By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun
Imagining what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., might say if he were still alive today, Bishop Edward K. Braxton, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Bellville, Illinois, spoke in the voice of the slain Civil Rights leader to address how racism continues to impact the Catholic Church, Christianity in general, and society as a whole during the Diocese of Phoenix’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Mass Jan. 17 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.
Noting that Dr. King should have celebrated his 93rd birthday two days earlier, the bishop observed the Baptist minister knew what it meant to follow Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise,” from the Parable of the Good Samaritan that served as the Gospel passage for the day.
“Despite the undeniable and remarkable strides that have been made to bridge the racial divide in this country, the bloodstained headlines of almost every morning’s newspaper make it clear how much we still need the voice and the deeds of this drum major for justice, this trumpeter for peace. Yet, for many Americans — and yes, for many American Catholics — the murder of Dr. King means little more than a day off in January,” said Bishop Braxton, one of 12 living African American bishops. “He would surely say America is still learning who their neighbors are and what it means to go and do likewise.”
Speaking in the voice of Dr. King, the bishop briefly chronicled the history of the controversy surrounding MLK Day in Arizona, noting that it was the last state in the nation to make the day a paid holiday. He then praised the work of the Diocese of Phoenix’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry and its “Let the Church Say AAMEN” initiative, with “AAMEN” standing for the African American Ministry Evangelization Network.
As Dr. King, Bishop Braxton went on to quote the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” and it’s 1979 predecessor, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” asking if those letters are well-known in the diocese or if clergy refer to them from the pulpit. More directly, he asked if the faithful of the diocese were actively working to confront the sin of racism.
“Have parishioners and students in elementary schools, high schools, and college been urged to study them, discuss them, and pray to act to overcome the sin of personal, structural, and institutional racism here in your community with the same urgency as they are urged to discuss and pray and act to overcome the terrible sin of abortion?” he asked.
“How much direct social contact do the people of the Catholic Church have with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds? Do Catholics tend to live in self-contained separate — even segregated — worlds? Do African Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Indigenous people have real, regular, personal social contact, or are their relationships superficial at best and strained at worst?”
The bishop noted the term “minority” itself can be demeaning because it identifies people as what they are not — not of European ancestry — than what they are. He compared the usage to how Catholics often refer to those of other traditions as non-Catholics rather than by what tradition they belong to.
“Why not call us what we are? We are Baptists and fellow Christians!” Bishop Braxton declared in the voice of Dr. King. “You might notice we never speak of you as non-Baptists — why do you speak of us as non-Catholics?”
Noting that King’s son, Martin Luther King, III, had been in Phoenix just two days earlier — the actual anniversary of his father’s birth — to participate in a march and rally for voting rights, the bishop stood firm about the fundamental right of every U.S. citizen to vote. Referencing the recent Supreme Court decision Brnovich v. The Democratic National Committee upholding Arizona’s voting provisions banning out-of-precinct voting, despite a small amount of voting precincts per capita in Maricopa County (849 for approximately 4.42 million) compared to others in the state (71, for approximately 145,000 in Coconino County, where Flagstaff is located) he expressed concern about voter suppression.
“I fear that my granddaughter Yolanda will live to see the day in which the United States moves inch by careful inch back to an era not unlike the era of Jim Crow voting restrictions,” the bishop said, speaking as Dr. King. “I know that your Catholic Church does not officially support any political party, but as the great Karl Barth has taught us, we Christians must face the challenges of our time with the Word of God in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other,” he added, referencing the Swiss Calvinist ecumenist and theologian.
In his closing remarks for the liturgy, Diocese of Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted — who celebrated the Mass — thanked the visiting bishop for a “very challenging homily.” The two bishops have known each other since they were both priests in residence at the Pontifical North American College in Rome during the mid-1980s.
Bishop Olmsted recalled studying the work of Dr. King when he took a six-month sabbatical in a monastery after returning from his priestly assignment in Rome.
“I discovered that he was very well formed in the dogma and in the moral teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, so he was really solid in his faith,” the bishop recalled. He praised Dr. King’s famed “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” to fellow clergymen, including one Catholic auxiliary bishop, for its scholarship.
“It’s one that really is worth taking time to read because it shows his scholarship — not because he’s trying to flaunt his scholarship but because every time he quoted something, it really had substance.”
Father Andrew McNair, chaplain for the Office of Black Catholic Ministry and parochial vicar of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, said the bishop’s homily added to an awareness of the need to work toward healing and reconciliation.
“I think many times, especially here in Arizona, we feel that we’re good,” said Father McNair. “It was an invitation to an examination of conscience to see what we need to work on.”
Deacon Handel Metcalf from Our Lady of Joy Parish in Carefree — one of two African-American permanent deacons in the diocese — reflected that Dr. King’s legacy of knowing his neighbor is applicable to his own vocation of service.
“Am I my neighbor’s keeper? That’s a very important concept for all of us to take to heart,” said Deacon Metcalf. “It bridges races, ethnicity, it overtakes it all, if we are our neighbor’s keeper.”
Supreme Knight Jim Ellis of the Knights of Peter Claver — the only traditionally Black Catholic fraternal society in the U.S. — attended the liturgy to show his support for the local Knights Council and Ladies Auxiliary Court 369. Ellis also advises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Racism.
“Our order was born out of a commitment to Church, a commitment to our communities and being that Good Samaritan,” he said, reflecting on the Knights’ mission. “Most recently, social justice — the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere — has been our focus.”
Local Lady of Peter Claver, Dawn Crutchfield-Board, who also serves on the diocese’s Black Catholic Ministry Committee, said the fact that Jesus and Dr. King died so young is a challenge to all continue their mission.
“Jesus Christ was a young adult; he was under 40, just like MLK, and the work that has to be done still has to keep going,” she said.
High school seniors Martin Hammond and Gabe Garcia from Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale, who both have some Black ancestry, expressed excitement to celebrate MLK Day and their Black heritage in a Catholic context.
“Being able to see our Black history being celebrated through the Catholic Church is a beautiful thing, especially through Martin Luther King, who really didn’t just preach for Black rights, but for the dignity of all human beings,” said Hammond.
“Seeing a Black priest and a white priest like this, being able to celebrate the same Catholic Mass, is beautiful for me to see,” added Garcia. “This is a beautiful celebration, and I believe that Dr. King, himself, would have loved to see something like this.”
The two young men serve as co-presidents of their school’s Diversity Student Union, which works to promote unity across the campus and to help organize events recognizing Black History Month in February and Catholic Black History Month in September.
“Black rights and black excellence is something that is vital to the Catholic Church, and it goes hand-in-hand with the belief in equality and human dignity through all of our creation,” said Hammond. “Being able to see this happening here is a beautiful thing and is vital for the continuation of the Church.”
At the end of his homily, Bishop Braxton returned to his own voice, noting that the Dreamer truly was slain, but that his vision lives on.
“The best way for the Diocese of Phoenix to keep the spirit of the heroic Martin Luther King, Jr., and his vision of the “Beloved Community” alive in Arizona is to get Jesus of Nazareth out of the manger and into your hearts,” he declared. “Get Jesus of Nazareth out of the manger and into the cold stable of our world, where He is needed now more than ever.”