Black Catholic Voices
Black Catholic Voices: Priest chaplain at Howard University says drawing on faith, learning history can foster racial understanding, healing
Dec 19, 2020
Father Robert Boxie III, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who serves as the Catholic chaplain at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and is in residence at Immaculate Conception Parish, was interviewed for the Black Catholic Voices series on Nov. 18, 2020 by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor. The following is the transcript and a video of the interview with Father Boxie, which took place at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington.
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Father Robert Boxie – “My faith journey as an African American Catholic has been one that’s been constant my entire life. I am originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I grew up in a very vibrant Black Catholic faith. We had Black priests there during my whole time there. It’s a parish that just celebrated its centennial last year and we also boast of two African American bishops for the United States. Bishop Harold Perry, who was the first black bishop of the modern era, and, also, Bishop Leonard Olivier.”
(Bishop Perry, a member of the Society of the Divine Word, was appointed as an auxiliary bishop in New Orleans in 1965 and served there until his death in 1991. Bishop Olivier, also a member of the Society of the Divine Word, served as an auxiliary bishop of Washington from 1988 until his retirement in 2004 and died in 2014.)
“Both of them were from my hometown and from my home parish and this was the community, the faith community that raised me, that I grew up in, and that really gave me a really great gift, an incredible gift of the love of God, of faith in God, of perseverance, of being proud of who I was as a Black Catholic. And so my faith has really been something extremely important to me my entire life.
“My parents instilled in us, learn how to pray, they taught us how to pray. Going to Mass every weekend, we talked about faith in the home. We prayed together in our home, and even when I went off to college, the one thing that my dad told me to do, in addition to studying hard and doing what I was supposed to do in class, he told me to, ‘Make sure you go to Mass on Sundays. Make sure you go to Mass on Sundays.’ And the days that I would normally talk to my parents was Sunday evenings, and he would always ask me, ‘Did you go to Mass today? Did you go to Mass today?’ And I never wanted to lie to him or disappoint him, so that encouraged me and inspired me to make sure that at least I went to Mass. But in doing that, in going to Mass on my own, the faith became something that was important to me. It wasn’t something I just did with my parents growing up, but during that time, especially in college, it was something that I took ownership for myself. So I’m very thankful and grateful for that upbringing and that background and that formation growing up back then.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped our life?
Father Robert Boxie – “The witness that I’ve learned from other Black Catholics is perseverance. It is a deep faith that runs deep despite the fact of discrimination, of injustice, of being treated, literally, as second-class citizens. It’s a faith that knows who God is, who truly knows who God is and who Jesus Christ is, despite the fact that those around us may not know who that is, may not know who the person of Jesus is. And it’s extremely inspiring, it’s encouraging. It’s something that I lean on when I’m having my struggles or difficulties or doubts, knowing that there were individuals who came before me who had to experience and endure conditions much worse than what I live in right now, so it’s something that’s encouraging. It’s something that makes me proud to be a Catholic. It’s something that wants me to incorporate everything that they’ve fought for, everything that they’ve taught me, to continue and preach that and share that as a disciple of Christ, as a priest, and in this new role as chaplain at Howard University.”
Father Robert Boxie (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Father Robert Boxie – “There’s an experience that I’ve had of racism. I sort of experience a lot of slights or insensitive comments or having to explain things to individuals who don’t really know the impact or what their words or their statements mean. So, I sort of deal with that on a fairly regular basis, but there was one incident in particular when I was in seminary, I had just arrived at the North American College in Rome, and as I was moving my stuff into my room, my next door neighbor, his door was open and he had a Confederate flag in his room.
“And I had just arrived there and I saw this, and I sort of became extremely discouraged and thought to myself that I'm going to have to address this, confront this, and deal with this. And this individual, he actually was a nice guy. He was a good guy. He was young, a little bit immature. But I told him, because he was my next door neighbor and he would often have a lot of guys that would come to his room to hang out, and I told him that I cannot go into your room with that flag hanging in your room. And I told him what it means to me, the history of it, and shared the thoughts and feelings that come to mind that this flag conjures up in the mind of an African American. And like I said, he wasn’t a bad guy. I think that this is just what he learned. This is just what he grew up with. And eventually, after several weeks, he did take it down. The other thing that was upsetting about that was no one else in the seminary thought it was a problem either. So, being the only African American at that particular time in the seminary, I was the one to have to carry that burden, to deal with it.
