Black Catholic Voices series: Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. reflects on his journey of faith and experiences with racism
Nov 15, 2020
(Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. was interviewed on Oct. 30, 2020 for the Black Catholic Voices series by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor. He also serves as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, and as president of the National Black Catholic Congress. The following is a transcript of the interview.)
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Bishop Campbell – “My faith journey as a Black American is one that is rooted in the Father, hearing what I say and me trying to listen to Him, the Son, in coming to bring me salvation along with everyone else, and the Holy Spirit who guides me, I pray, always through this life. And that became evident to me because of my parents. Even before I was baptized (as I look back, although I don’t remember it), it was their love that let me know that I was important, that I was loved and there was a reason for that love.
“And with that, when I went to church as a boy, and I do remember going, my father was Baptist, my mother was Catholic, but he made sure that his sons went to church when they were supposed to. And my mother took us when we were small, and I would sit in church, and I could bring one toy, a little plastic horse, and I sat on the kneeler, and as long as I was quiet, I was okay. I did not know what was going on, but what I did know was that it important, because every Sunday she took me to church. And that’s why I learned church was important, that's why I learned why it was important, and that's why I learned that their faith in God, and (that of) my aunts and uncles and cousins, was well-placed, because of the faith that my parents, and her brothers and sisters, and my father’s brothers and sisters, showed in their lives. So, the journey has been one of faith in God, because of the love and faith I saw in my parents.”
You worked in banking, and later as an adult, you felt the call (to a vocation to the priesthood)?
Bishop Campbell – “Actually when I felt that I heard a call, I thought that I was being led to be a permanent deacon, because I was almost 50 years old, and I applied and was accepted. At that time it was five full years of formation to be a permanent deacon, and I had gone through four when I realized there was something else I was being called to, and I wasn't sure what it was. It took nine months of discernment to realize that it was a call to the priesthood. And approaching the archdiocese afterwards, after Deacon John Somerville who just passed away and his wife, talking to them, talking to my pastor, who also has passed on, Father Patrick McCaffrey at St. Gabriel, and one of the Jesuit priests that I saw on a regular basis down at Loyola Retreat House. Walking through that discernment, I approached the archdiocese and the archbishop said, “I will make the exception age-wise,” and he sent me to the seminary.
“And I went to what is now Pope Saint John XXIII just outside of Boston, which is a seminary that Cardinal Cushing opened for men who later in life hear a vocation, and the formation is excellent for that purpose. As matter of fact, this was the emblem on the sweater I have on when I attended. So, that’s where I went and that’s where I got my formation for my priestly vocation and came back to the archdiocese that I've grown up in and lived in to hopefully do what the Lord calls me, always for His people and for my salvation.”
What’s been your greatest blessing as a priest?
Bishop Campbell – “As a priest to be able, and I never cease to be in awe of the fact that God has given His priests the ability to call upon the Holy Spirit to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, and I would say behind that is helping God's people, my brothers and sisters, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I use the term (and not meaning anything wrong by it) but almost everyone that I hear Confession for is brutally honest about what they believe is wrong in their life because they want to be reconciled with and to walk more closely with their God, and to give me a part in helping them to do that it is not only satisfying, it’s awe inspiring, that God would grace a human being with something that only He can do, but He does it through his priests.
“So, all of the sacraments of the Church are my greatest joys, from the Eucharist, to Baptism, which brings everyone into the life of the Church, because it is Christ working in our lives individually and in our lives as the body, as His body, the body of Christ.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?
Bishop Campbell – “I have seen, starting with my own family, but with others, I have seen a faith that is rooted in God (and) His love, and to practice that, even with some of the challenges, some of the unfortunate things that constantly happen in our society, but even more unfortunately has happened in our Church.
“The faith in God, and the practice of the faith that we were baptized into as Catholics, was so important to my mother that we lived a half mile from Sacred Heart Church in Northwest Washington where I made my Confirmation, where I went to grade school and graduated from their grade school, but when I was a small boy, my mother would take me and my brothers and get on the streetcar, and we would ride all the way across the city to Southeast Washington to go to church at my grandmother's church, St. Cyprian Catholic Church, which was at 13th and North Carolina Avenue at the time – it's now part of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian – and that was because that was a predominately Black parish. Sacred Heart was a predominately White parish. And I did not know until I entered high school that the reason why my mother did that was because if we went to Sacred Heart we were relegated to sitting in the back of the church, and she refused to do that.
