Guest Homily: Christian Love and Racial Reconciliation
The following is a homily delivered by Fr. Justin Rose, the pastor of St. George Melkite Greek-Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The parish is marking its 100th anniversary this year. He delivered this homily on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost on the Gregorian Calendar, which coincided with the first official celebration of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the United States. The Gospel was from Matthew 8:5-13, about the faith of a centurion, whose love of Christ healed his servant who was paralyzed at home.
One of the nice things about this centennial year is that I've learned a lot about some of the key figures in the history of St. George. And one of them, of course, is well known even to people who never had met him. At the time he was here, as pastor, Fr. Joseph Raya, eventually, when I knew him as a seminarian, many years later, Archbishop Joseph Raya. The anniversary of his death was this week, so we will pray the memorial prayers for him today at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy.
For those of you who weren't baptized by him, or who didn't know him at all, he was pastor here at St. George from 1952 to 1968, which was, as you know, a very tumultuous time here in Birmingham, with the civil rights movement.
Father Joseph worked directly with Martin Luther King, Jr. and learn from him methods of passive nonviolence, passive resistance, and protest. So when he became Archbishop of Galilee, he brought those things with him. He protested on the steps of the Knesset in Jerusalem for a better life for the Palestinian people, and to protest the injustice going on there.
One of the things that was most sobering for me as I learned about Archbishop Joseph, was that at one time, St. St. George was on the Ku Klux Klan 's radar. I want you to let that sink in for a minute. The Ku Klux Klan was watching our church because of Raya's work with African Americans, but also because we are a Catholic Church, and we had Middle Eastern people. We were pretty much the same to the Klan, as African Americans were. That's a very sobering fact.
At one point, Archbishop Joseph, when he was still pastor here, invited some African Americans to come to church. And the Klan told him the next day that they were going to burn this church down—this very church that we're standing in today. He had just built it, so he backed off. But he did start a mission downtown called St. Moses the Ethiopian, a Melkite mission for African Americans. If you know anything more about it—I don't have any more details—I would love to know. It certainly may be part of our historical display at the festival.
Father Joseph had a cleaning lady who had to come into the rectory through the back door because she was Black. Raya wasn't having that. So he insisted that she come through the front door. The Klan didn't like that. They told him that the next time they saw her come through the front door—and again, that should be sobering that they were watching us—they were gonna beat him up.
So the next day cleaning lady comes to the front door. That night, the Klan dragged him out of the rectory, and they beat him up. In the process of kicking him and beating him, one of the Klansmen—I'm not going to repeat the word, nor should anyone else ever use it, but you know what I'm gonna say—said, "you're an N lover."
Raya, in the midst of being kicked, looked up at that man looked him in the eyes and said, "Yes, I am an N lover. And I'm a Klux Klan lover. I love you."
Does that mean he agreed with what the plan was was about? Absolutely not.
He was stretching his arms out on the cross like Jesus, and showing that kind of love and forgiveness. 35 years later, in retirement Raya got a call from that Klansmen. He told him that for 35 years that one moment in his life had changed everything. He had left his white supremacy behind, that his whole life had changed because of the love and the forgiveness that Raya showed at that moment. In that moment of terror and of suffering.
We misunderstand love in our culture today. Love is not a feeling. Love, ultimately, is a reality that comes from God Himself. So when we genuinely love, we make Christ among us—Christ present—we bring the Kingdom of God present into the world. It's only through that love and forgiveness that we can bring healing, to injustice, to hatred, to ignorance.
Love is not a feeling. Love, ultimately, is a reality that comes from God Himself.
Yesterday marked the first official civil observance of Juneteenth, which is the final emancipation of all slaves in the United States, in Texas, and also marks the passing of some civil rights legislation as well.
I think we here at St. George, are in a position to really understand and empathize with the spirit of Juneteenth, not only because our beloved pastor was so involved in the civil rights movement, and we were also targeted for persecution. But I think even on a personal level, many of us can understand perhaps all of us can understand what it's like to be in a position of persecution.
The roots of our parish are Lebanese and Palestinian and Jordanian. Certainly, in those countries, we've suffered from the oppression of the Zionists, who themselves had suffered at the hands of Nazis, but turned around instead of standing in solidarity with others chose to become the oppressors themselves. And we pray for the conversion of all of those who continue to oppress today.
We're also in this community, Italians, and Germans and Irish. And when our ancestors came to this country, they also faced persecution. We have many people in this parish, from Slavic origins, whose families had to deal with the atheism of the Soviets and the persecution there. We have Armenians in this parish, whose people suffer genocide that the Turks still don't admit to. We have Syrians and Iraqis who have had to flee their country because of the unrest there. We even have a Buddhist and a Jewish member of our of our parish, by marriage.
So in this beautiful, rich community, that are bound together in love, we, as a community can know what it's like to yearn to be free of suffering, to be to be free of injustice. And even if none of those categories apply to you, even if your family history has none of that, on a personal level, even if you don't know what it's like to have vetted migration, or to have suffered oppression, you've been at the other end of someone else's finger, right? You are "those people" to somebody, for some reason. We've all been at some point in our life, the one being laughed at.
We, as a community can know what it's like to yearn to be free of suffering, to be to be free of injustice.
We know how it feels to be in a position where we can't escape someone else's, pointing their finger at us, and making us "those people."
So we are uniquely poised to stand with the suffering and to empathize with the suffering of African Americans in this country, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, the Native Americans or whoever are from around the world and empathize with their suffering and their their yearning for justice.
In the Gospel today, Jesus healed this man from a distance simply by a word, simply by saying a word He was present. Even though He physically wasn't there, he was present and he healed His servant.
By a word of love and forgiveness, Raya brought healing to that terrible moment of suffering and injustice for him. Sometimes people think when a priest talks about love and forgiveness, that what he means is something wishy washy, and "oh, we should just let everything go."
No, that's not at all the love and forgiveness that Raya was showing on the ground as he was being kicked and beaten by the Ku Klux Klan.
I don't know if I'm man enough, and I don't know if I'm Christian enough to love and forgive in that pure way. But I do know two things. I know that the injustice and the oppression and the conflict in the world today will not be healed except by that love and forgiveness. But the love and forgiveness of Jesus are what we need to heal the conflicts in the world.
I don't know if I'm man enough, and I don't know if I'm Christian enough to love and forgive in that pure way.
I also know The Jesus has given us in abundance, everything we need to be men and women, to be Christians who love and forgive the way Raya did that day, in this very Eucharist, where Jesus pours himself out for us, where He, once again from the cross, pours out His love and His forgiveness. And he calls us to do the same to be Christ in the world as we walk out the door, as we interact with whoever in our lives.
So my brothers and sisters, we stand with people in Africa today who are being slaughtered by another tribe by an opposite group. We stand with people in Palestine, in Iraq, in all over the world. We stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow Americans who are struggling with injustice, and we, through our own struggles, to love and to forgive. Bring the healing that is Christ among us.