Criminal Justice to Catholic Priest: Why I didn’t Join Law Enforcement or Why Laws aren’t Going to Stop Racism
When I was a senior in high school, my plan was to go to a local college to study criminal justice. It was the Spring of 2002 and 9/11 was fresh in peoples’ minds. Several of my classmates were also going to study criminal justice, some were entering the military. Protect and serve felt like a good fit. At 6'4" I can be a little intimidating and wanted to use that for good. Being an Eagle Scout, I was always prepared to help someone in need. Joining the town, county, or state police seemed like the perfect fit.
I went to school for my two years, started training for the various physical tests, asked me criminal justice professors for advice and all the other things a college student is supposed to do. It felt like I was doing the right thing. Reading news papers and watching TV, there was an increase in racial profiling, an increase in “stop and frisk” policies. And they were generally accepted by the public. This would increase safety right? Perhaps there wasn’t enough statistics to support this evidence but it felt like the right thing. So people did it.
During my criminal justice studies, we would study and discuss community policing, the development of legal systems, and were warned of abuses of the systems. From something intricate and complicated as using the notorious Whitey Bulger as an informant to the more public and obviously violent situation of Rodney King. I vaguely remember watching the Rodney King video and riots that followed. But I was seven years old. I remembered it happening but did not recall how I was supposed to feel. When studying the matter we focused more on the police tactics used than the morality of what happened to Rodney King. And this began a period of doubt for me.
School was going so well for me, there was a B.S. in Criminal Justice at my college that seemed to be a good fit, so after two years, I continued my degree. By senior year, this period of doubt came to a head. I was taking exams for local and federal police agencies. Throughout my time in college I was discerning to join the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, better know as Franciscans, and possibly become a priest within the Order. This might seem like a dramatic change, but my understanding of the mission of law enforcement to protect and serve has a lot of overlap with pastoral work. As I was taking tests, and even had a second interview with ATF, I realized that I could probably better help people as a Franciscan Friar and priest. So in 2006 when I was 22, I applied to the Franciscans and 14 years later, I’m a Franciscan and a priest.
Before becoming a priest, I needed to be ordained a deacon. My ordination happened in the first Saturday of May 2014 in Baltimore. This was about ten days after Freddie Grey died in police custody, a few days after the worst of the riots in Baltimore, and while the city-wide curfew was still being enforced. A lot of people who originally planned on coming told me they were sorry but did not feel safe coming to Baltimore. My first homily as an ordained minister was about how as followers of Jesus Christ, and for myself as a Franciscan, we are called to bring peace into the world. Between the time I entered and was ordained we heard of Freddie Grey, Treyvon Martin, and Eric Garner. Now we know about George Floyd, a 46 year-old Christian who was known for his ministry.
My homilies probably are not going to make a dramatic difference in the world of police violence. But it does not seem like laws are the only answer either. Laws cannot prevent racism, but they support racism. With Jim Crow laws being enforced throughout the country as late as 1965, their memory clearly persists. So how to stop racism? Change of heart. And that only happens with encounters of people.
For a year I was a student chaplain at a hospital. An African America male in his early 20’s was shot and I was asked to visit with him. He seemed to be pretty upbeat, was surrounded by family, and was happy to talk to me. When I asked my usual, “what’s going on?” introduction questions, he kept saying, “you know what it’s like Father, you know what it’s like!” as if I experienced this before. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or joking or what, but I was honest and said I had know idea what it was like to be shot. He laughed, said “of course not!” and we had a conversation and prayed. After that encounter I thought about what it would like to be shot. What it’s like to be in or near a gang. What it’s like to have to turn towards criminal activity because education or employment is difficult. What it’s like to encounter violence or racism because you aren’t the right color depending where you are, what you are doing, how you wear your hoodie, or what you are saying.
But that encounter changed something in me. Even though I had African American neighbors, friends, and classmates growing up, I never knew what it was like to experience discrimination, what it’s like to have to worry about my safety on a daily basis. How do you teach empathy? Who’s responsibility is it? There’s no lessons or methods other the spending time with people of different cultures and races. And it’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s terrible that these people have died at the hands of law enforcement officers. And police are certainly necessary. But criminal justice is not going to change racism, only conversion of heart will. Only by conversion of the hearts of individuals will our institutions and society change.
Legislation won’t end racism. I probably would have been a good police officer, and I’m quite happy as a priest. Legislation isn’t going to end police brutality, or the much wider issue of racism, but change of heart will. I find the inspiration and strength for conversion from the life and example of Jesus Christ. Other people find it other places. Racism is not just going to go away. And everyone is responsible for conversion of their heart and recognizing the good in every human person.
Concerning prayer, I keep thinking and praying with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. Jesus awaiting his unlawful arrest, the beating he received while being brought to be judged. The weak Pilate who gives in to the demands of the crowd. Jesus carrying His own cross only the be executed in the most brutal way possible. It’s not fair or helpful to compare the death of George Floyd to the death of Jesus Christ. But it is helpful to recognize that Jesus did not shy away from injustice and violence. I am certainly not saying that we need to be close to violence; safety is paramount. However, we can spend time with people who experience injustice and violence.