The week of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I traveled with 10 faith leaders of Minneapolis on a civil rights pilgrimage to Georgia and Alabama. Our pilgrimage took us from Atlanta, where we attended the Dr. King commemoration, to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and back to Atlanta. I use the word pilgrimage intentionally as this was a sacred journey made in faith. Personally, this was one of the most moving, sobering, and inspiring journeys I have made in my life. I don’t want to speak for my fellow clergy, but given our collective debrief Thursday, this journey was deeply impactful for all – with a range of emotions expressed by our group. There was a videographer who journeyed with us to document our experience. A film of our pilgrimage will be made available soon to our respective faith communities, and three Sunday afternoon sessions are planned later this winter/spring to unpack our experience and the work that lies ahead.
It is impossible to convey the essence of our journey in a blog post so what I hope to do is set forth, near the end of the piece, emerging themes which I hope are helpful for people of faith as we work together to build a more just and peaceful Twin Cities community and nation. But first, some context.
Those open to truth and the history of our nation will learn that the course of the United States is intertwined with racial hierarchy, racial injustice, and racial subjugation – from the beginning. As Dr. King prophetically noted years ago, our nation was born in genocide – with the brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples and the attendant generational harm suffered by our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Similarly, the slave trade, slavery in America, racial terror, segregation, and mass incarceration in the United States were founded on the dehumanization of Black Americans. A clear thread runs through these epochs of American life.
That Native Americans and Black Americans have suffered acute generational trauma and deep scars from this pervasive dehumanization and attendant injustices should not be a surprise to anyone who is rational or those with a heart which embraces our common humanity and dignity. That we have not come to a reckoning with these deep harms in our American history and life and the acute suffering experienced by our brothers and sisters is a further injustice we bear as a nation. For those in our country who think that the authentic telling of truth and recounting of history is tantamount to “critical race theory” are perpetuating a further lie and attempting to continue the arc of injustice and the desperate grasp at power. As Dr. King again prophetically said, a lie cannot live forever and that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Dr. King’s resolute sense of hope in the midst of pervasive injustice was born of his faith in a God of justice – a God who journeys with the oppressed – a God who liberates and heals. To those who might be confused about what is true in the history of our nation, come to the south – journey in the steps of the foot soldiers for justice – open your minds and hear the stories of what was, what is, and what can be.
For the past several years, I have been immersed in the work of restorative justice (RJ) – specifically in the context of helping name and heal the harm from the scourge of clergy abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. In addition, my colleague Julie Craven and I lead a new Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH) at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Restorative justice is rooted in the Indigenous practices of First Nation peoples of North America and New Zealand. These practices were employed in response to harm, which included various leaders and members of the community. RJ has now become a world-wide movement, effectively employed across various professions and disciplines. RJ has proliferated globally because of its effectiveness, its adaptability to various circumstances, and because it includes various stakeholders. To be sure, restorative justice is not a panacea and its possible use must be thoughtfully discerned.
The connection between restorative justice and Catholic social teaching (CST) is manifold in their respective goals and methodologies – to prophetically name harm and injustice with the goal of promoting accountability and fostering restoration and healing. Both RJ and CST promote the attainment of justice and personal and collective flourishing. One of the most important connections between the legacy of racial injustice in the United States and the harm of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church is the dehumanization of victims, the abuse of power, and, in the wake of harm, the move to blame those who have been harmed. To quote my late friend Tom Johnson, former County Attorney of Hennepin and victim-advocate, this response, in each case, represents an inversion of the moral order. Recently, a group of Catholics formed to begin a National Catholic Restorative Justice Initiative aimed at helping memorialize and heal the harm of clergy abuse. I am heartened to be part of this new group. Dr. King’s stated truth that we are connected in a web of mutuality links both the injustices experienced by our sisters and brothers from the abuse of power as well as our path forward in the pursuit of justice.
