WASHINGTON — The week had been emotionally draining at the predominantly black parish in Oakland, California. Along with the rest of the country, they had felt the weight of two more fatal shootings of black men by police.
Then things got worse July 7 when a sniper opened fire and killed five police officers during a march in Dallas where people were protesting the fatal shootings.
Two days later, Fr. Jayson Landeza, pastor of Oakland’s St. Benedict Catholic Church, declared there would be no homilies during his Masses that weekend and instead allowed parishioners to do the talking during that time. What he and those gathered at St. Benedict’s heard was sadness, pain, fear.
“My voice was not important,” said Fr. Landeza, a priest who finds himself in the middle of communities colliding with each other this summer. As national leaders call for unity and calm, particularly between black communities and law enforcement, it is up to chaplains like Fr. Landeza to shepherd their flocks through this tense summer of mistrust and fear of one another.
“Everyone is going to their corners,” said Fr. Landeza.
Many in the black community have voiced fear, as well as anger toward police. And police feel that “here are these people who hate us,” said Fr. Landeza, explaining what some of the police officers feel when they see some of the protests taking place around the country.
What is his role and the role of other chaplains in all of this?
“I’m struggling with that,” said Fr. Landeza during a telephone interview with Catholic News Service. “I’m not going to lecture anybody. I’m just listening and facilitating talking, just talking to each other. Both sides are pretty strongly entrenched.”
Feelings all around are raw, he said, and there’s a lot of acrimony. But it’s also important to hear what everyone is feeling.
“I’m a friend to both sides,” said Fr. Landeza, who was with Oakland police during a particularly dark moment in the department’s history. In 2009, four Oakland law enforcement officers, two Oakland police and two SWAT team members, were killed by a felon after a traffic stop. Fr. Landeza led the public memorial service for the officers.
In 16 years as police chaplain, he’s learned that cops are mission-oriented and idealistic, people who are generally trying to do the right thing. His brother-in-law is a police officer, so, in a sense, his mission has a personal element.
But he’s also a pastor and he pays attention to what his black parishioners experience.
“There are people in my parish with deep and profound pain that I will never know as an Asian man,” he said.
Some of that pain comes from mothers and grandmothers worried about sons and grandsons, teens, but also men in the 40s and what can happen to them at the hands of police. Outside of those communities, many don’t understand this fear and dismiss it, he said, but it’s important to listen and understand it. That’s why he allowed his parishioners to express what they were feeling following the recent shootings. Many thanked him publicly and on Facebook for allowing their voices to be heard.
Along with the mourning, chaplains also are dealing with a growing lack of trust for the police communities they serve, and are trying to find ways to build trust and show support for officers.
“I never experienced the amount of distrust that officers experience today,” said Conventual Franciscan Br. James Reiter, a former reserve officer who lives in Castro Valley, California, and who once served as chaplain for the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s critical that all sides find common ground, he said.
“Both police officers and the public would benefit by asking God for the grace to see each other with his (God’s) eyes,” said Br. Reiter. “The vocation of a police officer is similar to the vocation of St. Michael the Archangel, their patron saint. As St. Michael battled the forces of evil, so, too, must police officers battle the forces of evil to protect God’s people.”
But are there police officers who bring dishonor to their profession?
“Yes, there are,” said Br. Reiter, but there also are complicated situations that police face and that are difficult for a person without police academy training to consider. Br. Reiter said his personal ministry is to pray for police officers daily. He opened the @brojimr Twitter account, which he uses daily to tweet support and encouragement to officers he’s never met and lets them know that they are appreciated.
On July 12, at a memorial service for the five officers killed in Dallas, President Barack Obama reminded the nation that “despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.” But he also acknowledged that despite great strides in race relations in the country, “bias remains.”
Fr. Landeza, who was attending a conference of police chaplains during the memorial, said that as an African-American, the president is in a unique situation but he also has to be careful about what he says, and what he’s confined to saying as commander in chief. However, “no one can deny that the president isn’t trying,” he said. But it’s hard to get all sides to listen to one another, Fr. Landeza said. Chaplains, however, will keep working at it, this summer and beyond.
In New York, Msgr. Robert Romano, deputy chief of chaplains for the New York Police Department, attended a candlelight vigil after the Dallas killings to show unity between police and community. He urged people to build bridges with officers, to not be afraid of them and greet them when they see them in public.
In Washington, Msgr. Sal Criscuolo, chaplain for first responders, also called on the public to consider circumstances they may not see in a brief video. But consider, he said, that it’s not an easy job and it’s one that asks for the ultimate sacrifice, including saving the lives of people who may not like you.
“I honestly believe they’re called by God,” Msgr. Criscuolo said. “It’s a vocation, a commitment of going above and beyond. Like Christ himself, you might be called to sacrifice your own life to save the life of another.”
(Contributing to this report were Ed Wilkinson and Antonina Zielinska in Brooklyn and Mark Zimmermann in Washington.)