Jesus in Our Midst: Discovering Local Hope Amidst National Distress

Servant of God Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement, was adept at bringing us to the heart of the matter. I am in a Focolare group with other bishops, which has provided much needed reminders and conversation. She would say, quite simply: “Be the first to love everyone – starting right now – and teach everyone to do the same.”

Remembering that most basic command of Jesus, let us begin by affirming unequivocally: Black Lives Matter.

The cries of anguish and anger in response to the killing of George Floyd by a policeman – what Archbishop Gomez referred to as “senseless and brutal, a sin that cries out to heaven for justice” – (and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and…) echo so many cries in response to so many examples of persistent, systemic racism in our land. Sadly, there is ample evidence to so many that their lives do not matter as much as the lives of others. In saying “Black lives matter,” we affirm their fundamental dignity. Let everyone know that they are loved and teach everyone to do the same.

Only a couple of years ago my brother bishops and I wrote about taking human persons and Holy Scripture out of context to justify injustice. In the last couple of days we have witnessed photo ops with bibles, churches, and even saints (!) in the midst of violence and intimidation of protestors, and the stoking of fears and division, drawing forceful reactions from Archbishops Gregory and Etienne, for example. As St. Paul says to the Galatians, “Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows.” That goes for all of us.

“Be the first to love.” We need to love because “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:18). We are afraid for many reasons.

These past days I have had the opportunity to visit some of our parishes and schools,  the parishes dealing with some situations of violence and others fearing potential violence. It is often the communities most affected by the kinds of racism and exclusion referenced above that also have the most fear of what will happen when voices are raised, when anger boils over into violence, when calls are made to “dominate the streets.”

These fears and frustrations are made even more difficult because we find ourselves facing a profound national crisis on multiple fronts. Here, I name only two: the immense suffering in the U.S. resulting from the global pandemic and the longstanding historical instances of oppression which find their roots in racist attitudes and practices which continues to dominate through political, legal, and economic structures. These two are not unrelated.

In the midst of the pandemic we are faced with disproportionate impacts on African Americans and other communities of color. For example, recent data shows that African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two, or in some cases three or more times greater than expected, based on share of population. Also, as recent statistics show, in the majority of states Latinos make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population. In addition to pre-existing health disparities, which are a legacy of structural discrimination in access to health and wealth, it is also the case that African Americans and Latinos, for example, are “disproportionately represented in essential frontline jobs that can’t be done from home, increasing their exposure to the virus.”

At the same time we are aware of our history. Here in Orange County, we know (or should know) from place names and stories the shadow side of our story: the destruction of Chinatown in my own community that I call home of Santa Ana in 1906; an Anaheim City Council whose members were all KKK in the 1920s; the burning of crosses in front of religious sisters (The Dominican Sisters at St. Catherine’s and the Sisters of St. Joseph) and a KKK rally attracting 20,000 people at what is now Pearson Park in Anaheim; the discrimination against Latinos and blacks at public pools and, of course, the Mendez et al v. Westminster segregation case that was a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education. And these days, as I was reading a history book about my own home town of Springfield, Illinois I saw the faces of African American families displaced during the race riots of 1908 looking out at me, an event which my grandparents well remembered. But there are always counter stories all the way up to the present. Just in the past couple of days, after hearing about a potentially violent gathering organized, Anaheim educators and other leaders hosted a large, peaceful rally at nearby La Palma Park to address current injustice and seek a way forward. I think also of the Vietnamese community finding a home in Orange County, working for equality, and helping our community to flourish. We would not be who we are without the vibrant role of Vietnamese, Latino, Korean, African American, European American, and so many other Catholics in the life of the Church.

As we all face the uncertainties brought on by this pandemic (and they are many: unemployment, loss of healthcare, childcare, businesses, etc.), we are mindful that racism is our already existing reality that exacerbates suffering and that much hinges on hope. Do we see a way forward? As Dr. King famously asked, “Where do we go from here?” As Pope Francis wrote lamenting the death of George Floyd: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form. At the same time, we have to recognize that violence is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost. Let us pray for reconciliation and peace.”

Yes, we are in a moment of national distress, and we need to pay attention to that unrest. As St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Even as we rejoice in gradually returning to public worship in our parishes, we cannot help but also recognize and lament that we are not yet “all together in one place” (Acts 2:1), physically and socially. As a society and even as a Church we remain separate, unequal and seemingly unable in our facing the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. We have a mission to engage in and God-given work to do.

And yet we know that there is a way forward: “Jesus in our midst.” Although we are not yet “all together in one place,” we can start, “where two or more.” We, as clergy and lay faithful, can and must look for ways to demonstrate solidarity, to listen to those distressed, to love one another. I conclude with another word from Chiara Lubich (https://www.focolare.org/en/chiara-lubich/spirituality-of-unity/gesu-in-mezzo/), which beautifully states, and as a “Bishop friend” of Focolare I am proud to offer here:

“Where two or more”: these divine and mysterious words, very often, when being acted on, appear wonderful. Where two or more… and Jesus doesn’t specify who. He leaves it anonymous. Where two or more … regardless of who they are: two or three repentant sinners who meet in His name; two or more young people as we were; two: an old person and a child. Where two or more…  In living those words, we have seen barriers fall on every front. Where two or more… people of different countries: the barrier of nationalism fell. Where two or more… of different racial backgrounds: the barrier of racism fell. Where two or more… also between people who have been opposites through culture, social background, age… All could be – had to be – united in the name of Christ.

“The presence of Jesus in our midst was a formidable experience. His presence was abundant reward for every sacrifice made, justified every step taken in this journey, closer to Him and for Him, gave sense to things, circumstances, comforted sufferings, tempered excessive joy. And whoever among us, without cynicism and reasoning, believed in His words with the enchantment of a child and put them into practice, enjoyed this foretaste of heaven, which is the kingdom of God in the midst of people united in His name.”

To Learn More:

Combatting Racism Resources

Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love (a pastoral letter against racism)