“But that did not diminish her faith and the practice of her faith. She was going to practice it, and she taught us that we needed to practice our faith, regardless of the challenges that we incurred in the Church and outside of the Church.”
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Bishop Campbell – “There are a lot of them, more than we have time to discover. Much of it, in this area (and) especially in the world today is, as they like to say, is ‘covert.’ When it’s delivered, it is not blatant. A lot of it is just people’s reaction, from the way they had been raised and the people they have been exposed to.
“A case in point is, as a young man working, I was in downtown Washington for a meeting, I don’t remember where, but it was somewhere near 18th and M. And I was standing to go onto an elevator and there were two other young men standing next to me, we were all dressed in suits, and whatnot, they were White and I myself, and when the door open up there was a young White lady on the elevator and as the two of them went in, she smiled. I walked in, and she grabbed her purse and pulled it closer to herself. Now, I don't believe she meant any harm, but it was telling me that she didn't feel safe or comfortable with me near her.
“I was the manager of the Mount Rainier office, of what was then Suburban Trust Company in the early ‘80s, and I had a good relationship with our customers. I talked to one of them, who was a member of the Lions Club. I said, ‘You all ‘do some really good work. You know, I would like to be part of that and help it.’ And (after) his hemming and hawing, I had finally come to realize that they really didn't want a Black man to be a part of their organization.
“And probably the most blatant thing that happened in my working career was, at that same place, one of our business owners came in to go in his safe deposit box, and my safe deposit custodian, who was a young White lady, for whatever reason, had a customer, and instead of politely asking him to ‘give me a second, and I’ll be with you,’ she told him, ‘You have to wait your turn, go sit down,’ or something to that effect, and I saw him leave. I did not know why, and when I asked her, and she told me, I called him to apologize for the way he was treated, and he answered with a string of racial slurs, remarks and degradations, and I just hung up the phone. Now, somehow his second-in-command at his business called the president of the bank and told him what happened and apologized. And an hour later, I got a call from the president of the bank, saying he was sorry that I was treated that way. So, the fact that I remember it means it really hurt at the time, and it is something I don’t understand because I was brought up to treat a person as a person.”
Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Bishop Campbell –“I think there are justifications for the demonstrations. And one of the things in these demonstrations that I see and I’m happy about is that it is not just Black people demonstrating. It is a lot of people, and especially a lot of young White people, who are saying, ‘This is wrong, this has to change,’ and it does have to change. This is where we get into what is systemic racism. People are reacting the way that they always have and sometimes don’t realize that they are treating others unfairly, because this is the way it’s always been done, but more and more people are realizing, ‘No you can’t do that, and you have to stop and think about what you’re doing.’ When it comes to law enforcement – we have a lot of good police officers, I know a number of them, here in Prince George’s County, in Washington, and elsewhere, as a matter fact, the sheriff for Prince George’s County is a parishioner here –but yet we do have some who abuse their authority, and they do treat people of color differently than White people. And it is evident when you look at general statistics.
“I remember when I first got a driver's license and my father got a car, and it was a Saturday morning, and he asked me to drive, and we were going to go to the store. And my father liked nice cars. So, back in the early ‘60s, or the middle ‘60s, a Mercury was a really nice car. And we were driving, and I see lights flashing, and a cop pulls us over. And he says, “I want to see your driver's license,” and show him everything he wants. He says, “Everything is fine, but you don’t look like you are old enough to drive. That is why I pulled you over.” Now, he was White, but why I say that and maybe this is part of systemic racism because, would he have done that if that had been a young White teenager with his father? And by the way, he totally ignored the fact that my father was sitting right next to me. He never acknowledge he existed.
“These are the things that are done that cause people to protest. And these are the things that they protesting now. And what we saw with the death of George Floyd, I cannot see that as an accident. I cannot see that as a law enforcement officer trying to do what he was supposed to. I say that because the person who was being subjected to that torture, that degradation, to that suffocation had no value in the life of the person who was kneeling on his neck. And I say that because, suppose he had to subdue a dog, do you think once he got it down he would kneel on the dog’s neck until the dog catcher came? But he knelt on a human being’s neck.”
