During the March for Racial Justice on Saturday, July 11, Milwaukee’s Catholic community took to the streets in an expression of support for the sanctity of all life, and in an act of recognition of the struggles — both historical and present-day — experienced by Black Catholic Americans.

Catholics from across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee came together to March for Racial Justice on July 11. (Photo by David Bernacchi)

Bearing signs that read “Racism is a sin” and “If you want peace, work for justice” as well as images of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a crowd of several hundred people marched from St. Francis of Assisi Church on Vel R. Phillips Avenue to St. Benedict the Moor on West State Street.

“Coming before God in a witness of people of the same faith — it just brought to life my understanding of Catholic social teaching in the areas of solidarity and the call to community and participation,” said Janat Davis, a member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Black Catholic Ministry Commission. “People were there to affirm and say, ‘Yes, Black lives are important.’ There is a struggle here, and we need to stand together to correct whatever is wrong.”

Mary Words, chairwoman of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, praised “the energy of Catholics all over who came for the march.”

“Everyone seemed to be on fire and ready to show their faith and to act upon that same faith,” said Words. “People want to continue acting on their faith and are ready to do more outwardly expressing our Catholic faith.”

“For all that we say about evangelization, this was evangelization at its best,” said Fr. Michael Bertram, OFM Cap., pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict the Moor. “We church people are good about inviting people to join us at church. But at times the reverse dynamic needs to be practiced: we need to go out to where the people are, to be on their ‘turf’ and to be public about what we believe.”

The march has been in the works for the past few weeks, said Fessahaye Mebrahtu, Director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. After the June 25 Prayer for Racial Justice at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, several members of the BCMC were hopeful that a march could be planned.

At the same time, the commission was approached by Fr. Bertram, who proposed a collaboration.

The real credit, said Fr. Bertram, belongs to his parishioner Sheldon Dutes, a news anchor for WISN-12. “About a month ago, he asked me, ‘Have you participated in any of the marches or demonstrations?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He didn’t make an issue out of my response. But it got me thinking and asking myself, ‘Why haven’t I participated?’” said Fr. Bertram. “Like the many who attended, the idea was something that came from someone who was looking to the Church to do something, someone who sowed the seed, and I’m glad that we all could make it happen.”

The march was also a way to celebrate the fact that Milwaukee’s Black Catholic community has retained its faith “against all odds,” said Mebrahtu. The planned route was rich with symbolism and included a stop at the site of the former Blessed Martin de Porres Church on West Galena Avenue, which was demolished in 1962 to make way for housing developments. At the site, Dr. Antoinette Mensah poured out a libation in remembrance of the parish, while Words spoke about the history of several closed Black parishes, including St. Boniface on 11th Street.

“We wanted to memorialize that — that was another form of injustice,” said Mebrahtu of the closed parishes.

Attendee Emma Gillette, a parishioner at St. Monica in Whitefish Bay who attended the walk with her children, named the libation offering as one of the most impactful moments of the day. “I didn’t know very much of the history of the Black parishes of Milwaukee, so I was glad to learn that,” she said.

“The Black Catholic community is full of people who have good memories and commitment to their faith, and who really are proud of their heritage,” said Mebrahtu. “This was an opportunity to say, we are still here. We are still struggling. We still care for our faith, and for the larger community.”

Others who participated in the march and its planning felt that it was a moment for Catholics to remember the full spectrum of respect life issues that our faith compels us to support.

“My sentiment is, we made history as Catholics to be part of the conversation on social justice in what we do and say,” said Simon Biagui, a member of the BCMC. “It seems to me that Catholics responded well because they long for more visibility in the arena.”

Gillette said that she wanted to join the march because “I believe so strongly that racism is a Catholic, pro-life issue.”

“The best part was walking through the streets of downtown Milwaukee with my Catholic brothers and sisters of all races, witnessing to the simple fact that racism is a sin, and that, as our Holy Father and our bishops have made abundantly clear, we Catholics are called to act on this issue,” she said.

“I had told my kids that this would be a nice way to experience showing up for social justice,” said Annemarie Wood, a parishioner at St. Mary in Hales Corners, who brought her two teenage sons to the march after seeing it publicized through her sons’ high school. “The community and camaraderie was lovely.”

Law enforcement was also present at the march; about six officers helped to coordinate the marchers’ safe passage along the route, said Mebrahtu. When Fr. Bertram acknowledged their efforts after his opening prayer, the crowd gave them a round of applause.

“People are aware that not every police officer is abusive. It is the system they want to change. It is the system that is harboring or protecting abuse of power,” said Mebrahtu.

“Before the march on Saturday, there was a feeling of, where is the Catholic presence? Where are we, Black Catholics? We have been in the forefront in the past, when I was a teenager. We fought for the desegregation of housing. There was a call and people joined with us,” said Davis. “I would say that was similar to Saturday. A call went out — come and join us. Come and walk with us. Bring attention to the sin of racism. Let’s make some kind of change happen.”

“Our faith has something to say about this: to stand with our brothers and sisters who suffer injustice and racism and clearly state that this has no place in our lives and certainly not in our faith. If we are going to live our faith, we must live in greater respect and acceptance of one another, because fundamentally we are all children of God, made in the image and likeness of God,” said Fr. Bertram. “An affront to African Americans and any people who are disrespected and diminished is an affront to the Body of Christ, to the very creation of God.”