Black Catholic leaders call for justice and peace

Protesters blocked Sixth and Jefferson Streets in downtown Louisville May 29. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

“Peace be with you,” the first words spoken by Jesus Christ to his disciples following his resurrection, are the same words needed as the city reels from four days of protest that turned deadly early Monday morning, said Father Christopher Rhodes.

Father Rhodes, pastor of a trio of West End parishes — St. Augustine, Immaculate Heart of Mary and Christ the King churches — noted that Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, twice, at a moment when they were experiencing great pain and in a state of turmoil — much like what is being experienced by many in the city and across the nation.

Thousands have taken to the streets of downtown Louisville daily since May 28 to protests the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Metro Louisville police officers carrying out a “no-knock” warrant in her apartment in mid-March.

While many took part in peaceful protests calling for justice, after dark, some people looted area stores and shattered windows and spray-painted their messages on buildings.

Police have fired tear gas, pepper balls and flashbangs to control the crowds. Multiple individuals have been injured by gunfire — some shots have been fired from within the crowd, causing injuries on May 28, and, on May 30, law enforcement shot and killed David McAtee, a local restaurant owner. These incidents are under investigation.

“First we must have peace. God commanded us first to be at peace,” said Father Rhodes. “The first thing Christ said is ‘peace be with you.’ We must come to a point of peace then we can have a discussion.”

“This is about reaching an understanding and addressing what’s at the core, changing policies and procedures and the way things are done,” said Father Rhodes.

The prayer intention for his May 31, Pentecost Sunday Mass was for Taylor — who served as an emergency medical worker — and her family.

“That’s what I can do. I can pray for her family,” said Father Rhodes.

Sheila Kelley, one of Father Rhodes’ parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary, said she believes prayers can turn this crisis around.

“I feel like I’m praying every day for the right things to happen and it keeps getting worse,” said Kelley. “Prayers are always answered. Keep your faith in what you know are the right things and they will come.”

Kelley said she understands the pain. She has three sons and fears for their safety because of the actions of some police officers.

“I always fear when they go out the door and I don’t hear from them. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare to get that call,” she said in a recent interview.

Yet, she doesn’t understand those who vandalized and looted the city. She went downtown on Friday following a night of looting by some protestors. The “visual,” she said, brought her to tears.

“All the writing on the buildings, the boarded-up windows, broken windows. I don’t understand the purpose of that. It’s shocking,” she said.

Kelley wonders when the injustice will end. She recalled the 1968 riots in Louisville fueled in part by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also due to the beating of a black man by a white police officer.

“A National Guard officer walked me to school (Parkland Junior High where Johnson Middle now sits). I was terrified. There was smoke in the streets and gunfire. It hurts me so bad because once again it’s happening in the city,” she said. “When does it ever end?”

Other leaders in the black Catholic community are asking the same, question knowing the answer is elusive at best.

Deacon James Turner and his wife M. Annette Mandley-Turner said they are not surprised by the turn of events in the city. It’s a result, they said, of many years of those in power talking, but taking no action to address the injustices suffered by blacks.

“What appears to be new for some is an old problem. Technology has propelled the issue to the forefront,” said Mandley-Turner, who serves as the executive director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry.

The protests “stem from systemic racism and people are tired,” she said. “They’re fed up. They’re tired of countless conversations and no action. When people come and tell you about their pain time and time again and you do nothing about it, they turn in a different direction.”

Deacon Turner, who serves at St. Martin de Porres Church, said, “What we’re experiencing is what has transpired from years of neglect by our political and spiritual leaders not practicing what they preach.”

Church leaders, he said, have talked about racism in pastoral letters, but not much else has been done.
“It has to be more than on paper. The church needs to keep taking a proactive approach,” he said.

Every person, not only blacks, has to stand up and speak the truth in order to change systems that perpetuate injustice, he said.

“For so long it’s been the black voice calling out racism and for peace and justice,” he said. Society has relied on the church to “be at the forefront” in “bringing about peace,” but “the church has taken a back seat. We don’t see our leaders speaking out,” said Deacon Turner.

Priests who have served in the black community have loved the people and provided them spiritual leadership, he said. But what they preach to black Catholics — peace and justice, right and wrong and the evils of racism — is not generally what they preach to other communities. Some are concerned that it might have an impact on “tithes and offerings,” he said.

“Whatever place of leadership we stand in, we have to speak the truth. We have to call out what’s right and what’s wrong and stand on God’s Word,” he said.

Deacon Keith McKenzie, who serves at St. Augustine, said standing on the promise of eternal life is what keeps him from turning to violence, though he knows the pain of racial injustice.

Deacon McKenzie is the co-founder of The Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum, a ministry that seeks to understand and communicate the needs of individuals re-entering society, from incarceration with local and state legislators.

He can empathize with those protesting for justice, though he doesn’t condone the looting and destruction of property, he said.

“I know that when you’re going through the pain you want to spontaneously react, but that’s not the message of Jesus Christ,” said Deacon McKenzie. “The promise of eternal life is more than enough for me to wait and not take it upon myself to lash out in violence.”

He and his son have been the victims of police profiling, he noted. As a young man growing up in Owensboro, Ky., there was a time when fear of police officers and hate groups led him to believe he’d not live to be 21 years old.

Yet, said Deacon McKenzie, “we cannot become like those who oppress us. As Christian brothers and sisters, we are called to a higher level of being. We’re called to go to a prayerful spot and to be more like Christ. That’s when God knows we’re relying on him and not self. When we rely on self we’re saying to Jesus that we have the answer to the problem more so than he does.”

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Ruby Thomas
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