Martin Luther King Jr. celebration highlights perseverance, faith of black Catholics
Jan. 23, 2018
Just two days before what would have been the 89th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach held a Jan. 13 movie screening, discussion, a performance of praise and worship music, and a Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Largo to celebrate the legacy of the civil rights leader, discuss the ongoing challenge of racism and to highlight the hope that black Catholics find through their faith.
This celebration was held two days after President Donald Trump, during a White House meeting with members of Congress where immigration reform proposals were discussed, reportedly used derogatory language to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and the nations of Africa. The president later denied using the vulgar expression reported in the press, while others present at the meeting offered different accounts of what the president said. The congregation at the Mass honoring Dr. King sang “Heal our Land, Lord” in solidarity with several other dioceses across the country that were singing the song that weekend.
At the start of the Mass, Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, read a statement from the National Black Catholic Congress saying that group "strongly condemns" the words reportedly said by President Trump "regarding our sisters and brothers from Haiti, El Salvador and the nations of Africa. As people of faith, concerned with the dignity of all God’s people, we deplore such racist and hateful speech…We will continue to act justly, love goodness and walk humbly with our God and all of God’s people.”
The front of the program for the Mass included a statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about the ongoing reality of racism.
“In recent years – including last summer in Charlottesville – we have glimpsed an appalling truth that lurks beneath the surface of our culture. Even with all the progress our country has made on the issue, racism remains a living reality,” said Cardinal DiNardo in the statement. “As our nation celebrates the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are given an important time to recommit ourselves to the Gospel message he preached, that the sin of racism can be defeated by active love and the light of faith.”
The day began with a screening of the documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay, which traces the history of mass incarceration in the United States, and in particular how it reveals ongoing racial inequality.
The name of the film refers to the 13th amendment, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
The film argues that the prison system in the United States, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, has functioned as a modern-day form of slavery, creating a way for people in power to continue to repress black citizens after slavery and segregation have become illegal.
In one example, the documentary highlighted how the war on drugs disproportionately affected black communities. In the 1980s, the legal penalties for crack cocaine, which was more heavily used in the inner city, were significantly heavier than those for cocaine, which was used in more affluent communities, the film noted.
As a result of the crackdown on drugs, as well as other pieces of legislation related to crime, the prison population in the United States escalated from about 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.2 million in 2015. According to the film, while black men currently make up only 6.5 percent of the country’s population, they make up 40.2 percent of the prison population.
Following the movie screening, the audience discussed what they had watched. Kately Javier, the coordinator of adult formation and Hispanic catechesis for the Archdiocese of Washington, was inspired to ask the Office of Cultural Diversity to screen this film after she noticed that it was listed in the pastoral toolkit for Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s recent pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today.
The part of the film that stood out to her, she said, was the line, “The solution for criminalization is humanization,” because it is something she thinks Catholics are uniquely positioned to speak about.
“In our understanding, being pro-life, protecting human dignity in all forms, (we can) share the human story of all people,” including people who are behind bars as well as the unborn, she said.
One woman, who had attended the movie screening with her 10-year-old son, said while she was a little nervous to show the film to him, she decided to do so anyway.
“He’s got to know where he’s going, what he’s up against,” she said. “It’s not going to be easy, but with God, the Holy Spirit, (and) this village around him, he is going to be okay.”
Another woman mentioned the importance of everyone sharing his or her own experiences in order to shed light upon the ongoing challenge of racism.
“The words may have changed, but the battles stay the same,” she said.
Deacon Timothy Tilghman from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington noted the legacy of faith in black communities. He told the Catholic Standard that his family has been attending Our Lady of Perpetual Help since the parish was founded in 1920, with his great grandparents being present when it opened.
“People of color are people of faith, and faith carries the day,” he said, adding that previous civil rights victories happened “because of the faith of the people who came before us” and “acting on that faith is the thing that is going to turn it around (for us).”
As he opened his highlighted, personal copy of the cardinal’s pastoral letter following the discussion, Tilghman said, “Until you walk with people who suffer, that (suffering) will continue…and we are called to do that as Church.”
The strong faith he spoke about was displayed by the Archdiocese of Washington Gospel Mass Choir, as they sang praise and worship music inside the sanctuary of St. Joseph following the film screening. One song featured the lyrics “There is hope” sung repeatedly, and another included the words, “I am freed by the Word of God.” People stood up, clapped their hands and sang along. Others remained seated, with their hands clasped, silently praying along with the music.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr. – who also serves as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish – was the principal celebrant of the Mass, and Msgr. Eddie Tolentino, the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Silver Spring, was the homilist.
During that day, they were celebrating “the light and faith that Dr. King brought,” as well as “the road we still have to trod,” said Msgr. Tolentino. Among the qualities that Dr. King had that are worth celebrating, he added, are his spiritual strength, his humanity, his leadership, his non-violence, and “his quest for the civil rights of every single one of us.”
As Msgr. Tolentino reflected on what Martin Luther King’s legacy is, he also spoke about the legacy of each of the people in the congregation.
“Whether we appreciate it or not, God is working in us right now,” he said. “Everything you’ve done today that has been good has been eternally in God’s plan.”
Msgr. Tolentino noted the plight of various different groups, including immigrants who are living in the midst of “fear and insecurity,” the hungry, and those who have been physically and sexually assaulted.
“Every single one of those is because of our failure to love one another according to the example of Jesus Christ,” he said, calling the people gathered to act on behalf of marginalized groups. “…We celebrate the legacy (of MLK Jr.) by our not being indifferent.”
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