Christian Bentley is at home attending Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia, because he follows in the footsteps of his family members who helped found that church that has served Black Catholics since 1915.

But Bentley’s roots in the faith go much deeper than that. He noted that in his living room, he has photographs of his formerly enslaved ancestors, photos taken after their emancipation.

“Those individuals were also Catholic,” he said.

So when the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” that message resonated with him. 

“Racism is America’s original sin,” he said. “For me, it’s very personal.”

A time of reckoning

Bentley, a 33-year-old marketing and sales professional and a member of the Knights of Peter Claver, said the highly publicized deaths of unarmed Black men and women earlier this year – Ahmaud Arbery shot in Georgia while jogging; Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot by police in her apartment; and George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest – “really hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Then he reached a point of reckoning, wondering what would happen someday if his grandchildren asked him what he did in response to these events.

“I got up and made my sign (reading) ‘Catholics for Social Justice’ and I grabbed my crucifix and rosary and hopped in an Uber and went down to the White House,” joining a protest there, he said.

Over the next few weeks, Bentley said he found himself invited to speak several times, “because people were so impressed to see a Catholic presence at the protests.”

Fast forward to Aug. 28, 2020, this year’s March on Washington. Bentley, knowing many of his family members had attended the original march in 1963, said, “I needed to be a part of history.” But more importantly, he felt “there has to be a Catholic presence (there).”

He noted how the nation’s Catholics are divided over the Black Lives Matter protests, but he emphasized that a distinction has to be made between that organization – which has stances on issues like abortion contrary to Church teaching – and the movement, which supports racial justice, an issue that the nation’s bishops have spoken out about for many decades.

“Black Lives Matter as a movement is a pro-life issue,” Bentley said. “Pro-life means believing in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, so if a group of people is being targeted, that goes against our pro-life stance, so as a Catholic, this is what this is all about.”

Christian Bentley, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Alexandria, holds a sign during the Aug. 28, 2020 March on Washington. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Arriving on the National Mall that day, he was inspired to see people from many different ethnicities and backgrounds. He met an elderly couple who had driven to the march from Ohio, and the man was using a walker. He noted that they were part of an at-risk population during the global COVID-19 pandemic, and yet there they were, joining the march in solidarity.

“To me, it was a confirmation (that) this is a human rights issue. This is not a political issue, this is about people dying,” he said.

Then toward the Lincoln Memorial, Bentley saw something that he said gave him “a rush of emotion” – someone holding a large yellow and white Vatican flag, with the symbol of the keys of heaven given by Jesus to St. Peter.

“When I saw the keys, I felt that’s where I belong,” he said. “As a Black man at the March on Washington, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. Seeing the Vatican flag, I was surrounded by people who believed and prayed like me.”

Like the other marchers that day, the members of that group wore face masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. And like others who gathered there, they held signs promoting racial justice and opposing police brutality, but the messages on their signs also reflected their Catholic beliefs.

Jacob Hyman of Dayton, Ohio, holds a Vatican flag during the Aug. 28, 2020 March on Washington, joined by other members of the Catholic Social Action group that he cofounded. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

The Vatican flag

Holding the Vatican flag that afternoon was Jacob Hyman, 24, a graduate student in engineering management who had driven his Ford Fiesta seven and one-half hours from Dayton, Ohio. At the rally, he joined about a dozen other Catholic young adults from Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C., area who were part of Catholic Social Action, a group that he had cofounded about three months earlier in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

“It stirred me to action,” he said.

Originally from the Tallahassee, Florida area, Hyman was Jewish before becoming Catholic in 2016. He said friends had challenged him about why the Catholic Church wasn’t more involved in social issues besides abortion. 

That questioning, he said, “really pushed me to pray and read the great wealth of the (Church’s) social encyclicals. It led me to see what the Church demanded of society. From there, I felt I needed to act.”

Catholic Social Action’s cofounders, he said, were determined to take action in response to issues like racial injustice and police brutality, “offering a radical, orthodox response to what’s going on…,” by bringing Catholic social teaching to the public square.

