The vivid imagery in the days following the police shooting of Jacob Blake showed a devastated Kenosha. Rioters blocked traffic. They stole gasoline from a nearby gas station to start fires that torched numerous small businesses, car lots, an apartment building, a Family Dollar Store and a 109-year-old camera shop.
Other businesses that were not burned down nonetheless were looted, and had their windows and doors smashed.
Trying to help make sense of things for their parishioners are priests who call Kenosha their home. Through the days of violence, Fr. Dwight Campbell, J.D., S.T.D., pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Therese of Lisieux parishes, sent out daily emails to parishioners letting them know if it was safe to attend Mass, or made suggestions on attending Masses at one parish over the other to avoid the protests.
While none of his members expressed fear, all expressed a significant amount of anger at the situation.
“They were very angry at what happened and the fact that the National Guard was not called in immediately,” said Fr. Campbell. “People have been taking all of this one day at a time. Here we have this COVID thing going on and people have been away from Mass, the media hypes everything about COVID and finally, we are having people slowly return, even our older folks are coming back to Mass and then this happens.”
Despite the unrest, Fr. Campbell said his parishioners continue to return to Sunday Mass and he anticipates the rest returning in the next couple of weeks.
During one of his homilies amid the riots, Fr. Campbell spoke about taking up your cross each day
“We have to do that and accept the cross daily and offer it up for good purposes and in reparation for our sins, the conversion of sinners and the souls in purgatory,” he said. “We also need to offer it especially for the poor lost souls — the ones who it appears their only meaning in life is to go out and participate in destruction and mayhem. These people obviously don’t have Christ in their lives, and we have to pray and make sacrifices for them. Christ died for them, too, and wants their salvation — that is how we can turn the evil into good.”
Many frightened parishioners reached out to Fr. Carlos Florez, pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, for support. Some were immobilized by fear and some moved out of the city during the two weeks of violence. Anthony Huber, the man killed in the altercation with Kyle Rittenhouse, was a former student of St. Mark School.
“I think that the last two weeks scared all of us, police, African American, Hispanics and Anglos, and anyone who cares for Kenosha. We at St Mark’s are working on ways to reach out to all the victims, Jacob’s family, Anthony and Joseph’s family, Kyle’s family and Rusten’s family,” Fr. Florez said. “We are giving emotional support to some officers. We are encouraging our Catholic school systems to talk more about race inequality and justice. We saw the result of many months of work in our neighborhood going to their homes and offering help. We have listening meetings among the employees and volunteers in our parish. We invited people to express their feelings for each other on our Facebook page. We dedicated many celebrations to pray for our community and last Sunday we prayed for all the victims and Kenosha.”
In addition to prayerful support, St. Mark’s staff and their members are reaching out to parishioners who have businesses affected by the violence, and are trying to help them with their rebuilding efforts.
“We love Kenosha and we are proud to be Catholics working together with other religions and the administration. We are together in this crisis and are aware that our Catholic Church has been complicit with a racial inequality in this country,” said Fr. Florez. “We are getting better and we are working on that. We care for each other and our community. Black lives matter. All lives matter. We pray and care for all the people and their families and friends who work protecting us. They are our parishioners, brothers and sisters who are affected by this systemic racism. We are walking together as a community to build a better society. We believe in no violence. We believe in unity. We believe in God who is with us through this.”
Fr. Robert Weighner, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Parish in Pleasant Prairie, said he encouraged his parishioners and all others in a recent homily to pray for Jacob Blake and for anyone else struggling and desiring they would come to salvation by whichever path God would put them on.
“Our pathway is mysterious for each person and within the mysteriousness, as with each of our lives, we commend them to God,” he said. “We pray for the person as an individual within the complexity of our life, and with that again, only God can know.”
Fr. Weighner said there is no such thing as social justice and spoke of the danger of the intersectional political approach to life in that it distorts and allows individuals to use the situation to coerce, manipulate and intimidate.
“It doesn’t correspond to the Christian approach, which is individual, as each will have to account for their life. Social justice can come out of that and do good,” he said. “The problem with social justice is that Christ never approached his teaching in that way, but as individuals — God doesn’t care about the color of our skin or our bank accounts, just the heart.”
By insisting that each life is incredibly important to God, Fr. Weighner added that the only pathway to peace in mind and heart is through praying for each person in the complexity of their lives.
“My approach is simple and I think it definitely resonates with people because people don’t know how to think and approach things, and the whole social justice mantra is false as it intimidates people into feeling guilty and saying things like ‘all housewives are racist, etc.,’” he said. “We are all called to stand upright before God and do the will of God for our lives, and if each of us lives out this form of justice, then of course, a better world results and a type of social justice comes out.”