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Reflections on Conversion and Equality

Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police, friars, like many people across the United States, have been speaking out against racism and reflecting on the absence of equality in our country. Reflections by several friars have been posted online and shared on social media. Among them are a piece by Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, who posted a reflection on the Facebook page of Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, and one by Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, whose reflection appeared on the St. Anthony Shrine Facebook page. On June 2, the US-6 provinces, which are involved in a unification process, published a joint statement against racism that appeared on the US Franciscans web page.  Later in June, HNP’s Provincial Council distributed a reflection written by Linh Hoang OFM, of Siena College, who is a native of Vietnam and a member of the Province’s Racial Action Committee.

Recently two friars were asked what concerns them most about racism and inequality – and what gives them hope about racial and social justice in the United States. Below, the friars share their thoughts,

Henry Fulmer, OFM, guardian at St. Francis of Assisi Parish-Friary, Triangle, Virginia
Henry professed his first vows as a Franciscan friar in 1988.

Henry Fulmer, OFM. (Photo from the provincial archives)

The more things change, the more they remain the same. We look at Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass – who some may consider rebels, troublemakers and agitators. But these individuals were all seeking nothing more than what white individuals were privileged to. Their true desire was for their race to be equal and to have the same opportunities and respect as those who considered themselves the so-called superior and privileged.

The issues we face today are no different than what our African-American role models, as well as our African ancestors, experienced 50 years ago, 70 years ago, or even 300 years ago. The killing of George Floyd, and the events that took place following his murder, are equivalent to a pot placed on a stove with a lid. The pot’s left to boil, the lid begins to shake, and eventually, the lid blows off.

It is my prayer and my hope that what has transpired in the last few days, weeks and months will challenge those so-called privileged individuals to look at the deleted history and mischaracterization of the African and the African-American in our history and society. I believe we are standing on the precipice of history – and history will judge us accordingly on how we answer the call and handle the sin of racism.

In conclusion, I use the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s precept – “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Julian Jagudilla, OFM, director of the Migrant Center of New York City
Julian was born in the Philippines and professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 2003. 

On May 10, I hosted a webinar titled “Migration Crisis and a Call to Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19.” The webinar was sponsored by the Order – organized by the JPIC Office in Rome – and had speakers from Asia and Europe. The conversation was framed by this one question: How did COVID-19 unearth racial and economic disparities?

At the time, black, brown, and minority Asians were dying from the virus in greater numbers (and still continue to do so). These disparities became more blatant when George Floyd died in the hands of the police on May 25. Somehow, COVIC-19 and racism were inextricably connected, with the latter taking center stage.

COVID-19 was the impetus that woke the nation from a state of racial amnesia. Amnesia because people know that it exists – many even call it a sin. But out of convenience, people negated its existence. Let me cite a few causes of this racial amnesia.

First, racism is a divisive and offensive issue. Friars, especially, can’t agree on what racism really is. This became apparent at the regional gatherings where friars asked for a common definition of racism. I expressed my hesitation to call other friars racist for fear that I will shatter those good relationships. Although words and actions are hurtful but unintended, they can either be interpreted as innocent or ignorant, but never malicious or slanderous.

Second, when friars speak of racism, they speak as if it exists out there, in another world. I think it is rather hypocritical to speak of racial injustice and systemic racism “out there,” when it sometimes can be found within.

Lastly, when people pray for “an end to racism,” I feel that prayer is sometimes not enough. To end racism is to change – and religious people have a word for that: conversion. Are we ready and willing to do that? Conversion in this manner goes back to Francis embracing the poor and marginalized – a manner of becoming one with the other. This type of collective introspection is needed to end racism.

The language of racism carries its own bias. The common parlance these days is “black and brown” people. I never hear “black, brown and yellow” people! Black for African-Americans and brown for Latinos, but what happened to the rest of the population of color? Others use African-Americans, Latinos, and API, which makes me think – what am I, just an acronym? Is the designation of Asian and Pacific Islanders too cumbersome and one that does not deserve recognition?

Then there’s the number game, which pits ethnic group against ethnic group, culture against culture – “my people suffered much more than other people,” or “we’re more numerous than you.” Here’s what I believe: when one POC is shunned or left behind, the business of liberation will never be achieved.

I hope that the call for change and the end to racism is not just a trend that goes in and out of time. “Black Lives Matter” is a fashionable mantra these days and many are cashing in on it, from NASCAR and the NFL to Starbucks and Google, and many more to follow. One would think – what’s the big interest about?

At times, I treasure the old saying that “silence is golden,” and dare not open my mouth because I’m like the brown elephant in a white man’s room.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – or a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources section of HNP.org

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