In the early 1980’s, I was a six-year-old living overseas as a Catholic lay missionary with my family. The country where we had made our home was in a season of turmoil, and we lived across the street from a government building that housed a small jail. Other than our home which faced the jail and the home of a government official who was our neighbor, the jail was fairly isolated. From time to time, the officials would take a prisoner outside and beat him.
Stoicism in suffering is of high value in that country, and women in labor give birth silently. Generally, the prisoners suffered their beatings in relative quiet. If my mom became aware that one was happening, she would usher us indoors so we couldn’t hear if they did cry out. A high fence blocked our view of what was happening.
One morning, when my dad was out doing ministry, my sisters and I were playing in our beautiful front yard when a voice in agony shattered the quiet. “Help me!” The voice screamed repeatedly between the sound of blows. “Please, help me. Jesus, help me!” We rushed inside to find Mom with her face buried in her hands on the couch, arms propped on her round pregnant belly. We started sobbing as we heard the man continue to cry for help. We fell to our knees and prayed, “Please, Jesus, stop the beating!” By now, my two little sisters, my mom, and I were all praying loudly through our tears.
With no signs of the beating slowing down, my mom entrusted us to the care of our friend who was helping us cook. She ran through the heat to a neighbor’s house, a man whom she believed would also be outraged by what was happening. We had no power, but she felt she had to do something.
The neighbor, in a flash of inspiration, grabbed a camera. He walked back with my mom to stand in front of the building where the prisoner, blood flowing down his back, was being beaten with bamboo on the grass. Mom and the neighbor stood in the street while he took pictures of what was happening. “What are you doing?” one of the officials angrily demanded. “Just taking pictures,” the neighbor replied. The beating stopped, and the prisoner was led indoors.
I acknowledge I don’t have much to add to the conversation that is going on right now, but I have been thinking a lot about this chapter of my childhood lately—that feeling of powerlessness in the face of injustice. I feel it now as I increasingly awaken to the racial injustice in society around me. I am reflecting on what our bishops are urging in this recent statement from the USCCB:
As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice. While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged. Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.
A feeling of powerlessness can lead to indifference, if not in emotion, then in action. But just as my mom was spurred to act by the anguished cries we heard, spurred on to bear witness to injustice and to do what she could, I feel called to do the same with my own children—to stand and witness the injustice that is happening. To pray, yes, but also to say to my children, “We have to hear the cries of those who are suffering, to shine light on racist policies and systems, to pray with broken hearts that this wrong will be righted, and to work until the suffering ends.”