At site of Floyd’s death, Catholics reflect on personal experiences of racism

| June 3, 2020 | 0 Comments

Bonnie Steele, center, and her husband, Jerry, right, pray with other Catholics May 31 at the site where George Floyd was pinned down by police in south Minneapolis. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

“Are you going to shoot my daddy?”

It was a question a young boy asked a police officer 17 years ago, as he watched the officer point a gun at his father’s head. The family, African Americans, was moving into a new house in Minneapolis, and the police arrived with guns.

“It was supposed to be the happiest day of our lives,” said Bonnie Steele, 63, who recounted her family’s experience May 31. “We were just so happy and so proud. And, the police drove up on our lawn and held Jerry at gunpoint. It was terrifying.”

She reflected on those memories at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, outside the Cup Foods near the site where George Floyd was pinned down by police officers and died May 25.

“My heart is crushed that we have to endure this again,” Steele said of the treatment Floyd received in south Minneapolis. “It becomes just grievously painful to know that our lives don’t have the (same) value of our fellow (white) Christians and those that we worship with. And, it is very painful when we tell our story.”

Parishioners of St. Bridget in north Minneapolis, Bonnie and Jerry Steele were among  hundreds gathered to commemorate Floyd and stand for justice May 31. Their senior associate pastor, Father Paul Jarvis of St. Bridget, was with them.

They were there with an interfaith organization called COME TOGETHER the Steeles and Father Jarvis helped to organize following a spate of police-involved deaths of black men, including Philando Castile in Falcon Heights in 2016. About 40 to 50 people gathered across from Cup Foods the afternoon of May 31, then spread out to join a crowd of protestors and mourners, listening to speakers and hearing the anger rising from the African American community, which has seen yet another death at the hands of police officers.

Father Paul Jarvis, right, kneels and prays at a gathering in south Minneapolis May 31. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

With impassioned African Americans shouting messages to the crowd, Father Jarvis quietly made his way to the front of a circle formed in front of Cup Foods, the spot where Floyd was arrested by police. He listened, then prayed silently for several minutes.

“I was trying to use visual prayer in my mind, envisioning George, envisioning his family, envisioning his friends and the wider community and the terrible suffering they must be going through right now,” said Father Jarvis, who is white. “And, I tried to actually, at some level, allow myself to feel their suffering.”

Though the Steele’s 1993 move-in incident was cleared up, it wasn’t the last time the family experienced negative treatment by police. Their son, Sean-Michael, is the boy who had witnessed police pull guns on his father. Later, after they had moved to Minnetonka, he was walking on the street two blocks from their house when a police officer stopped and asked why he was so far from home, implying he lived in the inner city rather than in this affluent suburb. Sean-Michael also got pulled over regularly by police, Bonnie said, while attending St. John’s University in Collegeville, where he graduated in 2012 with a political science degree.

Sean-Michael is getting ready to go to graduate school to pursue an MBA. But, even that may not keep him from getting confronted and harassed by police, Bonnie said.

“His education doesn’t make a difference,” she said. “He can’t wear his degree on his face. And, he’s at risk (of negative police treatment) because they’re not thinking about his degree. They see him as a threat.”

She came to the prayer gathering to stand in solidarity with other people of color, many of whom have stories just like hers.

“I’m not unique. I’m not any different than any of the black or brown people that are standing here,” she said. “And, we have to be able to take this out of the context of individuals to understand this is a system (that has failed). To be honest, I’m not angry at any one single person that is from the dominant culture. It is the system that’s in place that continues to step on our neck, just like George had his neck, literally, stepped on.”

The answer, she said, lies in the faith she and others brought to the prayer gathering. It is what gives her hope and it is what will provide the solution to racial injustice.

“As Catholics, we are uniquely positioned to do this work — if we’re willing — of justice and healing,” she said. “Because we are a people that are grounded in relationship. We do relationship very, very well.”

That involves, she said, sitting with people different from ourselves and seeing each of them as a child of God. The way to make that happen, she said, is through prayer.

“I think prayer is what opens our hearts and creates the space to do the work,” she said. “Prayer changes us so that we’re able to go out and do the work that’s necessary.”

For Father Jarvis, prayer on the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue became a simple phrase he repeated silently to himself as he knelt at the spot where Floyd died. They were the words one of the thieves said as he was crucified next to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“In a way, we Christians are all about building up the kingdom of God,” Father Jarvis said. “building up a kingdom of peace, a peace that comes from justice.”

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