DALLAS — Across the nation, civil and religious leaders have together taken up the best tool they have left to cut a path for Americans through the summer’s rising thickets of racial hatred: prayer, the common language of peace.
Three blood-filled days, July 5-7, have left Americans reeling from a newfound realization that its racial wounds run deep, prompting memories of the deadly race riots of the 1960s.
But amid powerful temptations to hatred from antagonists on both sides of the racial divide, prayer has proven to be the mainstay of social peace and the driving hope of concord between white and black and black and blue.
The video-captured killings of two black men, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., during their respective encounters with police on July 5 and 6, renewed the controversial “Black Lives Matter” marches coast-to-coast.
The plea for people to pray emerged clearly on July 6, as Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds asked for prayers as she livestreamed video of her boyfriend and father of their young daughter as he bled to death. According to police dispatch audio, officers justified pulling Castile over as a potential suspect in a recent robbery because his physical characteristics matched those of a photo of the suspect. In the video, Reynolds relayed that Castile was shot reaching for his wallet, which contained his conceal-and-carry permit, as he tried to disclose he was lawfully armed.
But as demonstrators in Dallas began to leave a peaceful July 7 rally characterized by white and black police officers taking selfies with marchers, an Army veteran who had served in Afghanistan executed his own plan for racial revenge killings, using “shoot-and-move” tactics to kill five police officers and wound seven others, terrorizing civilians in the process.
And, as Dallas mourned its heroes who gave the final sacrifice — Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa — the city rallied with a massive outpouring of prayer in a multi-racial, multi-confessional prayer service in Thanks-Giving Square, led by the city’s religious and civic leaders, including Mayor Mike Rawlings, who is white, and Police Chief David Brown, who is black.
On July 12, both President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush appealed to the rich imagery in the Bible at an ecumenical memorial service for the slain officers, in order to chart the way forward for the nation to bridge the different experiences of black and white in America that constitute the racial divide and recognize each other’s human dignity and fundamental goodness.
At one point, Obama counseled hope, saying, “I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will give you a new heart, the Lord says, and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
“That’s what we must pray for, each of us: a new heart,” he said. “Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens. That’s what we’ve seen in Dallas these past few days. That’s what we must sustain.”
Bush spoke in his address about how, at times in America, “it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
He said a renewal of America’s unity comes when “we honor the image of God we see in one another,” and he asked those listening to recall St. Paul’s words: “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of strength and love and self-control.”
The Church’s Response
Across the country, Catholic bishops and clergy have appealed to their congregations to pray for peace, and even opened their churches to heal the community.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis not only offered a Mass for peace and justice, but also provided the Cathedral of St. Paul for the July 14 funeral service of Philado Castile.
Although Castile was not Catholic, the archdiocese stated that Castile’s mother, Valerie, had requested the cathedral for the funeral, saying that it would allow “people to come together in a new way,” praying for peace and reconciliation.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson appealed to all Knights of Columbus, their families and people of goodwill to pray St. Francis of Assisi’s “Prayer for Peace” for nine days, from July 14-22. “It is our hope that, from coast-to-coast, those who pray this prayer will become true instruments of peace,” he said July 9.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also sent out a statement calling on Catholics not to treat the police as a “faceless enemy” or regard people who are suspected of crimes or detained by police in traffic stops as “a faceless threat.”
“When compassion does not drive our response to the suffering of either, we have failed one another,” he said.
Elsewhere throughout the country, black pastors have invited police to come and join hands with their congregations to pray together, or have gone to police stations to show spiritual solidarity that crosses racial boundaries.
Father Joshua Johnson, parochial vicar at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, La., is biracial. He said many people in the city are afraid due to all of the recent racial tensions.
He told the Register that Catholics need to pray the Rosary, joining Mary in meditating upon our Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Our Lady said, if you want peace, pray the Rosary,” Father Johnson said.
The foundations of the civil-rights movement were built by “men and women of God” who laid down their lives as “prophets of love,” Alveda King, pastoral associate and director of African-American outreach at Priests for Life, told the Register. Her famous uncle, Martin Luther King Jr., was himself a minister who was slain in 1968 in the course of the nonviolent protest movement he led. She noted that in Ferguson, Mo., during the unrest following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson nearly two years ago, the presence of ministers and the prayer tent helped protesters turn back from the temptation to escalate violence.
“The more they prayed, the more violent protests subsided,” she said.
While much has improved in the 50 years since the nation’s legal apparatus of racism was dismantled in the Civil Rights Act, King said the nation still has not overcome its systemic problems of race, because legislation does not heal the human heart.
“We need prayer to bring about the conversion of heart needed for America to confront racism,” King said, particularly in its institutions. She said this spiritual conversion can make possible the interracial solidarity black Americans have called for to help them address systemic problems: broken families, broken education systems, staggering abortion rates, broken economic opportunities and the need to have confidence in the professionalism of police.
“My uncle Martin Luther King once said: ‘When we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody,’” she added.
