“The legacy of slavery and racism continues to this very day, and we fool ourselves if we believe that we can stand off to the side and let others solve this problem,” wrote St. Mary’s University of San Antonio President Thomas Mengler, joined by the Rev. Timothy Eden, SM, the university’s Rector and Vice President for Mission. “If we are American, this is our disease, and it must be with our minds and hearts and hands that we work for the cure. If we are Christians, this is our failure, and it is in the heart and teaching of Christ that we must find healing for this sin.”
Several presidents called attention to the relationship between racial unrest and the ongoing pandemic. Sr. Candace Introcaso, CDP, president of La Roche University, noted that the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor came amid the COVID-19 pandemic “that has once again exposed the inexcusable healthcare disparities in our nation’s marginalized communities.”
Fr. James J. Greenfield, OSFS, DeSales University president, referred to racism as its own kind of pandemic. “We know that communities of color have been more greatly impacted [by COVID-19] than white communities due to inadequate access to healthcare, the lack of affordable housing, chronic unemployment, and poverty,” he asserted. “As we re-emerge from our homes, how will we change? Will our hearts be stretched, souls softened, and hands strengthened to work for societal justice?”
Giving Voice to Values
For many in Catholic higher education, the death of George Floyd was evidence of an ugliness that runs counter to fundamental faith values. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that their responses were often grounded in those same values. Georgian Court University President Joseph Marbach, for instance, referenced the institution’s Mercy heritage to call his campus to action, “to fight institutional racism and to embrace non-violence. Both are among the Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy, the founding order of Georgian Court University where we equip students to ‘shape a just and compassionate world,’” wrote Marbach. “It is not a catchphrase or a polite nod to social justice. It is what we are called to do.”
Floyd died on May 25, and many in the Catholic community also cited the Feast of Pentecost, celebrated the following Sunday, in their reflections. Greenfield, DeSales president, made note of two images related to the feast day.
“St. Luke paints a vivid scene in the Acts of the Apostles where the disciples were ‘all in one place together’ when a loud noise like a driving wind filled that place and rested on them as tongues of fire. I am always intrigued by Luke’s description of those disciples as being all together in the same place. Maybe they were physically together, but I am sure they were not emotionally or spiritually in the same place. Likewise, we ourselves are having different reactions to the loud noise and fires, rampant across our nation, as we wrestle with the civil unrest we see. We also heard in John’s Gospel how Jesus breathed on the disciples to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Pentecost, how can we not hear the desperate words of George Floyd saying, ‘I cannot breathe’?”
See a collection of ACCU member president statements on the killing of George Floyd...
An added concern for many presidents was the safety of their campus community. Officials imposed evening curfews in major cities across the United States in order to discourage violence, including in the nation’s capital. John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, extended his plea to a city that continues to see ongoing protests. “For members of our community who are living now in DC, please take care and be safe. We ask that everyone abide by the citywide curfew. If you are participating in the protests, please be witnesses of peace.”
Similarly, University of St. Thomas (MN) President Julie Sullivan referenced the arson and looting that had plagued areas around Minneapolis in the days immediately following Floyd’s death. “I am very concerned that many of our St. Thomas community are living in the very neighborhoods most impacted by the frightening events of the last two evenings. I encourage everyone in our St. Thomas community to heed the calls of our governor and community leaders and to abide by the 8 p.m. curfew this evening and to use your networks and social media outlets to encourage others to do the same. I also encourage you to reach out to older or vulnerable neighbors and ask them what they need tonight and in the coming days. We are stronger as a community when we collaborate and care for one another.”