Oakland parish spans racial and cultural divides in week of grief

by Monica Clark


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In mid-June, Fr. Aidan McAleenan, pastor of St. Columba Parish here faced challenges unlike any he'd experienced in his 10 years as a priest. First was an early-morning text on June 16 from a friend in his native Ireland: "Are you on your way to the hospital?"

"Why?" he replied as he opened his tablet and scanned the news. There it was: Five Irish college students in Berkeley on a summer work program and the American cousin of one of them had been killed when an apartment balcony on which they were standing collapsed, hurling them five stories to the sidewalk below. Another seven students were critically injured.

A quick call to Fr. Brendan McBride of San Francisco's Irish Immigration Pastoral Center alerted McAleenan to his next action -- a 16-mile drive to the trauma center, where two of the victims were being treated. He arrived to find seven of their friends huddled in shock and disbelief. For the next seven hours, he sat with them, listening and consoling. He also made a call to Oakland Bishop Michael Barber, requesting a June 17 Mass at the cathedral for the grieving Irish community. The bishop asked if McAleenan would preach.

But the 52-year-old priest had little time to prepare a homily before learning of a second tragedy -- nine African-Americans had been killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

St. Columba's predominantly African-American congregation was stunned by news of the June 17 event. They, too, needed a place to grieve while they confronted again the reality of racial violence.

What happened next came as no surprise to Fr. Aidan, as he is affectionately called. His pastoral council president had asked leaders of the parish's 38 ministries to alert parishioners to the cathedral Mass for the Irish students. Many changed their schedules to attend. Some helped the parish staff prepare their church to receive the caskets of four of the Irish students so their families could hold a joint wake June 19.

"As we were doing all of this arranging, I kept thinking about those parents on the long flight to San Francisco to claim their youngsters' bodies," McAleenan said. "When I heard their wails as the coffins were opened in our sanctuary, I thought my heart would break."

His parishioners, including those who'd lost children through accidents, street violence and suicide, approached each set of grieving families with words of solace and understanding. The Irish Catholics learned "they've got family here," said pastoral council president Margaret Peterson. "It is our African-American tradition and the tradition of this parish that when there is a need, something to be fulfilled, you do it. We witnessed that."

On the night of June 22, St. Columba Parish witnessed that outpouring again when more than 130 parishioners and neighbors gathered in the church for prayer, this time to remember those killed in Charleston. In small groups, they also talked about their experiences of racism and what they can do to change the reality.

"We cannot come back this way again," said McAleenan, who experienced discrimination while growing up in Northern Ireland. "We must discuss racism as a parish. We must do something -- a boycott, an action, we must show up."

Peterson told NCR that the recent tragedy in the Charleston church "is not different" from Sept. 15, 1963, when four black schoolgirls were killed by a bomb during a Sunday service at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala. A place of sanctuary was violated.

Michael Sahlman, a parish council member, said St. Columba parishioners are now "articulating a fear of being attacked in church. Are we a target?"

St. Columba is located on one of Oakland's main thoroughfares. Each year, white wooden crosses are planted in a rose garden at the church's entrance, each signifying a person killed by violence in the city. The majority are African-American.

Racism remains, even in the Catholic church, Peterson said. She recalled times when her offer of a handshake at the sign of peace was not accepted by parishioners in predominantly white churches in the Oakland diocese.

The issue of racism was central to another event at St. Columba that ended the week of grief. Hundreds of community members packed the church June 23 for an action by faith-based Oakland Community Organizations and other justice groups. They came to ask city and county officials to direct monies saved from sentencing law changes into education, restorative justice programs, and job training for immigrants and African-Americans. They also asked the local district attorney to reduce probation from five years to three. The officials promised to work for the changes they requested.

Those in attendance sat in a recently renovated church imbued with an Afro-centric sensibility, a change from when the parish, named for an Irish abbot and missionary, was made of Italian and Irish immigrants. Two European statues now have black faces.

A life-size figure of the crucified Jesus, carved in ebony by a Ghanaian artist, hangs above the baptismal font. Paintings of African saints and American icons of social justice line the walls; among them are Martin de Porres, Josephine Bakhita, Augustus Tolton, Thea Bowman and Dorothy Day. An African symbol for God is embedded in the wall above the main entrance.

"The black church is where black people are told they are beautiful, that they are human, that they are equal," said Divine Word Fr. Kwame Assenyoh, a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley who provides clergy support at St. Columba. "God comes to rescue us, to restore the disruption caused by inequality. What we need is equality because that is how God created us."

[Monica Clark is an NCR West Coast Correspondent. Her email address is mclark@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the July 17-30, 2015 print issue under the headline: Parish spans racial and cultural divides in week of grief.

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