How has your parish, which is predominantly African American, been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Bishop Campbell – “It has been very hard. We have, soon as we could in June, started reopening and more and more people are coming. But many people do not come because of their age, because of their medical condition, because of ailments. And they are afraid of possible exposure that could cost them their lives. We’ve had several funerals of parishioners who died from COVID-19. We've had other parishioners whose relatives (and I’m talking about nephews and closer) who have died from COVID-19. So, it has struck almost everyone in in some way of knowing someone or having someone that they love pass away from this virus.
“And it leads to, you know, (asking) ‘Why is that?’ And this virus has done something. It has, if you look at whether it's you or I, or anyone else, we would get a cut on our hand and we would try and put something on it and then put a Band-Aid over it to cover it, so that dirt and everything else would slide over it until it has a chance to heal. Well, the way we’ve been living in this country is a Band-Aid over the feelings of how people are treated and the way people are being treated, and that Band-Aid has been ripped off by this virus. And we can see that because people are not allowed to have access to education as others, not allowed to have access to healthcare as others, not allowed to be able to freely pursue what is best for them like others, they now are in a position that this virus has a greater devastating effect on them than on another group. And that is what we deal with on a constant basis here.
“But yet the people have their faith. They still give, even if they can’t go. And that's why we still live stream one of our Masses on Sunday, and every Mass doing the weekday, for those parishioners who want to still be connected with the Eucharist at least visibly, if not there, because that part of their faith and that part of our celebration is so important to them. And this is the way we tried to keep those who cannot come involved in their parish, as well as reaching out to them, visiting them when we can, but because of this virus they cannot do what they want so well. I have a 92-year-old aunt, and I was talking to her. She attends St. Luke’s in Washington, D.C. She hasn’t been to church since March. She is within walking distance of the church, but because she has a lung infection, her doctor said, ‘You can’t go out,’ and it hurts her. This is what the virus is doing to people who want to practice their faith.
“And we all could come down with different medical conditions, but when the underlying cause is because we didn’t have access to healthcare that we should have for reasons that may very well be just because of the color of our skin, this has been exposed by this virus.”
Archbishop Gregory has noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?
Bishop Campbell – “Well, one of the things we can always do is pray. Prayer is talking to God and then listening to Him speak, however He chooses to do so. The other thing we can do is to put that (prayer) into action. And to combat racism is not to treat others the way they may treat you, but to go out and engage the community and help others to see from the way you treat them that there is a need for change. And one of those ways is to engage in conversation. Now, the difficulty is that in in many instances I found that folks who may exhibit, maybe not deliberately, but some type of racism from just the way they live, don’t understand what is there to talk about. When you hear parishioners say (well, I know one at another parish) who told me, ‘You know, why are these protests going on? All of that was taken care of once the Civil Rights bill was signed years ago. Why is this going on?’
“It’s from where we come, and if what we can do is to help others to see, to reflect on themselves (and) their attitudes and what we can do to change, so that we see Christ in one another, and we treat each other the way that we would treat Christ if He appeared in front of us. This can take many different forms; from talks, from actions, from peaceful protest, and voting for those in public office that will promote unity among all people, fairness and equality among all people, instead of what’s in it for me and for the ones that are like me?”
Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Bishop Campbell – “In keeping my faith, it’s because I’m aware of how, in so many different ways, of how God works daily in my life and if there were no God, it wouldn’t be happening. And it is not by coincidence that things fall into place the way they should. It is by a loving Father taking care of His adopted children, just as any father would take care of his children. They turn to their father, because they know that he’s there to help them, to provide (for) them. It’s a reason why I turned to God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, because I know they’re there, and they are there to help and guide me. The Son gave His life for us. I can’t ask for a whole lot more than that, and so knowing how He works in my life allows me to stay fast in my faith and to try and practice it, and to show it to others and to help them with theirs, and that’s not going to change because God doesn’t change.
“Every day, I see the effects of Him in my life, and I see the effects of Him in others. What I think we need to do is be aware of that and that’ll help us in the long way, for all of us, to be steadfast in our faith. And especially in today’s world, today's climate, I see a lot of people, especially those who get national attention, say one thing and do another. I pray that what I say and what I do matches up.”
