Staci Martin, adopted from Korea, describes how the killing of six Asian women this spring brough back memories of her youth, “when I couldn’t understand why God made me brown.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Staci Martin, adopted from Korea, describes how the killing of six Asian women this spring brough back memories of her youth, “when I couldn’t understand why God made me brown.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

"Have you ever wondered how it feels to be parents who cannot protect their children?” asked Salome Manyenga, standing behind the pulpit at St. Philip Neri Church in Southeast Portland.

“Have you ever had the feeling, ‘I can’t forgive myself because of what happened and I wasn’t able to help’? I will tell you. It is very painful.”

Manyenga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the mother of five Black sons, spoke during a vigil for racial equity and justice May 7. The event, which included songs, prayers, Scripture readings and testimonies, is one of several new racial justice initiatives of St. Philip Neri’s Peace and Justice Commission.

One of the vigil’s readings was on the good Samaritan. The parable tells how after a man is attacked by robbers, a priest and a Levite ignore him. It is a Samaritan, a social outcast, who eventually comes to his aid.

“Too many walk by the victims of racism without looking deeply at the wounds inflicted on them,” said Father Andrew Thomas, pastor of St. Philip Neri, in his reflection. “Many of these wounds have festered over centuries.”

The failure to work to end systematic racism “hurts those who are victimized and denies all of us the benefit of the gifts of diversity,” said the priest, speaking to the approximately 30 in-person attendees and those viewing via livestream.

He said the parable reminds us “to stand up, to speak up, to defend our brothers and sisters — that is how we love our neighbors as ourselves, not by going to the other side of the street.”

Father Thomas led vigilgoers through an examination of conscience, asking participants to consider ways they’ve acted — or not acted — against racist behavior or systems.

The first of the vigil’s testimonies was given by Staci Martin, an instructor at Portland State University who researches hope and despair, refugee education, and peace building.

Martin, adopted from Korea, said President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the origins of COVID-19 fueled anti-Asian harassment and xenophobia.

She recalled how when six women of Asian descent were killed in Atlanta this spring, “it brought me back to my young days and when I couldn’t understand why God made me brown.”

Martin recounted an experience she had as a 10-year-old waiting in line to go down a slide at a water amusement park.

“A boy turned around, and with his father towering over me, he said, ‘You do not belong; you are a N-word.’ And his father smiled and stared at his son with deep admiration.”

Martin said it was not the first time she’d encountered racism nor would it be the last. “However, when I went through the final tunnel of the slide, I emerged a different person,” she said. “I began I spiral of self-hated. Each day I wanted to slide out of my brown skin and into white skin, but I couldn’t.” It took years to emerge from her self-hatred.

But together, she said, we can build a more loving culture and systems that enable all to succeed.

She challenged attendees: “Look at your own complicity in terms of how you are maintaining the status quo and how you are making the system work for you and not for others.”

Asukulu Songolo, one of Manyenga’s sons, took a turn at the podium to share a poem by his brother, M’munga Songolo. The twins, born in a Zambian refugee camp, are seniors at Central Catholic High School.

The poem is entitled “A Letter to the Black Boys.” A portion reads: “A letter to Black boys that I can’t promise tomorrow / Tamir Rice wasn’t given that same luxury, Trayvon didn’t reach adulthood. … / Because even as a Black boy, you are posed as a threat / It got me wondering — Am I next?” 

Asukulu Songolo reads a poem by his twin brother, M’munga Songolo, entitled “A Letter to the Black Boys.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

Manyenga, offering the vigil’s final testimony, said when M’munga first showed her the poem she felt happy, excited and proud.

“But the more I listened to that poem, the more I cried,” said Manyenga. “I felt I cannot protect my children.”

The pain of the poem, coupled with other instances of racism directed toward her family, made her wonder: “Should I have put my kids in a bedroom and locked the door? That way they could be protected.”

She knows her sons’ fears are shared by countless others.

“It’s hard to express the kind of racism we get,” she said. “Sometimes we have no words, sometimes we just smile because, well, what else can we do?”

Manyenga said she has questions but no answers. “Sometimes I live in this survival mode.”

But she does have a vision for the church’s response.

“Sitting here, it is a privilege and a blessing,” said Manyenga. “Just looking at the people who decided to be here with us and listen to us, I’m seeing the positive things that can happen.”

The church of today did not begin today, it began with the efforts of people in the past, she said. “And the church that we want to see tomorrow, it can start today.”

Manyenga shared an African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” She said that must be the approach of Christ’s followers.

“This is just the starting point,” said Manyenga. “If we want to have a better tomorrow, we need to start acting now. Let us make a difference and be the light that the world needs.”