June 5, 2020

A ray of hope shines through amid the violence and unrest in Indianapolis and the country

Leaders and members of many faiths gather on the steps of the Indiana Statehouse on May 31 for a peaceful protest organized by Faith in Indiana in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Leaders and members of many faiths gather on the steps of the Indiana Statehouse on May 31 for a peaceful protest organized by Faith in Indiana in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

(Editor’s note: In light of the recent peaceful protests and violent unrest in Indianapolis and across the United States in reaction to the death of George Floyd, The Criterion asked certain parish faith leaders to share their insights, concerns and hopes as the archdiocese and society in general face this latest tragedy.)

By John Shaughnessy and Natalie Hoefer

St. Joseph Sister Gail Trippett sees a ray of hope amid all the darkness that once again descended upon Indianapolis and many cities across the country following the death of George Floyd.

Yet before she shares that hope, the parish life coordinator of Holy Angels and St. Rita parishes in Indianapolis poses a question that she believes everyone must consider:

“We’re at a place where all of us as human beings have to ask ourselves the question, ‘Do we really believe what we have been taught?’ That God’s presence is in every human being.”

If people believe that teaching, then they have to see that what happened to Floyd—a 46-year-old black man—on May 25 in Minneapolis also happened to God, Sister Gail says. Floyd died after a white police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes despite his pleas that he couldn’t breathe.

“Are we willing to fight to restore the reverence and honor that God deserves as he is present in humanity? To me, that’s the fundamental question.”

Sister Gail finds hope in the way that many people have answered that question through the recent peaceful protests against racism across Indianapolis and the country.

(Related: Statement from Archbishop Charles C. Thompson | St. John pastor keeps prayerful watch over parish during unrest)

“If you look at the multicultural representations in all the protests—people of all ages and backgrounds—you see hope. As people become enlightened about the problem, the spirit of God rises up within them to find a solution. And that’s where I see the hope.”

At the same time, her recent conversations with members of Holy Angels and St. Rita reflect the pain and fear that is prevalent in black communities.

“There is profound sadness that we are in the same place as we have been—as far as the dignity of persons—for almost 400 years now toward black and brown people.

“Some of the older people remember the same indignities from their past. It’s especially difficult for [black] men raising their sons now because they worry about their safety, and they know their sons don’t have to do anything wrong and their life can be taken for it.”

She says that pain and fear have become intensified in recent months by the way the coronavirus crisis has disproportionately impacted black lives—a reality she connects to the fact that the jobs that “many African-Americans and Hispanics have don’t let them shelter-in-place in their homes.”

For Sister Gail, it’s another concern as she continues her efforts to promote a fair world “for all people,” including improved health care, a living wage and racial equality.

“If we look at everything we do, we have the responsibility to think about, ‘How do we honor God in every moment?’ And when I look at our young people who are out protesting, they understand that, and they have the courage to try to create the kind of world they want to live in.”

It’s not an easy answer’

At 72, Charles Guynn has been around life and law enforcement long enough to know certain realities about being a black person, being a police officer and being in confrontational situations.

“I have a background in law enforcement,” says Guynn, 72, a member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis who trained police officers on race relations for several years. “Officers are human beings. If they have racist tendencies or tend to be heavy-handed, it comes with them when they join the police force. That doesn’t disappear when they put on their uniform.

“The knee on the neck, he wasn’t trained to do that. He brought that with him. The reaction is that people are tired of hearing and seeing law enforcement overkill in situations.”

Guynn views racism in today’s world as more subtle and complicated than in the past.

“The law itself in many cases has instituted racism where people are treated differently. It’s lopsided in how it treats certain people, and that’s been accepted by society.

“It’s not an easy answer, the whole situation dealing with race—even in the Church. I’m a devout Catholic, went to Saint Meinrad to be a priest. But there was a time when they used to rope off areas where blacks could sit in church, and blacks had to wait for whites to go to the Communion rail first.”

As someone who met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other national and local civil rights leaders in the 1960s, Guynn shared some thoughts on how the civil rights leader focused on non-violent approaches to combatting racism.

“The thing about non-violence, it’s very easy to be violent, and it’s very hard to be non-violent. It takes a specific type of training and behavior and attitude to be non-violent.

“He [King] said, ‘Think and process before you react.’ When you’re angry, you’re motivated by a negative stimulus. He didn’t want hotheads as part of his marching group. He would eliminate hotheads from his group. He’d tell us, ‘You have to think through the process. Are you in solidarity with why we’re marching, or do you just want to be part of the happenings?’

