In sharing experiences, Ascension parishioner hopes to initiate change

| December 16, 2015 | 4 Comments
Bob Briscoe, a parishioner of Ascension Church in Minneapolis and former police officer, shares his experiences in light of the shooting of Jamar Clark and subsequent protests. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Bob Briscoe, a parishioner of Ascension Church in Minneapolis and former police officer, shares his experiences in light of the shooting of Jamar Clark and subsequent protests. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

It was 1961. Bob Briscoe was 19, and he remembers he wasn’t allowed Communion at the rail in a Missouri church because he was black; others wouldn’t have come up if he were there. The priest told him to go to the sacristy after Mass to receive the Eucharist.

Experiences like that shape a person, said the 73-year-old parishioner of Ascension in north Minneapolis, where racial tensions have run high since the Nov. 15 shooting death of Jamar Clark, a black man, by a white police officer.

Briscoe, who moved to Minneapolis from Chicago in 2006, said residents of north Minneapolis don’t want their community defined by violence. But eliminating the “us vs. them” mentality requires dialogue to correct misperceptions and stereotypes. He said parishioners at Ascension are already doing it.

“We talk about who we are and what we are,” said Briscoe, who’s retired. “We accept others as we want to be accepted. We work together for common causes. [North Minneapolis] is a very diverse community, and I have to say that the spirit is high, and people want to change.”

Briscoe has six children, 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren; with his wife, he’s raising one of his grandchildren because his daughter died from an asthma attack. He grew up in Chicago and attended Catholic school through high school. He’s also a former police officer.

He said that in his 12 years on the job, he never took his gun out of the holster. He worked in an all-black neighborhood where he witnessed offenders treated differently by race. When white cops stopped a white youth with marijuana, for instance, they put it down the drain and notified parents, he said. But with a black youth, they “put it in their pocket and put a record on him.”

“It’s all that kind of stuff,” Briscoe said. “You give these black kids a record before they’re even given a chance to get out in the world.”

He said the issue today is police officers not buying in to the community they patrol, adding that most of the police officers in north Minneapolis don’t live in the community.

“I was from that era where you got out of your car and walked down the block,” said Briscoe, who serves on the police review board for Minneapolis. “You knew the Gibson boys and the little Jones kids. You knew the kids — the little kids. That’s where you get the idea that the police love you, that you can trust the police. That’s what black kids need to see, police that come in the neighborhood and are friendly [and] treat people like they’re human beings and not like they’re some kind of animals that they’re protecting the rest of the community from.”

Fighting the stereotypes that blacks are untrustworthy, thieves and lazy is a 24/7 job, Briscoe said, citing a “legacy of slavery” that has led to large systemic problems and racial disparities. He attributes the cause of violence to poverty, for instance, and the cause of poverty to a lack of education.

“Parents don’t buy into education because [they] didn’t get a decent education,” he said. “And as far as violence — black violence on black violence — that comes from a lack of mentoring and males in the household.”

Briscoe said the stability found in a family structure, especially marriage, is key to the solution. He acknowledges that a lot has to be done, but sees himself as a role model for initiating change. He believes he makes a difference every time he speaks, because he speaks the truth.

“I don’t have to lie about this. I’ve experienced this,” he said. “We’re only 150 years out of it [slavery]. Half of our people are still caught up in the ‘Willie Lynch syndrome.’ [White people have] pushed it into our DNA.”

It’s through this lens that Briscoe wants others to step out of themselves and into his experiences, which he’s shared at Ascension and the Visitation Sisters’ monastery.

Despite the struggles, Briscoe said he finds solace in his parish, where he knows people want to be “good Christian Catholics.”

“A lot of times, we want to say we are Catholic Christians. But that’s not the right term,” he said. “We are Christian Catholics because we follow Christ. Christ [doesn’t] follow us.”


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