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Black Catholic's challenge: Make change by living out faith principles

Catholics are asked to examine their consciences, focusing on the words in the Act of Contrition of 'failing to do good'

Marie Wiering, Catholic News Service

Marie Wiering, Catholic News Service

Updated: June 10, 2020 08:16 AM GMT
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Black Catholic's challenge: Make change by living out faith principles

A woman holds a placard depicting George Floyd's face and reading "I can't breathe" in Bordeaux, on June 9, 2020, during a demonstration against racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed while apprehended by police in Minneapolis. (Photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP)


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The video of George Floyd's death came across Ryan Hamilton's social media on the evening of Memorial Day, before it was a major news story. "Oh, another one," he thought.

Hamilton said he has been desensitized by other videos of white police brutality against black men, situations that never make it to national news. He thought Floyd's killing would be similar.

But then "it spiraled," he told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "It went from 'just another one' to a world-changing event in just a matter of days."

Taken by a bystander, the video shows Floyd handcuffed, face down on the ground, begging to breathe while a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, even after Floyd became unresponsive. Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was later pronounced dead at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Instead of silence, Floyd's death has spurred protests and some riots around the U.S. The media attention it has received and the conversations about racism it has inspired, in the media and at kitchen tables, mean one thing to Hamilton: Floyd's death must be the last one.

Hamilton, a 40-year-old Catholic who lives in north Minneapolis, knows the church must be part of the change.

Hamilton grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, where he was one of the few African Americans attending his Catholic grade school. He was a track and field athlete at Wake Forest University, where he earned a degree in history before enrolling in Tulane Law School. He worked in politics in Washington and Minnesota, but now works at the University of Minnesota on creating a diverse network of suppliers. He and his wife, Melissa, have two young children and attend the Basilica of St. Mary and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, both in Minneapolis.

Hamilton shared his perspective on the Christian response to Floyd's death June 4 in a livestreamed conversation with Enzo Randazzo, men's evangelization manager for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' Office of Marriage, Family and Life.

When Hamilton moved to Minnesota, he thought he'd be moving to the "promised land" of the north, where racism had long been overcome, he said. But a friend warned him that racism in Minnesota is more subtle.

Hamilton said he had an easy time making friends, but felt like, as a black man, he had to put on a particular front to put white people at ease. It's a burden, he said. The one place he feels he can be completely himself and be accepted is at church.

"I've always been able to walk in my church and feel a part of it," he explained. "I just assume that they're going to accept me: 'I don't have to put on a front for you guys, because we're just all the same people anyway.'"

The Hamiltons sent their kids to stay with cousins outside of the city for a few days as the protests turned violent. They were concerned for their own neighborhood because they live near the Fourth Police Precinct, which drew protests after police shot and killed Jamar Clark, an African American man, nearby during an altercation in 2015. But most of the vandalism and fires in north Minneapolis following Floyd's death were elsewhere.

He looks at the protesters through the eyes of a former lobbyist, and he hopes people also will show up at the Minnesota Capitol to lobby for policy changes that directly impact people of color, such as education or home ownership disparities. "I feel like people go out and protest, but when it's time to show up at the Capitol, they're not there," he said.

Because of that he used to be against protesting, but the Floyd-related demonstrations have challenged that view. "This one has to change my heart on that, because there is a need for that, for protesting just to grab the attention," he said. "Now, the second line is to follow up with the actual policy change, and that's what I hope I can be a part of."

Because the church teaches about the dignity of every person, the Catholic response to Floyd's death and racism in general should be clear, Hamilton said. But, he added, Catholics must embrace their Catholic identity every day of the week, not only Sundays.

"It's to the point that that casual, not-being-true-to-the-principals-of-their-Catholic-faith, is in some cases actually letting that evil fester, because it's turning a blind eye to evil and letting it run rampant," he said. "So, I like to think of 'what you do for the least of my people.' Where's that Monday through Saturday?"

Jesus didn't separate himself from the poor or delegate his work to others, Hamilton said. "Jesus got his hands dirty. He lived among the poor," he said.

Catholics need to pray and examine their consciences, he added, focusing on the words in the Act of Contrition of "failing to do good." People, he said, need to pay attention and ask questions.

"I'd want white, Minnesota Catholics to examine their conscience: Where have you have failed to do good? And in doing so, I think that's where the answers will come in their role in all of this, and how to renew the face of the earth."

Hamilton said since a faith conversion he experienced around age 30, he's "led with his Catholicism" in terms of his own identity, and wants other Catholics to do the same.

"If people are leading with their whiteness, and it just so happens I'm Catholic, then that's the problem," he said. "I invite people to lead with their Catholicism, lead with their faith in terms of their worldview, and see where it takes us. I think that will be our role in making things better.

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