“There is a happy ending to this story. This individual eventually discerned out of seminary, and I got a message from him – we sort of lost track you know the past several years – and I got a message from him over this past summer. Considering all of the demonstrations, the protests over racism and racial violence in our country, he gave me a call and wanted to talk. So, I said yeah and gave him my number, and we set up a time. He shared with me that he’s now a teacher at a Catholic prep school. He has a critical mass of minorities there that he’s trying to get to understand and that find him to be a helpful resource.
“We had this conversation, and he wanted to apologize. He wanted to apologize, to say that he was sorry, that he was embarrassed, to say that he now understood the impact of this flag and what it meant. And he wanted to really enter into a dialogue and educate himself about how he can be an ally and promote racial understanding, healing, in the work that he does as a teacher in his high school.
“So it’s actually a really great ending to this story, and something that really came out of the blue, but I think that through personal reflection, through discernment, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be open to conversion, open to hearing the story, the experiences of the other, this tells me that we can in fact move forward together.
“That experience is a seminal moment for me, not only at seminary but the fact how we were able to have this conversation and have this discussion, and want to move forward together.”
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?
Father Robert Boxie – “My reaction to the events over the summer, these protests and demonstrations, it encourages me again that there are men and women of all different colors and stripes and backgrounds that see this as a problem for our nation, and not only all the protests and demonstrations that have been going on in our country but also those that have been taking place all around the world.
“Racism and discrimination is not something that is unique to the United States, or a particular location or nationality. But it shows that this is a problem globally, because it really is a problem of the human heart. It’s a twisting, a distortion, a spiritual sickness of the human heart, and the fact that people all around the world have realized this and want to do something about it, want to stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who are discriminated and treated this way, it’s encouraging because we’re still having these conversations. We’re still talking about this, which means that people want to do something about it, that we can’t continue with the status quo as we have been before and how it truly is striking people in a different way this time to go out and to do something about it.”
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this?
Father Robert Boxie – “The pandemic and the health disparities among African Americans, Hispanics (and) Native Americans just shows how much work that we still need to do in this area of equality, of making sure that every American citizen, every person in this country, is treated fairly, equally and has access to the same resources as everyone else.
“The true test, the true mark of a great nation is how it treats those who are on the margin, how it treats those who are often forgotten. And I think this pandemic, this health crisis that we are in, has laid bare with the fact that we haven’t really done what we said that we were going to do, or rather who we are. There is a huge disconnect between those who have and have not, and it has laid open this incredible wound really on our country.
“It’s unfortunate that it has taken a pandemic to really show the extremes and exacerbate the issues that are already there, but I think this is a wake-up call for us, for Americans, for Catholics, for people of faith, for people of goodwill, to want to go out and to do something about it.”
Father Robert Boxie (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Cardinal 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?
Father Robert Boxie – “I think this is a ‘both and’ solution, a ‘both and’ problem, that we have to tackle on both sides – not only coming from the Church, from our hierarchy, but also from the ground, from individual members of our Church, the lay faithful.
“I think as a Church we have to make sure that this is an issue that is talked about. We have to have priests and bishops preach about these issues from the pulpit. We’ve issued a number of documents in the past on racism, and recently, two years ago, with ‘Open Wide Our Hearts,’ (we’ve had) great documents from our bishops. We actually need to read them and implement them. We have an incredible faith of 2,000 years of patrimony, of tradition, that gives us everything that we need to address the serious sin of racism in our country.
“We have to look at who’s in leadership positions in our dioceses, in our chanceries, and who’s not at the table, making sure that we as a Catholic Church, which is universal, is actually hearing the voices, have the voices of all of her people, of all of her members represented. I think, also, we have to do better in seminary formation. We have to make sure that young men who are studying for the priesthood to minister for the people of God are equipped, who know the history, and are given the tools and the skills to go out to combat the sin and to help their people deal with what they can do in this regard.
