Ministries Commemorate Juneteenth

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, dramatic nationwide acts of civil disobedience against racial and social injustice, and mounting support for Black Lives Matter brought greater meaning and attention to this year’s Juneteenth – the oldest nationally-celebrated commemoration of the end to slavery in the United States. Throughout the Province, friars and their partners-in-ministry observed the holiday in a range of activities – from memorial services and vigils to listening sessions and neighborhood marches.

The holiday is celebrated annually on June 19 to commemorate the day in 1865 when federal orders declaring an end to slavery in Texas, almost two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed enslavement. With Texas the most remote of the slave states, enforcement had lagged until a Union army general rode into Galveston and proclaimed that all slaves in Texas were free.

In New York City, the four friars at Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish participated in a memorial service for racial justice – described as a “peaceful, yet energetic” event by Larry Ford, OFM.

“With everything that’s been happening, discussions at our friary have centered on racial equality, Black Lives Matter, and white privilege. We mutually decided to put our discussions into action by attending this important Juneteenth community event,” said Larry, pastor of Holy Name-St. Gregory, who along with the other friars were among 175 participants at the memorial. The event was organized by a local chapter of Veterans for Peace and held at the intersection of West 96th Street and Broadway.

Larry contacted the group to extend parish and Franciscan support – specifically offering to ring the church bells during the memorial. The bells tolled each time event organizer Ann Shirazi read the name of an African-American whose life was lost at the hands of police.

“They were very grateful for the friars’ presence and our active support and participation,” said Larry, who noted that chants of “no peace without justice” and “black lives matter” followed the readings of more than 50 names, as some participants raised signs with similar messages. The bells were also pealed as a call to justice.

The friars at 96th Street: (l-r) John Heffernan,  Larry Ford, Barry Langley, and Matthew Pravetz. (Photo courtesy of Larry Ford)

“One of the best moments that I witnessed that day was four young black men passing through the intersection as participants were gathering before the start of the memorial. When they noticed the messages on signs and t-shirts, they approached the organizers and, one-by-one, said, ‘Thank you for doing this for us. It means a lot,’” said Larry, who has been stationed at the Upper West Side parish since 2011. “It wasn’t lost on this group of young black men that the overwhelming majority of the protesters were white.”

Although he viewed the event as vital to the message of racial justice, Larry acknowledged that the experience was somewhat unsettling.

“I bristle at the term, ‘murdered by the police,’ and yet I realize that this is part of the problem, my problem,” he said. “When I take away the uniform and title, I can understand the killing as a murder. It’s emotionally and intellectually complex and confusing.”

Larry continued, “Fr. Bryan Massingale, the theological and social ethics professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, addressed this subject in a recent article that is being widely discussed. He says in the article, ‘Sit in the discomfort this hard thought brings. Stay in the discomfort, the anxiety, the guilt, the shame, the anger.’ We talked about these feelings and the article during dinner at the friary after the memorial, and I think we friars will have many more such conversations.”

On West 31st Street, Andrew Reitz, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, said the Archdiocese of New York, along with other faith traditions, sponsored a program on the afternoon of Juneteenth called “Confronting Racism in Faith.”

Realizing months ago that “racism has been a longstanding virus,” Andrew began printing sections of “Open Wide Our Hearts” – a document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – in parish Sunday bulletins.

“Although not that recent a document, it has much to say about the issue and poses many challenges. Conversion is necessary for any change – and that means conversion for everyone. It presents sections on racism within certain groups – such as African-Americans, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos. It is a document worth looking at and incorporating into any discussions,” Andrew said.

Sr. Anna and Peter Chepatis attending the prayer vigil. (Photo courtesy of Peter)

Several hours north of New York City in rural Schoharie County, Peter Chepatis, OFM – who with Sr. Anna Tantsits, IHM, operates Bethany Ministries – participated in an anti-racism vigil in Cobleskill, New York, on June 6. The pre-Juneteenth morning event included prayers and a recitation of names of African-Americans who have died in police custody over the past six years.

The vigil was reported by Mountain Eagle, which published a photo of Peter and Sr. Anna. Musician Reggie Harris, who is known for his advocacy for racial justice and programs about African-American history, performed at the gathering. Harris was a recipient of the HNP Francis Medal in 2009.

In Maryland, the St. Camillus Parish community in Silver Spring partnered with local faith communities to offer an anti-racism listening session on the eve of Juneteenth. Held at St Patrick’s Church, Rockville, the multi-parish, adult faith initiative – titled “Living the Gospel” – focused on civil unrest on the streets and discussed the quest for justice and equality for all. Participants freely shared their feelings, perspectives, questions, and thoughts without judgment by others.

On July 18, the St. Camillus youth and young adult ministries and the JPIC committee are co-hosting a webinar, “Dismantling Racism,” whose guest speaker will be Sr. Patricia Chappell, SSND, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who is the former executive director of Pax Christi USA.

In Durham, North Carolina, members of Immaculate Conception Parish have been participating in various community-wide marches and other calls to action, according to Christopher Van Haight, OFM, pastor, who posted a video. The parish has also set up a webpage with resource materials.

In June, the Immaculate Conception youth council released a statement in which the young people emphasized the need to speak out about important issues. “Our desire is for Immaculate Conception to be a safe place for all people. For this to become a reality, our parish needs to address racism. We encourage respectful conversation about racism and sharing of experiences,” the statement said.

Although Juneteenth celebrations were somewhat muted this year at St. Peter Claver Parish in Macon, Georgia, due to the pandemic, the community of friars, sisters and parishioners managed to find ways to observe. Despite not being able to attend community-based events, the parish has been keeping alive the discussion on black history and racial justice.

On June 18, the parish held its first Zoom meeting in a town-hall format, during which 27 parishioners – largely African Americans – shared their hurts and hopes.

“Since we are a historically black parish – integrated since 1970 – many of our parishioners are in pain because of police abuse of people of color,” said William McIntyre, OFM, pastor of St. Peter Claver since 2016.

“If not for the COVID situation, we would have gathered to talk after Mass at coffee hour or during meetings,” William said. “Deacon Reginald Russell preached a powerful homily on Eucharist and against racism on the feast of Corpus Christi last month. People responded online and after Mass.”

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for the Province.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to provide updates about how they and their ministries are working to promote diversity and social justice. News will be published in the HNP Today newsletter and/or on social media.