I come away from our civil rights pilgrimage even more emboldened to enter into the vital work of justice and healing. Both in the area of racial injustice and in the case of harm from sexual violence and the abuse of power, truth-telling is critical, as is the importance of stories and empathetic listening. In each case, harm needs to be clearly named and acknowledged, harm needs to be repaired, and unjust systems which have perpetuated harm need to be transformed. For Christians, the teachings of Jesus offer both a rebuke in the wake of past injustice and light the roadmap toward restoration. The story of the Good Samaritan is paradigmatic of Jesus’s mandate of the necessary Christian response. We must respond to those who have been harmed and left on the side of the road with compassion and care – and with resolute determination to name, stop, and help heal the harm. Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus himself is present in the poor, disposed, and those abused, and that our response – for good or for ill – has, in justice, eternal consequences. Below, I briefly offer three themes that emerged from this recent civil rights pilgrimage which I believe help illumine the path forward in the Twin Cities and beyond.
First, one of the truths that emerged in the work of helping heal the harm of clergy abuse is that the response of the Catholic Church must be victim-survivor centered. The wisdom of victim-survivors – wisdom borne of their wounds must light the path forward. Similarly, the wisdom of Black Americans and Black faith leaders is central to our path forward as a Twin Cities community and as a nation. This is not meant to burden Black Americans and Black faith leaders with the responsibility of restoration – not in the least – but to exhort White Americans and White leaders to listen and learn from the experience of Black Americans and their insights as to effects of racial injustice and what must happen in response. This was so clear on our bus ride to Alabama, as our three Black clergy colleagues spoke with great wisdom and insight. For the rest of us, our role was to listen and to learn as we work together in sowing the seeds of a more just and humane future.
Second, storytelling must be central to the work of repairing harm and fostering justice in the Twin Cities and beyond. On our civil rights pilgrimage, it was the stories of harm, but also stories of resilience and faith that moved us. Whether it was the stories told by Dr. Bernice King or Bryan Stevenson and others at the Dr. King commemoration, or the stories of the brave children of Birmingham who defied the oppressive regime of segregation, or the stories of those who marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or those who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery – the experiences of our brothers and sisters of color, of faith, and those who accompanied them, these stories are vital to the transformation of hearts, minds, and our nation moving forward. This has also been the case with victim-survivors of clergy abuse. Their stories of harm and acute suffering are vital for a future of the Catholic Church that is more just, compassionate, and authentic. There is a reason why Jesus taught through stories. Are we courageous enough to open ourselves to the stories we need to hear?
Third, the places of the greatest harm – ground zero places – can also be the places of greatest healing and transformation. It is noteworthy that in the Christian faith, the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, is the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and the tomb where he was raised. The Paschal Mystery encompasses harm, suffering, love, passion, healing, and new life. It also encompasses Shalom – the word of the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday. All is reconciled, all is redeemed, all is restored – all is well. But first as a Twin Cities community and as a nation we must pass through the crucible. We must acknowledge the deep harm and pain as other communities and nations have done before us. The state and community that manifests some of the most acute racial disparities – Minnesota – the only state in the upper Midwest that carries the sad legacy of three lynchings – Minnesota – the state that saw the brutal murder of George Floyd – Minnesota – can also be the place of true justice, healing, and peace. This will require much from our community, from our faith leaders, and from those who profess their belief in a God of justice and healing. I am heartened that our interfaith clergy group of Minneapolis is returning from our pilgrimage with the mandate that we must and will work together to build a more just and peaceful Twin Cities community. We trust that our communities of faith will join us in this important and vital work.
Lastly, two signs of hope for the future ahead are emblazoned on my heart and mind. In Montgomery, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we were confronted with the legacy of 4,400 documented lynchings and 830 pillars representing the counties in the United States where these lynchings occurred. One of the 830 pillars was of St. Louis County where the Duluth lynchings took place. The National Memorial also included those places – including Duluth which have acknowledged these senseless and violent murders, as well as the deep harm and shame that attends these privations of life and liberty. This is the only path forward for a nation born in genocide and prospered on the backs and spent lives of Indigenous and Black Americans. My final sign of hope was at this very same site in Montgomery, which chronicles so much harm and devastation. Here, on this site, the dogwoods were blooming – on an unusually warm winter day, there were signs of hope of a coming spring and new life. God, who is the source of all life and justice, will restore and renew the world that God has made. Our task is to follow God’s kindly light, to be brave enough to tell the truth, to repair the harm and, with God’s grace, to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
Fr. Daniel Griffith
University of St. Thomas School of Law
The Basilica of St. Mary