Chaplains use faith, listening to help their flocks in summer of mistrust, fear

By Rhina Guidos

week had been emotionally draining at the predominantly black parish in Oakland, California. Along with the rest of the country, they had felt the
weight of two more fatal shootings of black men by police.

Then things got
worse July 7 when a sniper opened fire and killed five police officers
during a march in Dallas where people were protesting the fatal shootings.

Two days later, Father
Jayson Landeza, pastor of Oakland’s St. Benedict Catholic Church, declared there
would be no homilies during his Masses that weekend and instead allowed
parishioners to do the talking during that time. What he and those gathered at St. Benedict’s heard
was sadness, pain, fear.

“My voice was not
important,” said Father Landeza, a priest who finds himself in the middle of
communities colliding with each other this summer. As national leaders call for
unity and calm, particularly between black communities and law enforcement, it
is up to chaplains like Father Landeza to shepherd their flocks through this
tense summer of mistrust and fear of one another.

“Everyone is going to
their corners,” said Father Landeza.

Many in the black
community have voiced fear, as well as anger toward police. And police feel
that “here are these people who hate us,” said Father Landeza, explaining what
some of the police officers feel when they see some of the protests taking
place around the country.

What is his role and the
role of other chaplains in all of this?

“I’m struggling with
that,” said Father Landeza during a telephone interview with Catholic News
Service. “I’m not going to lecture anybody. I’m just listening and facilitating
talking, just talking to each other. Both sides are pretty strongly

Feelings all around are
raw, he said, and there’s a lot of acrimony. But it’s also important to hear what
everyone is feeling.

“I’m a friend to both
sides,” said Father Landeza, who was with Oakland police during a particularly dark
moment in the department’s history. In 2009, four Oakland law
enforcement officers, two Oakland police and two SWAT team members, were killed
by a felon after a traffic stop. Father Landeza led the public memorial service
for the officers.

In 16 years as police
chaplain, he’s learned that cops are mission-oriented and idealistic, people who
are generally trying to do the right thing. His brother-in-law is a police officer, so,
in a sense, his mission has a personal element.

But he’s also a pastor
and he pays attention to what his black parishioners experience.

“There are people in my
parish with deep and profound pain that I will never know as an Asian man,” he

Some of that pain comes from mothers and grandmothers worried about sons and grandsons, teens, but also men in the 40s and what
can happen to them at the hands of police. Outside of those communities, many don’t understand this fear and
dismiss it, he said, but it’s important to listen and understand it. That’s why
he allowed his parishioners to express what they were feeling following the
recent shootings. Many thanked him publicly and on Facebook for allowing their
voices to be heard.

Along with the mourning,
chaplains also are dealing with a growing lack of trust for the police
communities they serve, and are trying to find ways to build trust and show
support for officers.

“I never experienced the
amount of distrust that officers experience today,” said Conventual Franciscan
Brother James Reiter, a former reserve officer who lives in Castro Valley, California,
and who once served as chaplain for the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s
critical that all sides find common ground, he said.

“Both police officers
and the public would benefit by asking God for the grace to see each other with
his (God’s) eyes,” said Brother Reiter. “The vocation of a police officer is
similar to the vocation of St. Michael the Archangel, their patron saint. As
St. Michael battled the forces of evil, so, too, must police officers battle
the forces of evil to protect God’s people.”

But are there police
officers who bring dishonor to their profession?

“Yes, there are,” said
Brother Reiter, but there also are complicated situations that police face and
that are difficult for a person without police academy training to consider. Brother
Reiter said his personal ministry is to pray for police officers daily. He opened the @brojimr Twitter account, which he uses daily to tweet support and
encouragement to officers he’s never met and lets them know that they are

On July 12, at a
memorial service for the five officers killed in Dallas, President Barack Obama
reminded the nation that “despite the fact that police conduct was the subject
of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or
chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did
their jobs like the professionals that they were.” But he also acknowledged that
despite great strides in race relations in the country, “bias remains.”

Father Landeza, who was
attending a conference of police chaplains during the memorial, said that as an
African-American, the president is in a unique situation but he also has to be
careful about what he says, and what he’s confined to saying as commander in
chief. However, “no one can deny that the president isn’t trying,” he said. But
it’s hard to get all sides to listen to one another, Father Landeza said.
Chaplains, however, will keep working at it, this summer and beyond.

In New York, Msgr.
Robert Romano, deputy chief of chaplains for the New York Police Department, attended
a candlelight vigil after the Dallas killings to show unity between police and
community. He urged people to build bridges with officers, to not be afraid of
them and greet them when they see them in public. 

In Washington, Msgr. Sal
Criscuolo, chaplain for first responders, also called on the public to consider
circumstances they may not see in a brief video. But consider, he said, that it’s
not an easy job and it’s one that asks for the ultimate sacrifice, including
saving the lives of people who may not like you.

honestly believe they’re called by God,” Msgr. Criscuolo said. “It’s a
vocation, a commitment of going above and beyond. Like Christ himself, you
might be called to sacrifice your own life to save the life of another.”

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Contributing to this report were Ed Wilkinson and Antonina Zielinska in Brooklyn and Mark Zimmermann in Washington.

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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