Priest-chaplain: 'At this time, at this juncture, black lives matter'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As daily protests over the death of George Floyd while in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer have spilled over into some of the United States’ largest cities and roiled the nation, a chaplain to several law enforcement agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area said, “At this point, at this time, at this juncture, black lives matter.”

Father Jayson Landeza, a priest of the Diocese of Oakland, California, says he makes that declaration because “these are the ones who are being profoundly affected by police brutality.”

The last three parish assignments of Father Landeza, who is of Filipino, Irish and Hawaiian heritage, have been to parishes whose membership is 90% or more African American. Growing up in the Bay Area, he said, “I can think of all the times I was call ‘Jap,’ called the N-word and worse because I was with a bunch of African American kids.”

Father Landeza — a chaplain to the Oakland Police, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, two smaller police forces nearby, plus the regional branch of the FBI, the Secret Service and other federal agencies — said that “San Francisco Bay Area cops have a good relationship with the communities” they serve.

“The people I work with in law enforcement are good people,” he told Catholic News Service. “There’s not a cop I know that’s not deeply and profoundly offended by what happened in Minneapolis.”

He said the bad actions of a few African Americans should not stereotype all African Americans. In the same way, he added, “you can’t paint this broad picture of Catholic priests vis-a-vis sex abuse, with cops’ abuse vis-a-vis violence.”

He added, “It’s ‘Wake up, America, haven’t we figured this out yet?’ We’re not all a threat. We’re not all this, we’re not all that.”

In Cincinnati, Deacon Royce Winters had straddled similar territory.

Deacon Winters, who is African American, was a Cincinnati police officer for 26 years. Eight years before he retired from the force, he became a permanent deacon. After retirement from the police force, he became a chaplain to the city’s firefighters.

Waiting for the protests to wind down doesn’t cut it, in his view. “If the church waits until all of this simmers down, the church has not done its part,” he said. “We have to provide avenues and resources for people to deal with their anger.”

He told CNS, “We have to challenge law enforcement and our first responders in general to look at how they do things so we can really impact the dignity of life for all people.”

Deacon Winters spoke of his own experience as a police officer. “We have the requisite skills, we’ve gone through the psychological testing,” he said.

Still, “after three to five years on the job, I think there needs to be another assessment how we see things in our own eyes,” he added. “Some of us never make it back from that callousness. That directly affects police in the urban core. There are some who are so psychologically damaged, they don’t see people as human.”

He said, “In my 26 years, I have to admit that I lost myself. I was undercover narcotics for more than seven years. I was portraying someone I wasn’t, and I had to find myself — and still saying you’re living a normal life, which I wasn’t close to living then. It took talking to professionals then. … I had to find some way back and it took an effort to intentionally address it.”

Father Landeza had a couple of policy prescriptions. “You make sure that you recruit your officers from the municipalities where they’re going to serve,” he said. “They have an awareness of, and deep roots in, the community.”

He also urged “continued education about diversity. This isn’t just for us in Oakland, it’s about the treatment of African Americans, and Latinos and Asians — diversity and the changes that are taking place and how you respond.”

Deacon Winters said, “There is a culture, a culture within policing, within law enforcement, this brotherhood, this sisterhood, that sometimes does not allow those of us in law enforcement to police one another. We allow so much to happen when we know that we ought to act.”

Father Landeza said, “My pastoral associate was for 35 years a dispatcher in the county sheriff’s department. She knows firsthand the effects of racism. It is part of the nature of how you have to succeed in this country; if all you do is complain about racism, you’re not going to last long.”

He said of blacks in law enforcement, “They’re seen as sellouts, but also seen as part of the African American community. They’re also torn. These men and women have experienced racism from a culture that’s heavily Anglo and heavily male.”

“You have to take steps to change the culture,” Deacon Winters said. “We’re still addressing those same structural issues of power and how they are using it.”

Nor is it just in the public-safety ranks where it needs to be addressed, he argued, pointing to the Cincinnati Archdiocese, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year.

“We’ve ordained three black African American priests in the diocese. The first was in 1956, the last was in 1992,” he said. “In the core in the inner city, we have not effectively ministered to recognize vocations within people of color. We know that there have been bishops in the diocese who owned slaves. And there was a time in the diocese when black folk were turned away from vocations because they weren’t welcome. It’s not that they weren’t needed, they weren’t welcomed.”

While Father Landeza said many African Americans, looking at recent events, have a “profound sense of ‘here we go again,'” Deacon Winters suggested, “We’ve had more opportunity. Yet the structural, systemic problems are still alive, and the stream is still running. … We tend to keep people in power, we tend to keep people in places. We are made in the image of God, yet our systems don’t reflect that.”

He recalled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. “But to recognize a world where justice abounds, where people have a sense of their own dignity,” the deacon said, “it’s not a short fix. But we have to keep pushing.”

Deacon Winters added, “It may not happen in my lifetime, but I’m hoping in my children’s lifetime and my children’s children’s lifetime, that these changes will take place, that poverty will be eradicated in the United States.”


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