MILWAUKEE — Violence is never justified as a response to anger and hurt and only creates a self-inflicted wound on a community, said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in the wake of two evenings of rioting and protesting in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee last weekend.
The unrest followed the killing of Sylville Smith, an armed, 23-year-old man by a Milwaukee police officer following a traffic stop near West Auer Avenue and North 44th Street on Milwaukee’s northwest side Saturday, Aug. 13.
Protesters burned down six businesses in the city, including a gas station, and also torched a police car late Saturday.
Police said Smith had a stolen gun with 23 rounds of ammunition in his hand and had refused police orders to drop the weapon.
“The anger and hurt that accompanies any action certainly is understandable, but violence is never justified as a response,” said Archbishop Listecki Aug. 15 in a statement. Rather, he suggested “supporting the family, building the economy and attacking crime is a wonderful formula for defusing the intensity that creates the ‘burn, baby, burn’ mentality.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]A Mass for Peace will be celebrated on Thursday, Aug. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at All Saints Parish, 4051 N. 25th St., Milwaukee. Vicar General for Urban Ministry Fr. Tim Kitzke will lead the service.[/su_pullquote]
In the statement, the archbishop lamented the “loss of a strong faith that builds character and creates change.”
“Faith in Jesus Christ has not changed. However, the commitment to live that faith has become dormant. It’s time to awaken our confidence, together, in Jesus Christ and the Gospel that presents us with the only true transformation which changes hearts as well as minds.”
Calling the violence on the streets of a neighborhood that is already economically-challenged “painful to watch,” Archbishop Listecki noted that “protest is a right of every American, but burning, shooting at legitimate authority and stealing are not. In fact, those who committed these actions imposed self-inflicted wounds on the very community whose interests they claim to represent.”
He also offered “prayers to support the families and police authorities who have been caught in this conflict, as well as pray for peace in our neighborhoods and communities in Milwaukee and throughout the world.”
The archbishop also addressed the rioting in Milwaukee in his weekly “Love One Another” email communiqué sent Aug. 16 to clergy, parish staff members and other church leaders throughout the archdiocese.
He recalled Chicago riots of April 1968 which took place following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when the archbishop was a seminarian.
“We were huddled in the TV room watching the flames in the inner city. My fellow seminarians were worried about their fathers who were police officers trying to stem the rioting, some were worried about their relatives and neighbors who lived in the area, and others were worried about the parish communities and churches that they served in,” he described.
While the anger and hurt was understandable, he stressed that violence only begets violence.
A pot boils over with the intensity of heat, wrote the archbishop. Contributing to that boiling pot in Milwaukee, he said, is a scarcity of jobs and youth activities in the area, leaving young people prey to gangs, drugs or general mischief.
The community itself must also take responsibility for policing itself as the “eyes and ears reporting gang activity, drug deals and criminal activities to local authorities.”
He wrote that if the police do not respond, “we as religious leaders must take up that cause and challenge political leaders to be responsible for the sake of the community.”
Also speaking out in the aftermath of the rioting was Fr. Tim Kitzke, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s vicar general for urban ministry. He told the Catholic Herald Aug. 15 that what happened Saturday night could be looked at one of two ways.
“One the one hand it could be Armageddon; on the other hand it could be seen as mission territory. I see it as a latter,” he said. “Now, more than ever, it is important that people from all of our parishes, including those in the suburbs, must pull together. The problems of racial divisiveness and helplessness must be addressed by everyone.”
Fr. Kitzke, also pastor of Three Holy Women Parish on Milwaukee’s east side, and administrator of two other parishes, said he has been in contact with the pastors of the four inner-city parishes asking them to meet with him in order to continue to address the concerns of the community.
“What do we do with the anger?” he asked. “We need to address the issues that cause the anger and the hopelessness that lead to violence. And the church has to be a part of that.”
Fr. Bob Stiefvater, pastor of All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, referenced the violence during the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday.
Before opening prayer, he noted, “the city is grieving in many different ways this morning,” he said, adding that the readings of the day were especially appropriate for the environment of unrest.
In his homily, Fr. Stiefvater admitted he was glued to his television until 3 a.m. the night before watching news coverage of the unrest.
“I was mesmerized, even though the news was the same over and over and over again, and the inability to get a focus on what seemed to be going on … and these Scriptures were going through my mind. Milwaukee, like Jerusalem, in a sense under siege by powers beyond us. We, like the Olympians in our second reading to the Hebrews, with our eyes on the prize, trying to move forward. And then Jesus said, I have come to set the earth on fire. I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and I am in anguish until it’s accomplished. I am here not to establish peace, but division.”
The issues in Milwaukee have been simmering for years, he admitted.
“What do we do when, like the Jews in Jerusalem surrounded by the enemy, feel their leaders don’t know how to act or respond or are just looking out for themselves? There’s a mistrust that’s there because we need someone to blame and they’re there, or somebody’s over there, because we can’t blame ourselves,” he said. “Here we are, Milwaukee. And God says, this is holy ground. This is where we’re supposed to be. And this is how we’re called now to meet him.”
Fr. Stiefvater said that he was asked by Fr. Kitzke who was asked by the archbishop to respond to the violence in Milwaukee that started back in May or April and continued through the summer.
“I thought – I don’t know what to do. We’ve gathered with other churches for prayer services about peace, we’ve lit candles commemorating the dead and we’ve prayed about this. But prayer is empty, I always feel, unless we’re doing something as a result of our prayer. Allowing God to act through us. I just haven’t found a way for that to happen.
Yet, he said an All Things in Common initiative instigated by local elected officials to reach out to neighborhoods in need might be an answer to prayer.
“…Wow, we’re moving in a direction here. This is what I think this holy moment is calling us to do – us, right here, All Saints Parish,” he said. “We’re called to be part of this thing that I think pulls us together rather than drives us apart. These events that make us on one side of the fence or the other are opportunities for us to grow back together in a way we thought we had, without thinking about it too much. I firmly believe that God speaks to us when we really need to hear, and sometimes he speaks to us when we are ready to listen. And I couldn’t believe how he speaks to us with these readings today.”
Fr. Stiefvater ended his homily calling them blessed to be a community that does more than “wring our hands or shake our fingers or stand in fear. We’re a community that comes together to work toward change because we see God present in the midst of this crisis.”
When asked to comment on the officer-involved shooting and ensuing violence that took place, Shanedra Johnson, chair of the archdiocesan Black Catholic Ministry Commission referred to a comment by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta in an Aug. 4 interview with the National Catholic Register, explaining why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has established a special task force to “empower bishops and the local church throughout the U.S. to take a leading role in building peace in communities and healing racial tensions.”
“We cannot be a society where those who are protected are afraid of those who are called to protect them,” said Archbishop Gregory. “And, conversely, our public servants — police, firemen and first responders — must not be afraid to come into the communities where they are called to serve and secure peace. It works both ways, and we only become immobilized when we take the position ‘which has to come first.’ [Regarding] the acts of justice that must undergird and support American society and the right respect of those who are entrusted with their safety — that movement has to be simultaneous, because if we don’t move forward simultaneously, we then are locked into a posture of immobility, because we are waiting for someone to do something first.”
(Contributing to this story were Colleen Jurkiewicz and Brian T. Olszewski.)