Ministries join calls for justice and change amid outcry over killings of African Americans

June 2020

Catholic ministries across the nation have joined the outcry against police brutality and systemic racism.

Workers at St. Joseph's Wayne Medical Center in New Jersey take part in a White Coats for Black Lives vigil June 16. Simultaneous events were also held at the system's facilities in Paterson and Cedar Grove in New Jersey to support the call for racial justice.

Sr. Patricia Mennor, SC, vice president of mission for St. Joseph's Health, organized two events at the health system based in Paterson, New Jersey. One was a virtual prayer service for solidarity and peace for staff members on June 10 that featured speakers from the system's five cultural- or faith-related affinity groups.

The other event were a trio of White Coats for Black Lives vigils held simultaneously outside the system's facilities in Paterson, Cedar Grove and Wayne, New Jersey on June 16. White Coats for Black Lives is a national organization that connects medical students and physicians with local movements supporting racial justice. The St. Joseph Health's vigils included brief speeches and a silent pause that lasted 8 minutes and 45 seconds —the amount of time a police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, causing his death on May 25. A video of the incident ignited nationwide protests over police brutality against African Americans.

Dozens of St. Joseph's staff members, from executives to hourly workers, joined the White Coats for Black Lives vigils. Sr. Mennor said many of them expressed gratitude at the opportunity to be part of a public show of support for racial justice.

Travis Capers, right, president of SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital, leads workers on a brief Juneteenth march at the suburban St. Louis hospital. The holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

"We wanted to officially speak out against what was happening in terms of racism and injustice," Sr. Mennor said. "We strongly feel that our values at St. Joseph's really speak to that."

In suburban St. Louis, employees at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital showed their support for the racial justice movement by organizing a march around the hospital's campus on Juneteenth. The date commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general informed slaves in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln about 18 months earlier, had freed them.

More than 100 SSM Health employees gathered on the lawn outside the hospital's main entrance to kneel in a moment of silence, followed by a prayer and comments from Travis Capers, the hospital's president. "I am hopeful and inspired by our younger generation, both Blacks and whites, who are demanding justice, truth and dignity for all," Capers said. "Each of us in our own way can make a difference."

Workers at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital in suburban St. Louis take part in an event on June 19 to celebrate Juneteenth.

He then led a short walk.

Say their names
Sentiments similar to those related in New Jersey and St. Louis have been shared by ministries across the country through demonstrations and statements posted to websites and social media.

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, president and chief executive of CHA, issued a statement May 29 expressing outrage over recent the killings of Black Americans by police and vigilantes and acknowledging the grief and anger being expressed.

"The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others in similar circumstances remind us that racism continues to cast a long shadow across our nation," Sr. Mary said. "We must respond, not in violence, but in a renewed commitment to justice and peace. Let us work in solidarity to end the racism and violence that continues to devastate the health and well-being of too many individuals and communities."

Arbery was out for a run near his home in rural Georgia when he was chased down by three white men in vehicles. One of the men recorded a video of the shooting. Taylor was fatally shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky, when they barged into her apartment while executing a no-knock search warrant. All three victims are African Americans and their deaths have been among those spurring weeks of protests and calls for reforms to the nation's policing and judicial systems.

Acknowledging anger and frustration
Mike Slubowski, president and chief executive of Trinity Health, posted a statement June 1 that referred to the death of Floyd as a tragedy.

"While these problems in our society extend beyond Trinity Health, I want to reaffirm our commitment to continue to do our share as a compassionate and healing presence for our communities, including those who feel angry, frustrated, hurt and hopeless at this time," Slubowski said.

"Our Mission is to serve together in the spirit of the Gospel. We do that by connecting with the people and communities we serve to share Jesus' message of peace and love. We can be a light for those who suffer in darkness."

CHRISTUS Health posted a brief message on its Facebook page on June 3 that said the system "condemns racism and acts of violence and will work to bring positive change when we find acts of injustice or structural inequality."

Providence Health System posted this Facebook message June 2: "Providence Health System values #justiceforall. We stand in #solidarity with the most #vulnerable, working to remove the causes of #oppression and promoting #justice for all."

Many ministries also posted photos of staff members taking part in peaceful demonstrations in support of calls for addressing racism and racially motivated violence.

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shared eight pictures June 9 on Facebook of leaders and other staff members taking a knee at its campuses. "Each day, we seek to live out our core values of Justice and Reverence and Love for All of Life," the post said. "Together, we can stand up for racial justice and reconciliation."

Don't look away
CommonSpirit Health posted three photos, also on June 9, on Facebook of staffers taking part in a protest outside the California capitol in Sacramento. "Advancing social justice is part of our mission, and we're so proud that many of our caregivers took part in #WhiteCoatsForBlackLives," the post said. "We are committed to working toward a more equitable future, with health and justice for all."

Days earlier the health system's chief executives, Lloyd H. Dean and Kevin E. Lofton, issued a statement calling for racial justice and health equity, noting that they have seen "the impacts of systemic racism in health care for decades." They specifically referenced the disparate toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on African Americans.

"We must believe that after this time of darkness, there will be a dawn," the statement said. "We both pray that the convergence of this virus that seeks out the most vulnerable, and the deplorable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others that have led to the heartfelt protests we are seeing across the country will finally be a wake-up call. Eyes can no longer be closed. Heads cannot be turned. Attention not diverted. Blame not shifted."

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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