By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 11, 2020
ATLANTA—While attending college in Alabama, Maria Oswalt focused on opposing abortion rights. Now 25 years old, Oswalt realizes her younger self didn’t connect her activism and standing up against racism.
But recently, she swept up broken glass in downtown Atlanta, litter left by a night of anger and unrest on Friday, May 29, joined a rally outside the governor’s residence, then days later she was among the sea of demonstrators in a peaceful march in downtown Atlanta.
She found herself as any ally with other demonstrators in opposing police violence against African Americans.
“One of the many gifts God has given me is the desire to accompany people who are hurting,” said Oswalt. “To let them know they’re not alone.”
Catholics in Atlanta during days of protest showed their solidarity with George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The killing captured on video led to widespread marches. His death followed a string of violence against African Americans in 2020, including the fatal shootings of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, by white men in Brunswick, Georgia; and a black woman, Breonna Taylor, 26, in her Kentucky home by white police officers in March.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, a broad group of the faithful are getting engaged in the racial justice issue. Priests walked alongside marchers. Ministries connected people with video calls to learn more about the impact of racism while others allowed people to express their feelings about current events. At parishes, Eucharistic adoration and special prayers are dedicated to the cause.
Standing in solidarity
Oswalt said she’s attended the Right to Life March in Washington many times. For her, it is clear how opposing abortion is tied also to being an advocate for human dignity.
“When I show up to a Black Lives Matter rally, or when I stand as a pro-life advocate outside an abortion facility, I am standing in solidarity with a group of human beings whose lives have been treated as disposable for far too long,” she said.
Oswalt works at a nonprofit human rights organization and is inspired by the spirituality of activist Dorothy Day, who has been recognized by the Vatican as a “Servant of God.”
“We need to really take the time to listen because it’s not just by chance that an entire community is crying out for justice. People are really hurting,” she said.
At Atlanta’s Our Lady of Lourdes Church, some 100 people participated in a video conference call. The church was the first African American Church in Atlanta.
The 45-minute program included “scripture of lamentations,” a reflection and silence, said pastor Dominican Father Jeffery Ott. People expressed “a lot of solidarity, a lot of anger and frustration,” he said. “Many of our white parishioners felt terribly saddened. Black parishioners were just upset and angry and exhausted.”
Plans are underway in the parish on how to reflect and move forward.
“There was an affirmation at Lourdes we are together. We do have hope in that,” said Father Ott.
Encountering our neighbors
In Atlanta, there is a legacy of Catholic church leaders supporting the civil rights movement. Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., in one of his early public statements since his installation in May, said, “The sin of racism continues to haunt America.”
The archbishop urged protestors to adopt a spirit of non-violence, quoting from Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He urged believers to “encounter our neighbors in love and let us join in prayer and work for an end to racism. In the words of Pope St. Paul VI, ‘If you want peace, work for justice.’”
In Marietta, Richard Powers kept a morning vigil for almost a week near the St. Ann Church, holding a sign stating Black Lives Matter.
As a white retired teacher and a Catholic, he thought of his students as he sat roadside.
“I didn’t teach black children. I didn’t teach white children. I taught children of God,” he said.
Watching the news, the 69-year-old Powers felt he could contribute best to the cause by sitting on Roswell Road Street with his sign.
“My purpose was to spread the word that black lives matter and they always have,” he said.
He said the response has been uplifting, with signs of encouragement and offers of bottled water.
“Through the grace of God, we will get through this in a positive way,” said Powers, who lives in Florida but is visiting his son.
Powers said he centers his Catholic faith on hope, love and charity.
“I don’t think you can go too wrong,” he said.
At Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, the Young Adult Ministry hosted an hour video call to learn about the black Catholic experience from a staff member of the LifeTeen ministry.
Paul Albert, the son of Haitian immigrants, read the Gospel account of how Jesus took friends into the Garden of Gethsemane during his time of need, but they failed him.
“That is what the black church is screaming today. Be with us. Suffer with us. Do not run away from the suffering,” Albert said, whose voice broke with emotion. “Do not turn away from it because it is too much but suffer with us. The black community is suffering.”
Ministry leader Sarah Gillingham said her friend’s treatment at the hands of police brought her to tears. The gap between the life of young adults at the church and what they see going on in downtown Atlanta can be vast, so hearing stories of Albert’s experience makes it personal, she said.
“Our goal is not to let this be a one-time thing,” said Gillingham.
A group of the Atlanta faithful planned to peacefully march the afternoon of June 11, beginning from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to raise collective voices against the sin of racism.
Catholic school leaders also encouraged their communities to take up the social justice challenge.
In an open letter, Steve Spellman, principal of St. Pius X High School, wrote that confronting racism is a task for the white community.
“The need to confront racism and long-standing injustices is a task for everyone. It cannot fall solely on people of color. As Catholics, we need to imitate Christ and combat racism with love. We need to lift people of color up with our actions, our support, our prayers and with our hearts,” he said.
Samantha Smith, staff writer, has shared a blog post about racism as a pro-life issue.