“It’s training, a lot of training. He was opposed to any kind of violence like burning and throwing things at the police. It doesn’t solve anything. They burn down a grocery but don’t care about the end effect—now you don’t have a grocery in your neighborhood.”

Guynn worries that the violence that struck Indianapolis and other cities across the country could be more intense in the future.

“What we need to be prepared for now is [to] listen to the verdict [against the Minneapolis police officers], whether the other officers are arrested, charged, taken to court and serve time.

“If the decision is they’re innocent, it’s going to be terrible.”

Reasons to hope

For 23 years, Tim Nation has led the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis, working to build peace in the community through programs for schools, groups and businesses.

For the past year, Nation has also been a member of the Race and Culture Committee at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, trying to help fellow parishioners understand racial inequities in society and how their Catholic faith can help address them.

“The average black person in Indianapolis is two to six times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, to live in poverty, to be arrested or the victim of a police-action shooting,” he says. “We wanted to help our parishioners learn about these injustices and help our community and country become more racially just.”

Nation says he felt a “profound sadness” as he watched the peaceful protests in Indianapolis during the days of May 29-30 dissolve into the violence and looting that occurred on those two nights, leading to two deaths—including Chris Beaty, a 2000 graduate of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.

“I support the sentiments of the people who peacefully protested, but then the violence and deaths that happened are really unfortunate. It was sad to see the destruction that took place. I think there were people who took advantage of the chaos to loot and steal.”

Nation still sees reasons to hope.

“I see our governor [Eric Holcomb] and our mayor [Joseph Hogsett] paying attention more than they were otherwise. For change to happen, it will need to be in policies and laws, changes in law enforcement. So much of the frustration is around economics—living wages, ability to put food on the table. That’s been exasperated by COVID-19 and high unemployment. Things have gotten worse for a lot of people of color.

“I also have hope in the younger generation. They’re going to help straighten things out, but it will take time.”

His faith helps him through these tough times, too.

“It helps with hope. Hope is important in these times. And it also helps knowing there have been dark times before in our society and our world, and faith brings light to that darkness. It helps me keep moving forward.”

‘How do we get this to stop?’

Before the death of Floyd, Indianapolis had already experienced protests earlier in May in reaction to the death of Dreasjon Reed, a 21-year-old black man who was fatally shot near the intersection of 62nd Street and Michigan Road. According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) report, Reed’s death occurred during an exchange of gunfire with a black IMPD officer after a 90 mile-an-hour car chase on May 6.

The protests took place at the intersection, just several hundred feet from the grounds of St. Monica Parish. Parish pastor Father John McCaslin said protesters and police alike parked in the parish’s parking lot on both days of the protests.

While staying away from the crowd, the priest said, he went near the gathering of protesters “a few times just to pray.” He recalled witnessing their anger and frustration.

“[Reed] wasn’t the first African-American killed by police,” said Father McCaslin, noting that the protesters’ reaction to Reed’s death likely built “upon the hurt and anger and frustration” they already felt.

Father McCaslin sees a connection between those emotions and the feelings that drove the protests on May 29-30.

“People want answers for what happened,” he said. “I think that’s a lingering wound right there. It happened in a community that feels like, ‘How do we get this stop?’

“I think as a community we’re hurt.”

A call for change

In 1963, Marvin Johnson became the first black child to ever graduate from the former St. Andrew the Apostle School in Indianapolis.

Now at age 71, he is president of the parish council at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish.

He wishes he could say there has been a dramatic change in the country involving the issue of race during that time span, but he can’t. For him, the death of Floyd and the aftermath of violence in the country seem like pages from his childhood.

“The same attitudes have been with us in society for so long,” he says. “It’s frustrating when you see the incidents that are happening today because of police brutality and injustices in the justice system. Nothing really changes in terms of attitudes or solutions.”

Johnson believes that if change will ever come regarding race, “we will need structural changes in society”—changes that have their foundation in the Christian principles that have been so much a part of his Catholic education and faith.

“I would really hope that people would recognize that every person has value.

“We have people of faith at every level of government, every level of business, every income level, every side of town. We have a lot of people in influential positions who could make change, but they are afraid to represent their Christianity. When we get to the conference room or the planning sessions, very seldom are the decisions based on Christian principles.

“If we go into these political meetings and business meetings with the thought, ‘Who is going to get hurt, who is going to get left behind,’ there would be less of these violent situations where something goes wrong.

“That’s what I would like to see, but I don’t see it happening any time too soon.” †


See also: A Prayer for Racial Healing

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