Participants say priests’ protest against racism was about prayer, not politics
Jun 8, 2020
After the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man who died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, a bystander’s video of the murder sparked protests by crowds in cities across the nation.
Josephite Father Cornelius Ejiogu – the pastor of St. Luke Parish in Washington, D.C. -- said the Church could not be silent as voices were being raised for racial justice and against police brutality.
So the priest organized a prayerful protest starting near the White House on June 8 that by his estimate drew 40-50 priests and deacons, and more than 200 other Catholics, including lay people and women religious.
“I wanted to do a prayerful march that says, ‘Enough of the killings, enough of the racial profiling, enough of the discrimination, enough of the use of excessive force, the way black people have been policed in this country,’” he said.
The effort was organized by him, not by the Archdiocese of Washington, although archdiocesan priests were invited to participate. The priest said that originally it was going to involve his Josephite order, which through its history has ministered to the African American community, and he got the permission of Bishop John Ricard, the superior general of the Josephites, to proceed with the prayerful protest, and to invite any other priests who wanted to join. The priest later spoke about the rally to Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., the president of the National Black Catholic Congress, and that organization supported the effort.
On the evening before the priests’ prayerful protest, a media outlet had falsely reported that Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory had ordered his priests to participate in a protest against President Trump. Father Ejiogu said the prayerful gathering was non-partisan. The priest said that false report, which gained traction in social media, totally misrepresented the event, and he added that Archbishop Gregory was not involved in organizing the protest.
“That takes away from the beauty, joy and the love we experienced,” said Father Ejiogu.
St. Luke’s pastor noted that “at the march today we prayed for good police officers and good policing,” and he said police officers provided security for the event, with four to five police cruisers driving ahead of the marchers as they marched from near Lafayette Square to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“While we were praying, there were police officers praying alongside us. They saw the essence of what we were doing,” he said.
This past year, the parish priest received an award for community leadership from the Metropolitan Police Department.
“I personally work with tremendous police officers who would lay down their lives for me,” he said.
But he said reform is needed, to prevent bad police officers from discrediting the uniform they wear.
“The only way we can get peace is to get reform, so the community can continue to trust the police, and the police can have the backs of the community people and defend them,” the priest said.
Father Ejiogu said he believes in the Catholic Church’s teaching on the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death, and he participates in the annual March for Life in Washington, but he said that concern for life must include young people of color who die from police violence.
“Their lives are snuffed out at the prime of their life,” he said. “I believe we should speak out about it.”
He said they offered prayers for those who have been killed, and also prayers “for reconciliation between the government and the people who are protesting. We’re asking for a dialogue between citizens and government, a peaceful plan toward a better United States, where everyone can live, love and worship their God without fear of racial profiling or of being discriminated against.”
Explaining his motivation for organizing the prayerful protest, Father Ejiogu said he wanted the Catholic Church “to lend its voice to those peacefully protesting racial discrimination in our country.”
The priest hopes participants go back to their parishes and talk about eliminating racism in society and the Church, and that their prayers will spur action.
“Now is the time for us as Catholics to lend our prophetic voices to the voices of others calling for a change of heart,” he said.
On May 31, Archbishop Gregory issued a statement on the death of George Floyd, saying “this incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again, even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.” In that statement, he also said, “This moment calls us to be the Church of hope that Jesus Christ created us to be.. Since we are confident that the Father always hears our prayer for reconciliation, together we join in peaceful, non-violent protest, action and prayer for the balm to cure all forms of racism, starting today.”
Archbishop Gregory did not participate in the June 8 prayerful protest by priests and laypeople, but Washington Auxiliary Bishops Roy Campbell and Mario Dorsonville did, as did Bishop Ricard, the head of the Josephites order.
In an interview, Bishop Campbell said people joined the effort “because they want to do the right thing and see the right thing done… We’ve got to see people as people, as children of God. That change has to come from within, and then it will be reflected in legislation.”
That requires people’s hearts to change, he said. “The way God loves us is the way we’re called to love one another.”
Bishop Campbell said some priests encouraged their parishioners to join the march, and they did, to show prayerful solidarity with those who had been marching for racial justice.
“We need to be there with them and pray for change,” he said.
The bishop, who helped lead the march, also emphasized that “this was not done to make a political statement. This was to protect human beings being killed and mistreated and not equal under the law, simply because the color of their skin is different.”
Bishop Campbell said he fears that lawmakers will “wait for this to blow over and go back to business as usual.”
And the bishop said that people of faith likewise need to have an examination of conscience on racism.
“The change in us can help change the system and the lives of those who are mistreated,” he said.
Bishop Dorsonville, who offered the closing prayer in Spanish and English, compared the prayerful protest to “a family coming together to pray and walk together, sharing the journey.”
He said people’s shared concern for justice and human dignity could be seen as some marchers carried pictures of St. Oscar Romero, the assassinated Salvadoran archbishop who championed the poor and opposed violence in his Central American nation.
Recently in his role as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, Bishop Dorsonville called on the Senate to pass a bill offering a path to citizenship for Dreamers who came to the country as minors. He noted that 62,000 beneficiaries of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program are working in healthcare, joining the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
The bishop said the march offered a chance for the priests and other participants to show love and solidarity for those impacted by racism and other social injustices, and he said such moments of prayer together can help people go forth “as missionary disciples of God’s love,” praying and working for justice.