“For individual Catholics, I think that all of us and myself included really need to seek the guidance, first and foremost, of the Holy Spirit in prayer, to lift up those areas in my own heart that could be blind spots or places where I struggle. Perhaps I may have said some things or done some things in the past that I’m not proud of, to ask the Holy Spirit to lift those areas up in my life and show me how do I go about making those reparations. How do I go about entering into dialogue with my neighbor, those who are different from me, those who come from a different background or a different part of town or whatever the case may be?
“The other thing I would say too, is for individuals to educate yourself. There are a number of books, movies, documents, even from our Church, so that we can know the facts, know the real history, ‘the true truth,’ as Sister Thea Bowman would say, as to the issue of racism in our country, and also the issue of racism in our Church, because we arm ourselves with knowledge. We arm ourselves with the truth. We know where we came from, so that we can know our path forward and how to do better and truly be the disciples, the witnesses, that we say we are of Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church.”
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 for our country?
Father Robert Boxie – “What has allowed me to keep the faith in my country and also my Church – well, first and foremost, the answer is very simple, it’s Jesus Christ. This is His Church. This is His people. This is His world. And so the fact that He has already conquered it, we have faith and trust in that. And for my part, I just have to be faithful to my vocation, to my ministry, to doing all that I can with God’s help to help bring about this kingdom of love, of service, of reconciliation, of peace. So Christ is my hope.
“And for our country, you know, we were founded on these incredible values and ideals that are timeless, and that everyone recognizes, that gives them hope. So they always say that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And so, we aren’t there yet. We are always striving to create that more perfect union, and I think that moments like this call us to the consciousness of our country and challenge us to do better, to create that society that we want for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren, so that they truly can live in a land where one can pursue life, liberty and happiness and true freedom.
“And what also gives me hope too at this moment is that this movement, these demonstrations that we’ve been seeing have been fueled by young people, young people of all stripes, of all colors, all backgrounds. So that gives me hope, because they are not only our future, but they are the leaders really of now.
“And so I’m also hopeful in this position that I have as chaplain at Howard University to work with young people, to see their enthusiasm, their activism, their wanting to get involved and to have their voices heard, to make a difference and to make the society that they live in now that’s more fair, more just, that’s more secure, and that gives everyone the dignity that they deserve, to be who they are.”
Father Robert Boxie (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
What is your reaction to Pope Francis on Oct. 25, 2020 naming Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals from around the world? (After his elevation to the College of Cardinals on Nov. 28, which happened after this interview, Cardinal Gregory became the first African American cardinal.) What does that mean to you, and what do you think it means to the nation’s Black Catholics?
Father Robert Boxie – “The naming of Archbishop Gregory as a cardinal is huge, it’s historic. The fact that it comes in this month of November, Black Catholic History Month, is also very symbolic, to where we are in our Church today.
“This is a long time coming. We will be witnessing and experiencing something in the Church that has never happened before, an African American cardinal. In the Church’s 2,000 years this has never happened, and we have the great gift, the great privilege to witness this.
“In addition, it puts the stamp of approval on the ministry, the service, the pastoral leadership that Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gregory himself has done for our Church in the United States, all of his accomplishments and his contributions individually.
“But it also is a stamp of approval for the community that he represents, the community that he comes from and the community that formed him, African American Black Catholics. It says that the faith, the contributions, the witness, the experience of Black Catholics truly do matter, and that’s an important voice and an important gift to the Church universal. The voice of Black Catholics will be now that much closer to the Holy Father. It will now be in the heart of the Church in Rome, in the Vatican. He will be able to share the concerns, the struggles, the joys, the triumphs, all those things that make the Black Catholic community unique, and all the contributions that we have given to, not only to the Church in America, but to the Church universal.”
“I’m extremely excited and proud, especially as an African American priest, I hold my head up a little bit higher, I stick out my chest a little bit more, because one of our own, from our community is now a prince of the Church, especially when for so long in our country, Black men were denied the opportunity to even enter into seminary here, and now one of our own will be a prince of the Church. So it’s a moment of great joy and great celebration, not only for the Black community, but also for the Church in America, and really truly for the Church universal, because his mission now extends not only to Washington and the United States, but also to the global Church.”