anti-racism resources on its page.

“Racism has rightly been called America’s original sin. It remains a blot on our national life and continues to cause acts and attitudes of hatred as recent events have made evident,” Father Marc Reszel, pastor of St. John of the Cross, said in the prayer service. “The need to condemn and combat the demonic ideologies of white supremacy, neo-Nazism and racism have become especially urgent at this time. Our efforts must be constantly led and accompanied by prayer, but they also must include concrete actions.”


  • racism
  • parishes

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