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A Message of Grieving and Hope

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Amidst outrage over George Floyd, a black man who died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, the Rev. Josh Johnson has a unique voice. He is black. As the son of former Baton Rouge Police Department Capt. Aaron Johnson Jr., he is not anti-police. His mom, Patricia, is white.

And, as a priest, he believes in forgiveness and restoration. “I have a very unique perspective on everything,” Johnson said. “I perceive that God created me for a time such as this.”

Johnson, 32, has spoken about racial inequities since being ordained as a Catholic priest six years ago. His early messages didn’t have much impact. “I felt a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, that’s not that big of an issue, Father Josh,’” said Johnson. No one is saying that now.

Johnson, the priest for the past three years at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in St. Amant, can speak firsthand to the indignities black men must endure. He witnessed the abuse his parents received as a mixed-race couple. He encounters suspicion when not wearing his clerical collar.

“If I go the gym to work out and I’m in my workout clothes, I get followed still,” he said. “It’s crazy to me. I’m not sagging my pants. I’m just a black man, and I get followed. There was one time when a member of law enforcement, the second I walked in a grocery store, every single aisle I went down he went down with me and just had the most angry expression on his face. He made it very clear to me that I wasn’t welcome in the store.

 “Finally, I just walked out. I remember thinking what could have happened in that situation if I had asked him what’s going on. I wonder if I would have been one of the people like a George Floyd, who was arrested and maybe brutalized. I have always wondered. When I see these videos and these images of people like George Floyd getting killed on tape, it’s really traumatizing.

“That could have been me. That cop had no idea who my father was. When I get followed, they have no idea that I’m someone’s pastor. They have no idea all the stuff I’ve done for the poor in our community.”

Two weeks before Floyd was killed, Johnson produced a podcast, “An Invitation to Pray: Rosary for Racial Reconciliation,” inviting Christians to pray about the nation’s racial divide with the intensity that Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. A week after Floyd’s death, a recording of his sermon, “The Litany of the Body of Christ,” went viral.

Johnson believes Catholics and other Christians bear responsibility for the state of racial relations by not recognizing and opposing racism. The reverse also is true, Johnson said. “The church is the solution. If the church came together, if the church became one and unified, then the church can go out and transform society,” he said.

How? It begins by recognizing that every person, regardless of race, bears the image of God, Johnson said. If Christians recognize that, it will change how they act and react to those who are different from them, especially if those of another race share the same faith.

Johnson also asks Christians to seek out other voices and to listen instead of speaking. He urged people to read websites and social media with ideas that differ from their own; to shop in different parts of town; to meet and engage with people of other races; to watch documentaries on racial prejudice, such as “13th.”

“Sometimes, I think what happens is we can live in echo chambers, so we just see and hear people who look like us, think like us and act like us, so everything seems like, ‘What’s the problem?’” he said. “When we break out of the echo chamber, we realize there is so much more.” If Christians listen to each other, they can find solutions to the policies and practices that divide.

Johnson recalls how New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes learned from black Catholics that a country club that sometimes hosted church events did not allow black members. Hughes sent a pastoral letter throughout the archdiocese saying no Catholic event could be held at a place with exclusionary membership rules. The country club changed its rules, Johnson said.

To Johnson, one heartening sign is how members in his predominantly white parish have responded positively to his messages. He wants his black friends to be encouraged. “So, it’s a message of hope that I try to speak to my brothers and sisters of color,” Johnson said. “You’re not alone. I’m with you, but Christ is with us. He’s very close to the brokenhearted right now. Our hearts are broken. They’ve been broken for a very long time. But his resurrection is right on the other side of the cross. It is. It’s a message of hope — grieving and hope.”

By George Morris   From: The Advocate newspaper, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  June 9, 2020

Do YOU sometimes feel that you live in an echo chamber?
Do you ever read websites with ideas that differ from your own ideas?
Do you ever meet and engage with people of other races?

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