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A Hope to Witness: Walk on Washington 2020

Written by brother Cristofer Fernández, OFM Conv.

Student-friar & MA Student at Catholic University

In a season of tumult in our nation, one wonders how it is we got here? Then again, on further inspection some are not surprised that the state of the country is not dissimilar to seasons past, particularly the era of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement; the only exception in our case being the preeminence of a global pandemic. To this end, 2020 has so far exhibited a phenomenology akin to a pressure cooker for social disparities humanity is being forced to reckon with in the shadow of a worldwide Coronavirus economic recession. This has brought us to the moment we are experiencing as U.S. Americans confronted with the stark realities of social systems built up under unbridled technocratic development and intractable sociopolitical influences, it appears we as a country have lost sight of the values predicated to afford us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All of this to say, civil liberties violations and race relations are again the highlight of national news, and the same tactics used in the 1960’s to discredit the founding Civil Rights Movement are being replayed in the reception of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Regardless of critiques of the official organization’s platform, the wider racial justice movement picks up from where the 1960’s left off, or rather never expired. The difference being this contemporary translation of social action has been stimulated predominantly by a rise in reported policing violence, or an emerging awareness of said matter concerning the trespass of public servants on those they have sworn to protect, ultimately occasioned by the murder of George Floyd and many others. Although racial discrimination is not as widely or explicitly realized in public policy anymore, racial insecurities endure as common modes of operation in public social structures of today and persist in the rhetoric used by various communities and public officials. This has left black, indigenous, and persons of color to react in assorted outbursts of righteous anger to the continued social harm their communities experience. With a similar tenor to our times, the riots that took place in the 1960’s were found to have high unemployment, poor public infrastructure, and inferior living conditions as the root causes of instances of violence sparked by police brutality.

Is it any wonder why a Commitment March on Washington was convened by the National Action Network?

As a young Franciscan, I decided to participate in the occasion of the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington in a hope to witness to the need for swift and peaceful dialogue and to “pray with my feet.” Despite all the risks of convening downtown, I felt it was imperative at this moment we are experiencing to brave the elements and march in solidarity with my black brothers and sisters keeping the legacy of Catholic religious involvement in the 1963 march in mind. Fortunately, it being the beginning of the semester, I had the opportune availability in my schedule to participate, unlike most of my confreres. In the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Commitment March on August 28th, 2020, was a day of advocacy for police accountability reform, the Census, and mobilizing voters for the upcoming election.

Recalling the spirit of another great religious leader and fellow Franciscan, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, I was spurred to act in the uncompromising gospel challenge to care for the vulnerable and stand up for the afflicted. My vocation as a friar was born in part in the deeply felt conviction to stand with members of society who are most in need, those misunderstood or otherwise voiceless in the public sphere. The work of intercultural dialogue is also for me an important component of social justice to share in everyday experiential learning. I take inspiration from knowing the story of Sr. Thea, a highly acclaimed speaker, teacher, writer and singer, sharing the joy of the Gospel in cultural awareness projects. In her work she emphasized the prerequisite of intentional mutuality to intercultural dialogue. For me, before any in-person intentions ensue, this work begins primarily in my practice of prayer and self-examination and is furthered by studying the challenging instruction of Catholic social doctrine. It is not something I think anyone can simply claim competency in because of our ever-evolving public discourse and cultural challenges, it is a muscle that must be exercised. In justice to our brethren, social concern should always begin as an interior working with the Spirit—often times sitting in the discomfort and with the knowledge that I too am a sinner and must commit to daily practice of mercy and holiness by my words and deeds. In the wake of the passing of Congressman John Lewis, I believe Sr. Thea would agree with me that a missionary Church going out to the margins should not fear getting into “good trouble” in order to bridge (gaping) divides and promote reconciliation and healing in the pulse of our culture of today.

“I believe that reconciliation means that I can accept my limitations, that I need to know other people. I can’t do everything, but I if I work with other people who can make up or supply what I lack, they have a gift I don’t have. True reconciliation means I can ask for help.”

-Sr. Thea Bowman

So, I gathered with many other masked people on the national mall. I listened to the speakers cries for help, joined in prayers for peace and justice, listened to relatives of victims express their grief, and mothers challenging me and those gathered to examine our hearts. The event was a clarion call to continued prayer and action. And so…we marched.

Photo Credit: friar Paul Schloemer, OFM Conv. Facebook Page


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