Bringing love to a violent world

Two Denver Catholics share their stories

Aaron Lambert

Ferguson. Baton Rouge. Charleston. Dallas. The list of places where violence has occurred in the U.S. within the last year goes on and on.

Right now, people need hope. Each day seems to bring a new headline of a shooting or a killing, and it’s easy to become numb to what is occurring around the community, nation and world on a daily basis.

As Catholics, we are called to promote justice and uphold the dignity of all people. However, with the narratives the media feeds into, knowing how to approach some of these issues through the lens of the Gospel can be difficult.

Still, hope perseveres, be it through prayer or acts of compassion. Cure d’Ars is one example of a local parish that’s relying on the power of faith to spread hope throughout the community. Last summer, they began embarking on prayer walks in the local neighborhoods, and on Aug. 4, they held a prayer vigil for peace and prayed for an end to the violence that has been occurring locally, nationally and internationally.

Two different worlds

Skeet Johnson is a cradle Catholic and a longtime parishioner of Cure d’Ars. He is also a former Colorado State public defender of 23 years. Johnson retired from his post as a public defender in 2007, but he’s kept plenty busy. He helped to facilitate the prayer walks last summer along with several other local churches, and he volunteers as a basketball coach at Smith Elementary, working with kids.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” Johnson told the Denver Catholic. “I’ve seen a lot of carnage and wasted potential. I’ve seen a lot of courage and I’ve seen evidence of redemption and true contrition and changing even in the face of situations that would require that a person give up a substantial portion of their freedom.”

As an African American who grew up in the projects of Chicago, Johnson has lived in two different worlds. He has seen racism firsthand, but has always viewed it through the lens of the Gospel.

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Skeet Johnson is a parishioner of Cure d’Ars parish and a former public defender of 23 years. As an African American man who’s been on both the racism side and the criminal justice side, Johnson views the issue of violence through the lens of the Gospel and said the biggest challenge he faces as a Catholic is overcoming his fear and going out and doing what he can with the tools he’s been given. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

“There’s a lot of circumstances that exist as a consequence of racism, and those circumstances are beyond the personal kind of racism, but are rooted in the institutions. That can, in some way, answer the question of why black and poor people find themselves very close to the same position they were in historically,” he said. “But, there comes a time when you have to make a decision as to what kind of person you’re going to be, how you’re going to deal with your circumstances.”

Johnson also looks at these issues as a former public defender who dealt with criminals and police on a regular basis. In his career, he saw police officers who were “about protecting themselves to the exclusion of protecting the community,” and he also saw police who “amazed me with the kind of commitment they had.” Johnson recalled one case he handled where he was defending a man who attacked a police officer with a knife.

“Nowadays, you’d be reading about how many bullets entered his body,” he said. “But this one cop did not do that, and he ultimately disarmed the guy. I asked him at the preliminary hearing, ‘man, why didn’t you [shoot] him?’ And he said, ‘Skeet, my job is not to take life, my job is to protect life.’ That attitude is what it ought to be about.”

When speaking about the numerous incidents that have occurred around the nation, he said the point isn’t how numerous or not they are; the point is how it’s breaking down the relationship between the community and the police.

As a Catholic, my challenge is to break away from my fear and to go out and to do that which I can with the tools that I’ve been given.”

“All I can talk about is a mistrust that exists between the police community and the black community,” he said. “What is occurring and how it’s affecting other people, in how it’s breaking down the relationships between the community and the folks who are to protect them — that’s the issue. Although statistically that may be one situation, that’s a situation that’s like a cancer that spreads throughout the body politic.”

Even so, Johnson refuses to let fear stop him from doing what he believes is his God-given duty to love others and make the world a better place.

“As a Catholic, my challenge is to break away from my fear and to go out and to do that which I can with the tools that I’ve been given,” he said.

To protect, serve and love

Lily is a police officer who just began her career working for a Denver Metro police department (For safety reasons, Lily’s last name and the specific police department she works for have been withheld). She is also a practicing Catholic, and one whose faith informs and affects the way she does her job every single day.

“What makes you a good cop is that you do feel things,” she said. “I’ve always felt that one of my strengths I bring is that I am emotional. I feel things a lot deeper than most people do, and I think that’s why God called me to the profession. It’s the human part and the compassion part that makes my job worth it.”

Being a cop has changed the way Lily sees people. She feels compassion for the people in the community she’s serving. There is a large Latino population where she works, and she said that she’s seen firsthand the way in which race can affect the way people are approached or treated. She can also relate to it because she’s a young, white and female officer.

I don’t care what color skin you are, I don’t care about your history, I care about that moment and loving you in that moment. That’s the most important thing I can do.”