“We need to come together and pray together, and as we pray together and worship God together, and repent together, then we’ll be able to convert together.”
Priest’s Experience of Racism
Father Johnson, who is 28, knows personally that good police officers exist and that black men continue to experience racism in society. He is the son of a black police officer and a white mother. He has told his black friends that he knows good police officers. His father is one: He was shot in the back of the head by an armed criminal and got up to pursue him and bring him to justice.
But the young priest said he also grew up experiencing racism, since he looks black. It is difficult for his white friends to come to grips with this different reality: They feel free to jog through their neighborhoods, and do so without a second thought. But black men who jog through those same neighborhoods get stopped by officers asking them what they are doing. Father Johnson said that his fellow priests who are white do not have store detectives trailing them around a store when they do not wear their clericals either.
“Literally, a week ago, I got followed in the store,” he said, explaining that he had just come from the gym wearing his exercise attire. “People who have never experienced this just do not get it.”
Only prayer, the priest added, where a person allows God to speak in the silence of his or her heart, can open up the ears of the heart to how differently black and white Americans experience this country.
Having to endure these sorts of incidents on a frequent basis in society, Father Johnson explained, fuels a lot of understandable anger and frustration among black men who just want the same treatment and level of social scrutiny that their white counterparts take for granted.
But his faith helps him keep calm and joyful, and intimacy with Jesus in the Eucharist helps keep his emotions from taking over.
“Because I am so in love with the Lord, by the grace of God, I don’t dwell on that stuff,” Father Johnson said. “I dwell on him, and that’s what I am doing right now.”
The gravest concern officers have now — all over the country — is “retaliation,” Deacon Mark Byington, a former Dallas police officer and professor of criminal justice in St. Louis, told the Register. While most police officers throughout the country do a remarkable job, the reality is: “We’re judged for the actions of one or two.”
Police Officer’s Concern
Despite calls for nonviolence from the Sterling and Castile families, as well as leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been a number of attempted ambushes of police officers.
Deacon Byington said his prayer is that the nation realizes that it has to get back to the model of community-based policing, exemplified in Dallas, and reject the “us vs. them” law-enforcement mentality that has created a lot of fear and distrust in certain communities.
The Dallas Police Department’s community-based policing has actually reduced crime to its lowest level in 50 years, greatly reduced incidents of lethal force in police encounters and created a sense that officers are part of the fabric of the communities they walk.
But the trauma and violence that police officers encounter takes a spiritual toll, Deacon Byington explained, especially since society demands police officers go into the community to fix problems that really require the expertise of marriage counselors, mental-health professionals, domestic-dispute mediators, drug-rehabilitation specialists and job recruiters, among others. The Church, the deacon said, needs to provide spiritual healing, such as the St. Michael’s retreat for first responders, so officers will have the strength to follow the path of the strongest man in the world: Jesus, who gave his life for the world, even though the world thought doing so showed weakness.
The racial divides will only come down, Deacon Byington added, when communities throughout the whole country grasp this lesson.
“If we’re followers of Christ, we must follow his example, and we must endure, and we must forgive.”
“In the wake of the tragedies in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, we must all come together as people of faith to work towards peace through nonviolent solutions, within ourselves, our families, our communities, our country and the world,” Deacon Byington added. “In the end, there is one truth: From conception to natural death, all lives matter.”
In Memphis, Tenn., Police Chief Michael Rallings helped defuse a tense situation on July 11, when he joined demonstrators in prayer, embraced protesters from Black Lives Matter and led them to peacefully take their march off of a major highway.
Prayer Changes Hearts
These events were broadcast on television and the Internet. Memphis resident Frances Ginski was glued to her computer, watching the news broadcast live throughout the situation.
She told the Register it was a proud moment for her city, but it was also evidence of the transformative power of prayer to build bridges over the racial divide that she herself has experienced as a Catholic youth minister at St. Patrick’s Church in Memphis. She and her husband are both white, and the youth at their parish are either black or multi-racial. The conversations they have had with their youth have opened their eyes to realities about racism in society.
“I needed experiences and real people to change my perspectives,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that systemic racism exists until you have a conversation.”
Some of her youth have confided that they have experienced violence and deep poverty firsthand in their communities, but they are also afraid of the police.
Ginski added that there are many different small ways in which she has learned society tells black youth that they are treated as less than equal, even if legally those barriers don’t exist.
“There are borders that are visibly written in these kids’ consciousness,” she said.
She pointed out that, in Memphis, the parks, neighborhoods and community events are open to all, but her youth have told her they will avoid certain places because white people will look at them suspiciously and make it clear they don’t belong. Even some of Ginski’s own acquaintances question aloud why she associates with black youth from her parish.
Ginski and her husband are grateful for the youth they minister to, saying they have helped them become better Catholics. They have hope for the future, too. One young person texted her that he felt afraid amid all of the killings of police and black men in the news, but added, “I love you guys.”
“That meant a lot to me,” she said. “Together — all of us, with God’s grace to guide us — we’re building a bridge.”