What give you hope for the future of our country?
Bishop Campbell – “You know, 200 and some years ago, the framers of the Constitution tried to do their best to do what they thought was just, and I thought they did a pretty good job, even though, at that time, they didn’t consider some of the people who lived among them as humans or equal to them. But if we try and live by those principles, then this country will continue with what some say ‘the experiment of democracy’ that has been on a journey for 200 (and) some years, if we try and live by those principles and not subvert them to what we want, but as they were designed to be. Yes, they have to be adjusted, that’s why our Constitution can have amendments to it. They have to be adjusted based on circumstances.
“But the fact that so many people truly reach out to learn, understand, and to help one another gives me hope that this can be the way we are in this country, everywhere. It’s not going to happen overnight. I do believe that the protests that are going on now since Mr. Floyd’s killing will make a change that was started many, many decades ago, but it’s taken until now to get to a point where so many people are saying, ‘We’ve got to make a change. We’ve got to live by the values that this country was founded on, and the principles that we believe in, and our Constitution.’ This is where my hope lies, and it’ll never work unless we do it together. And that’s why the unity in this country is so, so necessary. Otherwise, we might as well divide up into 50 different states and each one of us do our own thing. And we know that won’t work either.”
What is your reaction to Pope Francis naming Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals from around the world?
Bishop Campbell – “You know when I heard that Archbishop Gregory had been named a cardinal, I texted his priest secretary and said, ‘I and the parishioners at St. Joseph are ecstatic to hear this news.’ I was a little late starting 8 a.m. Mass Sunday morning, because I had just heard the news and I wanted to be able to tell everyone what had happened. He got a standing ovation at Mass, and he wasn’t there. He was here the day before, for our one-day Deacon Convocation and offered Mass.
“It is wonderful. We may say the archbishop of Washington has always been made a cardinal, except the very first one, Archbishop Curley, who died suddenly before that could ever happen. But it is significant because there’s so many different firsts. This is a man, who as a boy, embraced the faith that he was not baptized into and reared into until he chose to follow it. And then to go on to become a priest and to do wonderful things as a bishop of Belleville (Illinois) and then to lead the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, especially when we had to deal with the outbreak in 2002 of the clergy sexual abuse scandal throughout the country, and as archbishop of Atlanta and then coming here.
“The one thing in his coming here that dismays me is, and I saw it in the paper yesterday, and they were saying, commenting on him becoming the archbishop of Washington, and saying that, you know he took over an abuse-riddled archdiocese from the sexual abuse scandal, which is not true. Yes, two former archbishops have been implicated for doing something they shouldn’t have – (Theodore McCarrick) with a minor and that’s reprehensible and should be dealt with justly, and (Cardinal Donald Wuerl) not taking care of properly, things reported to them elsewhere (when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh). And yet it is portrayed as a terrible thing, here it is not. And I think he’d be the first one to tell you that.
“However, it is a first that he came here, and that the Church chose him to come here, because he’s the first Black archbishop in Washington, the seat of democratic power and importance in the world, and to be named a cardinal, the first Black cardinal from the United States, that’s significant. And it shows that the Church recognizes that everyone has gifts to offer to the Church, to their community, to their fellow man wherever they are, and they recognize that in in naming him a cardinal. And young Black men who may wonder, ‘Could I be called to the priesthood?’ can see that, yes, not only can you be called, but the gifts that you bring with that call will be recognized by the Church.”
What do you think Archbishop Gregory being named a cardinal means to Black Catholics here and across the United States?
Bishop Campbell – “The same thing, that our faith, our talents, our willingness to be part of and work for the Church in our community, we have an impetus to continue to do that because a leader who looks like us has been recognized at the highest level in the universal Church, that means influence in the direction of the Church takes in reaching all of the people of the world. And that is one of the things that his elevation will bring. I told the congregation here, he’s going to have many more duties in the universal Church, not just the Archdiocese of Washington. And that is one of the things that makes people happy, not the extra work that he’s going to have (I’m sure he’s not complaining about that and neither are we), but the fact that his talents for helping the Church, for helping Black Catholics, for helping all Catholics and all people in this country, and now worldwide have been recognized, and the Church wants to put them to use.”