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    ‘That We May Be One’

    A Louisiana priest reflects on the task of racial reconciliation in light of the Church’s mission

    by Father Joshua Johnson 7/1/2020
    Father Joshua Johnson Photo by Matt Pirrall / courtesy of Ascension Press

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Father Joshua Johnson, 32, is pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church and a member of Holy Mary Council 6389 in St. Amant, La. He is also the author of Blessed and Broken: An Invitation to My Generation (2018) and the son of a former police captain for the Baton Rouge Police Department. In early June, Columbia editor Alton Pelowski invited him to share his thoughts about the racial divide in the United States from the perspective of faith. The following reflections are excerpted from that conversation.

    A PERSONAL INVITATION

    My mother is Catholic and white, and my father is Methodist and black. They raised our family in the Catholic Church, but growing up, I never really felt connected to the Church and didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. We were “sacramentalized,” but I was never evangelized — until high school, when Protestants began to share Jesus with me. I also lived a lifestyle that was not conducive to becoming a saint, and I stopped going to church.

    My mom still made us go to religious education classes, and one of my friends was a white girl who recognized that there were only a few black kids in our class and never any black kids in youth group. She was very intentional about making us feel seen and welcome. The summer before my senior year, she invited me to a Catholic youth conference. I didn’t want to go, but for some reason I said, “Yes, I would love to.”

    On Saturday night during the conference, Bishop Sam Jacobs processed the Blessed Sacrament through the crowd of thousands of teenagers. And for the first time in my life, I perceived that the Eucharist was in fact the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. The first words I perceived from him were, “I love you,” and from that moment, I knew I wanted to be in a relationship with Jesus — specifically in the Eucharist — for the rest of my life.

    I then perceived an invitation to discern the priesthood. I initially said no, but over time I began to desire to become a priest. After eight years of formation, I was ordained on May 31, 2014.

    ‘I WANT MY CHURCH ON EARTH TO LOOK LIKE THE CHURCH IN HEAVEN.’

    WE ARE ONE BODY

    My greatest desire is to console the heart of Jesus; and in John 17, Jesus reveals his heart’s desire for us. He prays to the Father that there may be unity — that we may be one as he and the Father are one.

    I think this is a unique time in history, and God has created us to bring about unity and renew and restore the body of Christ.

    For years I have been speaking as a biracial man about healing the racial divide in this country; it’s in my DNA. In recent days, I’ve been so inspired by the number of Catholics, especially in this country, who have shared with me that for the first time in their lives they feel inspired by God to pray, fast and work with others to really bring about racial reconciliation.

    St. Paul says that we must make up for what is lacking in the suffering of the body of Christ (cf. Col 1:24). Every Catholic is responsible for every member of the body. If any member is suffering, whether they’re white, black or brown, we are all responsible for that member. I must offer up penances and sacrifices in spiritual reparation, to bring about reconciliation with the entire community.

    It’s a biblical spiritual practice to repent not only of our sins, but for the sins of others. I encourage people who have never said the N-word or have never participated in an institution that discriminated against people of color to repent on behalf other Christians who have never said “I’m sorry” to God.

    The rosary is one of the most powerful prayers, and because racism is a demonic stronghold that has attacked this nation for hundreds of years, I always encourage people to pray the rosary for this specific intention, as well as for the souls of our ancestors who have not repented.

    A SEAT AT THE TABLE

    We need to start with silence and prayer — listening and spending time with the Lord. We must also spend time with, listen to and learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been hurting. We need to fast from speaking so that we can hear their stories about how they’ve been impacted by unjust policies and practices and by racial prejudice and discrimination.

    One of the stories I love to share is about Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans. He noticed that a lot of faithful black Catholics were leaving the Church, so he invited them to sit at the table with him. And he heard something that shocked him: Catholic churches and organizations were hosting gatherings at a country club that would not allow black membership. This wasn’t the ’70s; this was the 2000s.

    Archbishop Hughes responded by writing a pastoral letter against racism. Then a lot of Catholics finally began to stand up against it and began to pull their money out of that country club, so the country club changed its practice.

    There are also a lot of practical ways to make things right in the body of Christ today. Support Catholic schools in your diocese that primarily serve minority communities and are struggling financially. Look at our handbook policies and see if there is anything there that might be discriminating against people of color. Add more artwork depicting saints who were black and brown, Asian and indigenous — not just European saints, whom I love. I also have a devotion to St. Michael the Archangel, but when St. Michael is painted to look like a white man and Satan to look like a brown or black man, then that sends a message to many people of color.

    WALKING TOGETHER AS BROTHERS

    When I was discerning to enter the seminary, I needed help financially. The Knights of Columbus called me and said, “We heard about you and want to help you out.” That’s how I was introduced to the Knights, and I’m very grateful.

    The council in my parish is tremendous. The Knights here are intentional disciples of Jesus Christ. They pray the rosary consistently, lead small group Bible studies, do a lot of pro-life ministry, help the poor on a weekly basis, and spend a lot of time in eucharistic adoration. Unfortunately, there are many councils that are still more of a social club. But the Knights of Columbus, too, has gone through positive reform over the years, and this work continues today.

    One thing I would encourage Knights to do is to be very aware of what groups, nationalities and people of color aren’t represented in your councils. Go out and find those people in your parishes and communities, and invite them to walk with you, so that together you can use your charisms to do the work of God in our world.

    Martin Luther King Jr. said that the problem in our nation between black and white Americans is not a societal problem; it’s a church problem. The most segregated time in America is 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings.

    I believe that we have to take seriously the commandment of Jesus, “Go out and make disciples of all nations.” The word “nations” is actually translated from Greek ethnos, which is where we get the word ethnicity. When St. John had a vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, he said, “Behold, I see people of different races, nations and tongues” (cf. Rev 7:9). So, our goal as Catholics should be this: I want my Church on earth to look like the Church in heaven. This is how I want my parish community, my K of C council, my Bible study group, my diocese and my nation to look — with every member abiding in personal, intentional, consistent relationship with each other. And until my earth is like heaven, I have a lot of work to do.

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