The fledgling group’s website notes, “We believe that Christ is the solution.” 

The group launched a successful online petition drive, gaining the support of 1,000 Catholics for an open letter encouraging solidarity with Black Catholics and participation at the 2020 March on Washington.

“We went there as Catholics, unashamed as Catholics. I brought my papal flag and put a crucifix on top,” said Hyman, adding, “we went there as a sign of contradiction to fellow Catholics” hesitant to join the effort because of concerns over Black Lives Matter. 

Like Bentley, he said their participation did not amount to endorsing all the views of that organization, but was meant to show solidarity with the cause of racial justice, while remaining faithful to Catholic teaching. Witnessing to their faith there demonstrated that “this is where we need to be,” he said.

James Titus Boll of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, stands with other members of the group Catholic Social Action who joined the Aug. 28, 2020 March on Washington. He cofounded the related Catholic group Tradistae. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

The march for justice

Another young adult gathered with the Catholic Social Action members at the march, James Titus Boll, had cofounded a related Catholic group called Tradistae. That group on its website notes, “We are committed to proclaiming and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the works of mercy, intentional community, liturgical tradition, and the struggle for social justice.”

In an email interview after the march, Boll said, “I hope that from now on, rather than follow others in the march for justice – deep, true justice – we might start to lead it.” He added, “I fear that our polarized political landscape paralyzes our (Catholic) witness.”

Like Hyman, he has Jewish ancestry. “My mom’s family were Russian Jews that fled from the tsars and then the Nazis,” he said.

Boll, who is 26 and works as a janitor, was baptized as a Catholic in 2013. He rode to the March on Washington from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a van with six other young adult Catholics from that area. Tradistae offers resources on Catholic social teaching on its website and produces a related podcast, and the group published pamphlets with essays on anti-racism that were handed out at the march.

“My chief inspiration for going to the march – indeed, to all my political action, and I hope my life and all its work – is Christ,” he said, adding that faith in Jesus should inspire Catholics to take action against injustice and contemplate “the Christ who resides in those who suffer it.”

At the march, Boll held a sign with Pope Francis’s quote: “No to the inequality which spawns violence.”

A pro-life issue

Another member of Catholic Social Action, Monica Consoli Domencic, held a sign with the words “Pro-life means pro-Black life. End police brutality.”

Domencic, 22, is also from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and works in customer service for an Amish restaurant. In an interview afterward, she noted that she has come to Washington and joined the March for Life against abortion for nearly every year of her life, but in recent years she has also joined protests about environmental causes and against injustices like racism. 

She believes that fighting for racial justice is a pro-life issue, and she expressed disappointment that she didn’t encounter more Catholics at the march, adding, “I do not see many other pro-lifers fight for these causes.”

That morning after arriving in Washington, the young adults with Catholic Social Action had begun their day with Mass at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill.

“Our desire is to fight for all of God’s children, and we thought it was vital to start our day with prayer and unite ourselves with Christ,” she said.

Domencic said it was moving for her to hear many of the march speakers address racial justice from a faith perspective. “It made me feel united to them,” she said.

A woman at the Aug. 28, 2020 March on Washington wears a face mask with the words, “Walk by Faith.” Some marchers, like the woman in the photo below, held signs showing that their advocacy for justice was rooted in their faith. (CS photos/Mihoko Owada)

Also joining the Catholic Social Action group at the march was JoAnna DeVoe, 24, a California native who has worked as a journalist covering education issues and now lives in the Washington area.

“I just wanted to be a part of that. It was important to be there,” she said in an interview after the march.

At the march, she held a sign that on one side had the words, “We are all human from conception to natural death,” and on the other side read, “End police brutality”.

She noted that the Catholic Church has not been immune to the problem of racism in its own history.

“We are 100 percent of the belief that racial justice is an issue that Catholics need to care about. It’s a pro-life issue,” she said.

DeVoe also remarked about how inspiring it was to see the crowd of marchers, and the people she saw included a group of men who had walked there from Wisconsin, and a group of Black women who rode motorcycles from California to join the march.