“Seeing how difficult people really have had it gives me so much compassion for them. I can’t condemn people as easily as I once could,” she said. “I can taste it from a minority’s perspective in my job. People do look at you differently and you never know what they truly feel about you. I can see where that might be an issue for someone who is African American or Latino.”

As a member of the law enforcement community and a Catholic, Lily hopes to see the nation heal from the wounds that have been broken open as a result of racial and police violence.

“My goal as a police officer and as a Catholic is to have healing and peace come from this,” she said.

Though racism might not be as prominent in the community she serves as it is in other parts of the country, Lily said that she doesn’t deny that it exists. From her perspective, though, race has nothing to do with the way she does her job, and in her experience with other officers, she said the majority are concerned first and foremost with protecting and serving their community. Lily, however, adds another action to that list: love.

“I don’t care what color skin you are, I don’t care about your history, I care about that moment and loving you in that moment,” she said. “That’s the most important thing I can do.”

COMING UP: ‘Hope has two daughters’: Local Catholics rally at prayer vigil against violence

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While speaking about hope at a recent prayer vigil held by Cure d’Ars parish, local African Episcopal Minister Rev. Tawana Davis quoted St. Augustine of Hippo, who said this: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

On Aug. 4, Cure d’Ars held a special prayer vigil for peace, not only for an end to violence in the Park Hill neighborhood in which they are located, but also for an end to the violence that has been occurring in the nation and around the world, from Baton Rouge to Syria, South Carolina to Iraq.

“Peace is at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel,” said Cure d’Ars pastor Father Simon Kalonga. “Peace and justice, that’s what the Lord likes. So we turn to him tonight, praying for peace, peace in our neigh or hoods, peace in our nation, and peace throughout the world. It is important to turn to the Lord in our time of need, so let us open our minds, our hearts, our ears and our eyes to receive God’s gifts of peace and justice.

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Cure d’Ars held a prayer vigil Aug. 4 for peace and an end to violence, not only globally, but also locally. The vigil served as a strong platform for local Black Catholics to express their feelings about the violence their community has experience, and offered a strong message of hope and perseverance. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

During the vigil, parishioners and leaders from Cure d’Ars and the surrounding community expressed their desire for things to change. The parish has been working with other local churches over the past year to form a strong spiritual front against the violence occurring in their collective neighborhoods. One church they’ve been working closely with is Shorter African Methodist Episcopal Church and Rev. Davis. She attended the prayer vigil and delivered a moving message for those who were there.

“Your mere presence here today gives me hope, a hope that is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” she said. “As St. Augustine said, hope has two daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, but the courage to make sure they don’t remain that way. Do not lose your hope. Stay in prayer, keep the faith, and know that things will change.”

“If we truly believe that we serve a God who can do all things and is all things and is everywhere, then we have to believe that we can transform these communities just with our mere presence,” Davis said. “When we are present, that means the spirit of the Lord is present, and if the spirit of the Lord is present, that means that things can and will change.”

As St. Augustine said, hope has two daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, but the courage to make sure they don’t remain that way. Do not lose your hope. Stay in prayer, keep the faith, and know that things will change.”

One Cure d’Ars parishioner, Skeet Johnson, is a former Colorado State public defender of 23 years. Last year, he met Davis and became involved in an ecumenical group of leaders and members from several different local churches facilitated by her to embark on prayer walks throughout the local community. The walks were organized in response to the overwhelming amount of violence that occurred over the summer in Park Hill neighborhood and the surrounding areas.

Not one to simply sit still and do nothing, Johnson believes that Catholics are called by Christ to leave the walls of their churches and be among those who are suffering.

“Being able to share that Christian love that you say you got, rather than keeping it inside of you or inside those walls is what this is about,” he said. “Taking the risk that the Master took; he was no wimp. He was someone who was out there, doing it.”

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Local African Episcopal Minister Rev. Tawana Davis delivered a moving message during the vigil, quoting St. Augustine. Her church, Shorter African Methodist Episcopal church along with Cure d’Ars parish and several other churches began doing prayer walks last summer around the Park Hill neighborhood and surrounding areas, praying in the places where violence had occurred and for the people who live there. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

Another parishioner, Minnie Cassel, shared how she has been living in Park Hill for 31 years and has experienced countless shootings, including some right outside of her bedroom window. She also lost one of her daughters to violence in 2007. In spite of what she has seen happen in her neighborhood, she refuses to move.

“They’re not going to run me away,” she told the community. “We need to stay, fight for our homes, fight for our community, fight for our families, fight for our lives. If we keep praying, I’m sure God will hear us and things will change. I honestly believe that, and I hope you do too.”