A small monument with signs, candles and flowers sits along Willamette Boulevard near the University of Portland June 2. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
A small monument with signs, candles and flowers sits along Willamette Boulevard near the University of Portland June 2. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Updated 6-9-20

Eight minutes and 46 seconds — the time a white Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee into George Floyd’s neck — stoked anguish and pain that many Catholics say reflect more than 400 years of inequity and injustice.

Msgr. Charles Lienert of Portland compared the national reaction to how many Americans responded to television footage of police dogs attacking civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s.

“The visual has an impact,” said the monsignor. The response to the widely viewed video of Floyd, showing the black man saying “I can’t breathe” and calling for his mother, “has shown that we’ve reached a breaking point. It’s become an icon or example of all the other terrible things that still go on in this country in regard to race.”

Protests overwhelmingly peaceful, at times violent

Oregon Catholic leaders and lay faithful have joined those around the country in speaking up about Floyd’s death and calling for an end to systemic racism. There also have been strong pleas for peace amid ongoing protests.

For the past several weeks, Oregonians staged demonstrations in numerous cities, among them Salem, Eugene, Medford and Portland. Protests have ranged in size and tone. Some have been family-friendly neighborhood marches, others massive events in urban centers. In Portland, thousands of demonstrators crossed bridges and freeways carrying signs and chanting.

A number of times protestors lay prostrate on the ground, faces to the asphalt, in solidarity with Floyd. On June 8, demonstrators shut down Interstate 84 as they called for an end to police brutality.

After the first few days of the Portland demonstrations, something of a pattern emerged. Large peaceful gatherings were at times followed by small, violent confrontations with police. Rioting erupted one night, damaging local businesses. There was vandalism and looting. On Friday, May 29, several people set fire to the Multnomah County Justice Center. On some nights demonstrators threw objects at police and attempted to topple the chain-link fence surrounding the justice center.

Protestors and advocacy groups have criticized tactics used by the police to disperse crowds and say peaceful participants have been victims of tear gas.

A federal judge announced June 9 he was placing formal restrictions on Portland police officers’ ability to use tear gas on demonstrators, citing evidence officers have used excessive force in scattering recent protests.

Calls for lasting change

On May 31, Archbishop Alexander Sample focused on Floyd and the protests at the start of his Sunday homily at St. Mary Cathedral in downtown Portland.

Describing Floyd’s death as “tragic and terrible,” the archbishop said the faithful need to descry “the divisions and the inherent injustice that still is present in our society.”

“We stand in solidarity with his family and with all of those who peacefully protest and let their thoughts be known about the need to change things fundamentally in many parts of our country,” said Archbishop Sample.

The archbishop also denounced the “outbursts of violence and anarchy that we see spreading across the cities,” saying they create more innocent victims. He asked protestors to look to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as their model for battling injustice.

In a livestreamed presentation June 5 and during a special Mass for peace and justice at the cathedral June 6, the archbishop again addressed racism, the need for non-violent protests and prayer-fueled social change.

Msgr. Lienert, now retired but who long ministered to the black Catholic community, said that while the video of Floyd captured a “disgusting, gruesome act,” it was not an isolated incident.

Studies, including a 2018 analysis published by the American Public Health Association, show that black men in America are up to 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by law enforcement.

Msgr. Lienert said he does not condone the instances of violence at protests. But he said the peaceful demonstrations make him feel hopeful. The number of young people involved, the diversity of demonstrators and the fact that the protests have been sustained for several weeks are all positive signs, he said. The next step, Msgr. Lienert added, will be to translate the protests into systemic change.

'Part of this historic moment’

At the June 2 evening demonstrations in downtown Portland, two large groups converged at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Many present were young, but older individuals and families — a few with children — chanted, prayed, sang and listened to speeches. The majority of participants wore masks. People offering water and hand sanitizer wove in between the crowd; others provided snacks and simple first-aid items.

Nancy Coronado attended the Tuesday night protest with her three teenage children. “They brought me here, and I’m glad they did,” she said.

Coronado said she was eager to “show solidarity and support” for people of color. Being among so many people lifting their voices along with their signs “is energizing and hopeful,” she said.

Fumi Tosu, a theology teacher at De La Salle North Catholic High School, has attended several of the protests.

“As a Catholic, it is for me remembering that we worship a God who himself was beaten by the police, lynched publicly and executed by the state,” he said.

The former Catholic Worker acknowledged some people have criticized the phrase “Black lives matter” and counter it with “All lives matter.”

“To say that black lives matter is another way of saying what we hear in Catholic social teaching, of affirming a preferential option for the poor and disenfranchised,” said Tosu.

“Black people have suffered disproportionate violence in the past 450 years, and that’s what we are remembering when we say, ‘Black lives matter.’ Of course all lives matter, but Catholic social teaching has us remember it’s important to start with those who have suffered the most. We will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable and the most oppressed.”

Tosu said being a part of the Portland protests has been empowering. “It’s inspiring to see so many young people leading us. It feels crucial to be part of this historic moment.”

In solidarity

Three days after Floyd’s death, Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, sent a message to Catholic colleagues in the region.

“The continuing toll of racism and hatred in America has driven a sword into our hearts — again,” Birkel wrote. “The events unfolding in Minnesota, Georgia and other locations continue the deeply troubling and horrific history of unchecked racism in America.”

The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, “to name just two, are tragic and it is important that they serve as a call to action,” Birkel wrote.

While on a jog in February, Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African American man, was fatally shot by a former police officer and his son in southeastern Georgia.

Wade Wisler, the publisher of Oregon Catholic Press, closed the company for half the day June 2 “to stand in solidarity with our friends in the church and the music industry against racism,” he said in an email to staff.

Wisler encouraged employees of OCP, which publishes the Sentinel and liturgical music, to use the time to pray for peace, justice and an end to racism and to read the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism.

He reminded employees that OCP’s origins were in response to prejudice and discrimination. The Catholic Truth Society of Oregon, later OCP, was founded in 1922 to confront rampant anti-Catholicism that was largely fueled by the Ku Klux Klan.

“I couldn’t bring myself to watch” the video of Floyd, Wisler said. “The still shot of the officer’s knee on his neck was enough to shake me to my core.”


‘Wake Me Up Lord’

A prayer from U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Wake me up Lord, so that the evil of racism finds no home within me.

Keep watch over my heart Lord, and remove from me any barriers to your grace, that may oppress and offend my brothers and sisters.

Fill my spirit Lord, so that I may give services of justice and peace.

Clear my mind Lord, and use it for your glory.

And finally, remind us Lord that you said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”