“People came from all over the United States to be here for this. That is a testament to how universal this issue is,” she said.

Like Domencic, she too was moved by “how faith-filled it was,” with many speakers talking about God and heaven, citing Scripture and praying. She noted that many speakers also denounced the instances of looting and rioting that have distracted from the largely peaceful protests for racial justice that have taken place across the country in recent months.

A day of prayer

Another member of the Catholic Social Action contingent at the March on Washington was James Zwilling, who grew up attending Catholic schools in New York and is now studying for a master’s degree in theology at The Catholic University of America.

In an email interview afterward, he noted, “I have long felt that the world needs a renewed interest in Catholic social teaching, and that there can be major benefit if the Church was able to restore her voice and influence in these matters. We at Catholic Social Action were marching for Black lives, promoting the totality of the Church’s teaching on the value of life from conception to natural death, and the dignity inherent in a person owing to their creation in the image and likeness of God.”

Like the other young adult Catholics interviewed, Zwilling underscored the importance of the witness they offered that day.

“I found it very inspiring how many people came up to us and were interested in our mission and purpose being there, we were easy to spot with a large Vatican flag, topped with an icon of the Crucifixion, and large icon of the Blessed Virgin that one of our members brought. Most people that came up to us were glad that there was a contingent from the Church there. And we met many other Catholics and Christians also at the march,” he said.

Zwilling also emphasized how “we infused prayer into every aspect of our day.”

After starting their day with Mass at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, the group prayed a decade of the rosary before the march. They stood together near the Lincoln Memorial and walked to the memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had given the famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the original March on Washington. Near the White House, they knelt and prayed a special litany for an end to racism, invoking patron saints of diverse backgrounds and seeking the intercession of Mary, Our Lady of the Americas.

A blessing at the cathedral

Then the members of Catholic Social Action walked to the Cathedral of St. Matthew, where they were able to attend Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s Mass of Peace and Justice that he celebrated that afternoon to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

At that Mass, Archbishop Gregory announced the Archdiocese of Washington's new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which will promote pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.

Afterward, the archbishop met with the members of Catholic Social Action in a side chapel at the cathedral, where he spoke with them, thanked them for participating in the march and gave them a blessing.

The Catholic young adults said that the Mass and blessing offered a perfect ending to their march on Washington.

“It was so critical what we were doing, marching against injustice,” said Jacob Hyman. “This moment (at the cathedral) felt like the climax of the march. Everything we marched for, the signs, everything, was taken up to prayer and offered to God.”

JoAnna DeVoe said that starting and ending their day at Mass, in prayer at a Catholic church, “put all my work in proper context.” Like the others, she expressed gratitude for Archbishop Gregory’s blessing.

“He was happy we showed up at the march and were a witness, and he asked God to bless us for what we’re doing,” she said.

After the Mass at the cathedral, the members of Catholic Social Action prayed a litany for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

The march goes on

Reflecting on what they would do after the march, Hyman said, “For Catholic Social Action as we continue (this) work, everything we do has to start and end in the chapel. That’s where we get our strength, and that’s why we’re engaged in social justice.”

The home page of website for Catholic Social Action shows a large black and white photo from about six decades ago, of a group of Catholic priests and women religious joining civil rights marchers.

“It helps us to see that we're not alone, and that we're not the first one to do this. It humbles us knowing that the fight for justice is a long fight that may not end with us,” said Hyman, who said the group would continue its work promoting Catholic social teaching and encouraging Catholics to take action on those teachings.

“We all have our own role in this, so much work against injustice needs to be done,” he said.

Monica Consoli Domencic said Catholics need to be awakened “to the need for these causes.”

Christian Bentley, whose parish church founded by family members and whose cherished photographs of emancipated ancestors offer a reminder of the deep roots of his faith as a Black Catholic, agreed with the urgency of Catholics working for racial justice.

As he said, for him, the issue of racism is personal.

“This is something we have to fix,” he said.