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Arlington’s black Catholics say racism is ‘the other virus’

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Another unarmed black man dead at the hands of police. This time, a video showed an officer kneeling on the neck of the handcuffed man, George Floyd, who said repeatedly before he died that he could not breathe and reportedly called out for his mother. 

“I’m tired. It just keeps happening over and over again,” said Deacon Albert A. Anderson Jr. of St. Joseph Church in Alexandria a week after the latest killing, as nightly protests continued across a nation already devastated by the coronavirus. “There’s a disease in this country that’s more deadly than the coronavirus can ever be. Until the reality of this systemic racism is addressed, it’s never going to change,” he said.

Deacon Anderson said he understands the frustration and anger of the protesters. While he doesn’t condone the violence, “I understand that rage as a black man myself. That anger, the frustration and the grief. It just flows over and spills out sometimes.”

His church, with about 450 families, is one of the smallest and most diverse in the diocese; it was founded to serve black Catholics in 1915, “when segregation was the law of the land,” he said. St. Joseph’s was an alternative to St. Mary’s, the first Catholic church in Virginia, where he said blacks had to sit in the balcony and couldn’t receive holy Communion until all the white parishioners had received. 

Racism should be a priority for Catholics because the church is “the living, breathing body of Christ,” Deacon Anderson said. “If we truly believe what we say we believe, black Catholics and white Catholics have to stand up to this.”

Catholic bishops agree. 

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge issued a statement in which he called the video images showing George Floyd’s murder “horrifying” and said, “such acts of brutality are unbecoming of law enforcement officers and below our national decency.” In his homily on Pentecost, Bishop Burbidge again referred to the “brutal murder of Mr. Floyd,” and urged “all in the diocese to join together in asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we may address effectively and peacefully the root causes of the injustice that we have seen.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also spoke out. Seven bishops who are chairmen of committees issued a joint statement saying they were “broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes. What’s more astounding is that this is happening within mere weeks of several other such occurrences. 

“This is the latest wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion,” the statement said. “Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. … We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life.” 

The bishops referred to their most recent pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” issued 18 months ago, and said, “people of good conscience must never turn a blind eye when citizens are being deprived of their human dignity and even their lives. Indifference is not an option. As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.”

Cecilia Braveboy is an active member of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, founded by 16 black Catholic men and women 75 years ago; her grandmother was one of the first members and her father was the first organist. Braveboy grew up in Arlington in the era of desegregation; she and her brother were the first black children to attend St. Thomas More School in the 1950s. 

“For me as an African American, this is not new,” Braveboy said. “This struggle to be included, even in the Catholic Church, has been going on all my life,” and follows “hundreds of years of discrimination and rejection.”

She notes that in the civil rights era, “people didn’t really come together until they saw on TV in the ’60s how black people were being treated,” and she sees a parallel today, when people can see videos on the internet of the kinds of police abuses that black Americans still face.

“Unless people in America see it for themselves, it’s like they don’t believe it,” she said. 

“Some people want to say America is a post-racial country, but that’s not true,” she added. “Some people want to say COVID is over and throw off their masks, but COVID ain’t over, and racism isn’t over either.” 

Still, Braveboy is trying to focus on prayer and healing, rather than anger. 

“Righteous anger is good, but you just can’t walk around in anger all the time, that is not healing yourself or others. I try to channel the inner (life of prayer) into something that’s fruitful, something that is lifegiving, as opposed to being destructive and violent. That is true for everyone who was born in God’s divine image. We are God’s children, just like everybody else, and we are blessed.”

Deacon Anderson agrees that the church, like society, is in need of healing.

“We need to love each other and realize we are one body. Until we fully embrace that, and realize whatever hurts one part of the body affects the whole body, nothing is going to change.”

Learn more

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge will celebrate a livestreamed Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice June 8 at 12:05 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. View the Mass at YouTube.com/ArlingtonDiocese or Facebook.com/ArlingtontonDiocese. A rosary and prayer service will be held at 7 p.m. To join, call (605) 313-5111. Access code: 840082. For more, go to arlingtondiocese.org. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020