A returned missioner's reflection on George Floyd and Black Lives Matter - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Mural in Minnesota

It is hard to believe that 25 years ago, in August of 1995, a group of 25 of us (plus additional children and another diocesan priest heading to China) all arrived in Ossining, New York, for four months of orientation with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. As one classmate succinctly shared, “Maryknoll is special, no other way to say it. We all impacted each other’s [life] journeys.” Still led by the Spirit, we each continue to live out our unique call, that call to mission, in our lives in so many ways today.

Our lay missioner class’s recent online reunion (with 18 of us), sparked me to reflect on this spirit of mission in the context of the realities I am living and working here in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. In addition to the new reality of our COVID world, which we are all facing in our own unique ways, I cannot overlook the new reality in the wake of the fatal arrest of George Floyd on May 25.

Unspeakable tragedies

The killing of George Floyd is an unspeakable tragedy of a system of injustice against an unarmed black man, his family, his community, and all of us. As we lament the death of George Floyd, we also lament how the wake of protests devolved in some cases into looting, fires, and chaos, which was an unspeakable tragedy as well.

It is hard for me to express the roller coaster of emotions I have experienced over these past few weeks in particular, from feeling angry, sad, unsafe, frustrated, hurting, emotional and just very tired that this unjust system has repeatedly targeted members of our community. It has been a stark reminder that this is the reality of the world we live in, and the reality that I must admit my neighbors of color deal with day in and day out. A police encounter of a black man should not end in death. Peaceful protesting should not end with destructive fires and looting and gutting a community. Unspeakable!

My experiences as a Maryknoll lay missioner, in places like the failed World Bank Project in Bura Tana, Kenya, on the Somali border or in war-torn southern Sudan (now South Sudan), have deeply challenged me to see — to really look with eyes of faith at these challenging and unjust realities of our world.

One local Minneapolis community activist during the recent protesting here, called this “street justice.” Justice? We know that healing can’t come until justice comes … and sadly this justice will take time. Pope Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice,” but central to many faith traditions, including the Judeo-Christian biblical understanding of justice, is right relationships with God, self and others. The justice of a community is measured by its treatment of all. Our relationships with one another, indeed our black sisters and brothers, is not “right.”

Have we in Minnesota and our nation reached a tipping point from the deaths of Jamal, Philando, George, and the years of systemic racism and injustice? All of this has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic’s chaotic economic, social, and community-health turmoil, which dramatically and disproportionately impacting members of our black and brown communities. Clearly, our relationships are neither right nor just. Unspeakable.

As we grieve the horrible loss of the life of George Floyd, we need to examine the justice of our relationships with God, self, and one another — everyone in our community.

‘Are we doing something?’

A friend, who is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a recent graduate of St. Kate’s (St. Catherine University in St. Paul) put it in these stark and challenging words: “Remember his name, George Floyd. George Floyd couldn’t breathe and I can’t breathe too, and we shouldn’t be able to breathe, because what harms one person harm us all. Now I am asking you: Are we doing something or just sending prayers and thoughts?”

More than anything, my Maryknoll mission experiences have encouraged me to begin with prayer — by extending prayers for the family of George Floyd, for all those struggling with his senseless death, the officers who must live with the results of their actions, and for the entire community; and as this incident has shown clearly, our community truly does reach around the globe.

I am also challenged by dear friends to honestly look at “Are we just sending prayers and thoughts?” Prayer is so needed at this time, please don’t get me wrong. Prayer is so critically needed, but my Maryknoll experiences also taught me that only praying alone in the face of such injustice and suffering would also be unspeakable. As a lay missioner, I am impelled to also respond boldly with love to the cries of the victims of violence and to the cries of our community in pain right now.

When I entered the Maryknoll Lay Missioners program, I made a personal commitment to dedicate my life “to love, to be loved, and to share love.” In the weeks and months after the George Floyd killing, I have felt that deep missionary longing, like others, to seek a more just world for all by “doing something.” DOING!

My life’s missionary journey, which was so a part of my time overseas continues with this ongoing tension of loving and a deep, deep guttural longing to “do something,”… to go deeper,… to love more deeply. And so I join others in praying, reflecting, dialoguing, and acting for change. It starts by naming my complicity in the ways my whiteness contributes to systems of oppression and division so that we all can truly and more boldly address root systemic injustices in these challenging times in Minnesota, nationally, and globally.

Even 25 years later, our collective work of mission continues. We are acting… trying to “do something,” while also acknowledging that we have so much more to do at this time when our world so desperately needs alternatives. I seek to join with others through the love of God to find concrete ways of compassion and nonviolent practices to change myself, the system, and the greater community during these difficult days.

While it may seem unspeakable, I and hopefully we do speak up to commit in joining others in seeking and creating a more just world for all.

Marty Roers
Marty Roers is a returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1995) who served for eight years in Kenya and Sudan. He is the co-director of the Justice Office of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, Minnesota.