Address racism by focusing on Christ, speaker says

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Brian Greenfield discusses his experiences with racism and the role faith can play in eradicating it on July 17 at St. Mary of the Lake Church, 4220 N. Sheridan Road. The parish hosted Greenfield for a two-day event and conversation, in collaboration with the St. Vincent de Paul Society. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The solution to racism is to focus not on the differences between human beings but on Christ, according to evangelist and motivational speaker Brian Greenfield.

Greenfield spoke at St. Mary of the Lake Parish, 4220 N. Sheridan Road, July 17 and 18 on the theme of “Beyond Right and Left: Refocusing Our Gaze on Christ. Why Should Catholics Care About Racism?”

Jesuit Justin Kelly, a summer pastoral associate at the parish, said the event was one of the first in-person non-liturgical events held in a parish since the pandemic closed everything, but the topic is one that needs to be discussed.

For Greenfield, the pandemic and the way it affected everything in the United States is a big part of the story when it comes to the reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests that swept the country in its wake.

“The beginning of this year was for me like any normal year,” said Greenfield, who once taught Kelly at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida. “I’ve been teaching for like 16 years, I’ve gotten used to the way things go. I was accustomed to and comfortable with my battles. I thought I had it all figured out.”

When the pandemic struck, closing schools and businesses and shuttering sports stadiums and arenas, it gave everyone an opportunity to reflect.

“There’s something insanely scary when your foundation gets shaken, when your life and your livelihood gets put in question,” Greenfield said. “But there’s also something — now take this the right way — there’s also something amazing about that. The devil does a lot of work in busyness. If you’re so busy doing all the things you’re supposed to do, you can’t do the thing you’re called to do.”

During that time, news of racial violence spread. Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man was shot while out jogging in Georgia on Feb. 23, but the news did not become widespread until several weeks later. George Floyd was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe and then called for his mother.

“First we have the COVID, and then, a couple of months pass as we begin to realize how crazy our culture is,” Greenfield said. “It started a little early with me, with a guy named Ahmaud Arbery. Time passes, and the you begin to see George Floyd, 8 minutes and 46 seconds. … Initially I was numb to it. Something we see all the time. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. But I don’t think any of us could escape it this time.”

There are too many things people get used to that should be shocking, Greenfield said, recalling the way he felt when he first heard about a school shooting, and the way that’s changed over the years.

“We get used to it because there’s always a job we’ve got to do, there’s always money to be made, there’s always a sports team that can distract me,” Greenfield said. “With George Floyd, there was nowhere I could go. I couldn’t run from it.”

Neither could anyone else, and for the first time, Greenfield said, he heard everyone saying that what happened was “messed up.”

“Then you see the church responding, and that was tough,” Greenfield said. “There were people in the church who were phenomenal. I had some friends who called me up and did a phenomenal job, asking how I was feeling and really listening. Then I had some friends in the church who really hurt me. It was a hurt that came from the unwillingness to understand.

“When one of us suffers, all of us suffer. What hurt me was that it didn’t seem like they cared. When I would give a reason for my hurt, there would be a quick response that meant my hurt didn’t matter. … When people you love turn their back on you and say your pain doesn’t matter, it hurts.”

Racism, Greenfield said, hurts the victimized and the victimizers, and Christians must call it out when they see it.

“It degrades the victimized, but it also denigrates and desecrates the victimizer,” Greenfield said. “It takes them to a place of dirtiness. If I agree with what Christ said, how can I allow you to go to a place where Christ doesn’t want you to be? [Racism] makes our brothers and sisters much less than they are called to be. It doesn’t allow the church to be the church.”

The answer, he said, is to follow the example of Peter when he left a boat in the middle of a storm at sea and walked on the water toward Jesus.

He could only do that by keeping his focus on Jesus, Greenfield said. When he got distracted and started to sink, though, Jesus pulled him back up and brought his focus back.

People now must also return their focus to God rather than focusing on a culture of death.

“We’re fed a consistent diet of death,” he said. “We’re fed a consistent diet of hatred. We’re fed a consistent diet of emotion-led morality. When I look at what happened with Arbery and Floyd, this is what happens when you’re fed that diet. Death begets death.”

That leads people to the point that they believe what they are doing is right, including the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

“I believe that in his heart, he believed he was morally justified in doing this,” Greenfield said. “Racism is a symptom of the culture we live in right now: brokenness without hope. … A lot of people have taken a political ideology or a lifestyle that makes them comfortable and tried insert Christ into that, instead of saying, ‘This is Christ’ and building your life around him. It’s not God that you’re worshipping. It’s yourself, and Christ becomes your holy ATM to give you what you want.”


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