For Minn. pas­tor, ‘it’s my job to show the hope’

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD - BY GIO­VANNA DELL’ORTO

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As an African Amer­i­can pas­tor who serves as a chap­lain in the Min­neapo­lis po­lice precinct where the white of­fi­cer charged with mur­der­ing Ge­orge Floyd worked, the Rev. Charles Gra­ham be­lieves he is ex­actly where God in­tended.

“God is put­ting us where he wants us to be,” said Gra­ham, pas­tor emer­i­tus at Mace­do­nia Bap­tist Church in

Min­neapo­lis and chap­lain at the 3rd Precinct for six years. “I know it’s my job to show the hope. We might as well learn how to live to­gether.”

Gra­ham and other Twin Cities faith lead­ers who min­is­ter to com­mu­ni­ties his­tor­i­cally rav­aged by racial in­jus­tice know their neigh­bor­hoods are also the most vul­ner­a­ble to poverty and crime. Most of the worst loot­ing and van­dal­ism this week struck long-es­tab­lished Na­tive Amer­i­can and African Amer­i­can ar­eas that more re­cently be­came home to large groups of Hmong, So­mali and Latino mi­grants.

Firm in their de­nun­ci­a­tion of bru­tal­ity and racism, the re­li­gious lead­ers be­lieve that us­ing faith to build bridges be­tween law en­force­ment and the com­mu­ni­ties they po­lice will ul­ti­mately keep every­one safe.

“We’re bet­ter to­gether,” said Joan Austin, a min­is­ter at New Cre­ation Bap­tist Church in Min­neapo­lis and a chap­lain in the 5th Precinct, which was en­gulfed in violent protests the night after the third precinct was torched. “I lift [of­fi­cers and con­gre­gants] up in prayer ev­ery sin­gle night.”

Pray­ing with po­lice of­fi­cers be­fore they go on duty, bring­ing them into meet­ings with the com­mu­ni­ties they serve but of­ten don’t live in, and try­ing to break down mu­tual fear and sus­pi­cion are some of the ways in which chap­lains serve both their con­gre­ga­tions and their precincts.

“The rea­son I work with the po­lice depart­ment right

now is that I want to help the cul­ture change,” Gra­ham said. “Some po­lice­men think they’re in charge of black folks. If you’d treat me as some­one that’s im­por­tant too, it would be so much bet­ter.”

Even as he strug­gles with his own sense of help­less­ness, Carl Valdez, a long-time deacon at In­car­na­tion / Sa­grado Co­razón de Jesús, has been spend­ing long hours at the 5th Precinct where he’s chap­lain, urg­ing the of­fi­cers not to give in to anger or that same help­less­ness.

“There’s a cul­ture of ‘the com­mu­nity is against us and we have to pre­tend that we’re not an­gry or afraid with all that,’ ” Valdez said.

As the long-time deacon at In­car­na­tion / Sa­grado Co­razón de Jesús, the spir­i­tual home of a large Span­ish-speak­ing com­mu­nity that of­ten car­ries the mem­ory of abuses in home coun­tries, he knows how cru­cial it is to build re­la­tion­ships.

Be­fore he be­came chap­lain, mul­ti­ple squad cars showed up at the church after a neigh­bor called po­lice on a group of Lati­nos there. It was a fam­ily do­ing vol­un­teer re­pairs to the cen­tury-old build­ing.

Since then, the parish com­mu­nity and the po­lice have held reg­u­lar di­a­logue. Uni­formed of­fi­cers shared tamales at the cel­e­bra­tion of Our Lady of Guadalupe and kept an eye on traffic dur­ing pan­demic food drives in which 90 tons of food were do­nated to nearly 3,000 house­holds.

“Poor peo­ple and those on the mar­gins are more likely to be preyed upon and build­ing good re­la­tion­ships with law en­force­ment is cru­cial to pro­tect this com­mu­nity,” said parish priest Rev. Kevin McDonough. “My mes­sage now is, stay the course.”

Across town in St. Paul, the parish priest of the his­toric African Amer­i­can parish of St. Peter Claver was sim­i­larly con­fi­dent in the power of faith to bring heal­ing and re­newal, but he also wor­ried about whether the church and its school would re­main un­scathed, with a gas sta­tion van­dal­ized on the same block.

“We didn’t ex­pect we’d be a tar­get, be­cause we’re stand­ing with the com­mu­nity. But most of the dam­age wasn’t done by pro­tes­tors,” the Rev. Erich Rut­ten said Satur­day af­ter­noon, as two dozen vol­un­teers boarded up win­dows and doors with ply­wood.

Two miles down the in­ter­state high­way, that would be closed two hours later in an ef­fort to pre­vent more vi­o­lence, the rec­tor of the Cathe­dral of St. Paul cel­e­brated the first public Mass there since the pan­demic.

To the faith­ful in masks scat­tered through­out the huge his­toric struc­ture, the Rev. John L. Ubel ad­mit­ted be­ing “ner­vous,” but said be­ing able to gather to­gether again for the solem­nity of Pen­te­cost — with its em­pha­sis on the Holy Spirit bring­ing the fear­ful apos­tles the courage to go out into the world — couldn’t come at a bet­ter time.

“We’re meant to gather,” he preached in his homily. “But so too we’re called to live in com­mu­nity. Our dif­fer­ences are not to be a source of di­vi­sion. The Lord has not aban­doned us, has not aban­doned our cities.”

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