Issue that has divided nation could use healthy dose of Catholic perspective, say experts

DETROIT — It was one small act that launched a thousand discussions.

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick opted to kneel during the national anthem before a preseason game in 2016, it began a furor of conversations on race, patriotism, police brutality and respect for the military.

The silent protest has since then sparked a nationwide debate, and tomorrow, May 11, Sacred Heart Major Seminary and the Archdiocese of Detroit's Office of Black Catholic Ministry are hoping to add another wrinkle to the discussion with a presentation open to the public.

The talk, called “Taking a Knee,” will take place from 9 to 11:30 a.m. at Corpus Christi Parish, 19800 Pembroke Ave., in northwest Detroit, part of the ongoing Disciples on Mission speaker series, a collaborative effort between the seminary and the Archdiocese of Detroit. 

Organizers hoping those who attend can take away a different, calmer perspective on a topic that has roiled the nation.

Talking as brothers and sisters

Curtis Simpson Jr., Christian service director at Corpus Christi, will be one of the speakers. He told Detroit Catholic he wants people to take away a greater understanding of the Catholic concept of social justice, especially as it is applied to nationwide discussions on race, patriotism and faith.

“Our faith is a universal faith, so how do we universally get to a better space around this topic?” Simpson said. “How do we take our experiences, the discrimination of the past, and move forward? Are there ways as Catholic-Christians we can address this?”

Students surround an American flag during a Nov. 10 prayer service in honor of local veterans and Veterans Day at St. Louis Church in Pittsford, N.Y. Marked officially on Nov. 11, the holiday honors all those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

Simpson said Kaepernick and other prominent athletes have brought long-lingering issues of racial equality to the forefront of the American consciousness.

“Colin Kaepernick used one of the largest arenas and stages in all the world in an attempt to get his point across,” Simpson said. “But people — not only in white America, but in black America, many who served this country — felt he was being disrespectful to the flag and the honor it stands for, that people died for their country.”

Simpson said the talk can help people of varying backgrounds understand how symbols mean different things to different people, and how a focus on Christ can make difficult conversations — such as on race in America — easier.

“As an evangelizer, I’m approaching this as a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, that we need to keep the conversation going, that we need to hear each other as brothers and sister, and that is a big start,” Simpson said.

Michael McCallion, Ph.D., the Fr. William Cunningham Endowed Chair of Catholic Social Analysis at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, will also speak, offering a sociological perspective on why many — mostly older, white Americans — were upset with Kaepernick’s actions.

“We need to talk about these issues with a love and respect of the person,” Simpson said. “If people can take away the simple message of talking to your neighbor about difficult topics with love, this will be a huge success.”

Approaching the topic from a sociological perspective, McCallion said many view symbols of national unity — such as the flag — with an almost sacramental reverence.

“Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen a breakdown of social institutions in middle-class America, a loss of connection, so the only thing that is left sacred for them is the flag or the national anthem,” McCallion said. “So when they see someone take a knee, they get red in the face about it. It’s one of the few things in their orbit that is still held as sacred.”

Both Simpson and McCallion stressed the pain and anger caused by the issue is very real — and the only way to bring about understanding is to look at things from another point of view.

While the topic is controversial, Simpson stressed, the best way to address a controversial topic is to look at the other person as a brother and sister of Christ first, rather than someone from a different race or a different political party.

“From my perspective, I always try to bring it back to Christ, as what Archbishop (Allen H.) Vigneron is challenging us to do as a band of joyful, missionary disciples. We need to talk about these issues with a love and respect of the person,” Simpson said. “If people can take away the simple message of talking to your neighbor about difficult topics with love, this will be a huge success.”

Richard Biscardi, a U.S. Army World War II veteran, holds an American flag during a ceremony Nov. 10 held in observance of Veterans Day at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

A local perspective

While the actions of Kaepernick and other prominent athletes have in some places led to similar protests on the part of high school student-athletes, the controversy hasn't arisen much in the Catholic High School League, said league director Vic Michaels. 

The CHSL in Detroit has no formal policy on athletes taking a knee or electing to sit during the national anthem, instead relying on member schools to come up with their own policies if need be.

“There has been a lot of conversation at our administrative meetings, and we determined each school could set up their own policy without a league-wide policy,” Michaels said. “No school wanted to make a blanket stance on it. Some individuals might have a different reason for taking a knee, and they didn’t want to restrict the action without knowing the reason.”

Every Catholic High School League contest beings with an Our Father and the national anthem, and Michaels said his office doesn’t know of any instances where a national anthem protest has been an issue.

“I don’t know of any Catholic League member school that had a student who took a knee, so we just didn’t want it to be a league-wide issue,” Michaels said. “As a league here in Metro Detroit, it hasn’t come up, so we are letting our member schools dictate their own policy and address any issues.”

Attend the event

  • WHAT: “Taking a Knee: A Catholic, Intercultural Perspective”
  • WHO: Dr. Michael McCallion, Fr. William Cunningham Endowed Chair of Catholic Social Analysis at Sacred Heart Major Seminary; and Curtis Simpson Jr., Christian service director at Corpus Christi Parish, Detroit
  • WHEN: Saturday, May 11, 2019 (9-11:30 a.m.)
  • WHERE: Corpus Christi Parish, 19800 Pembroke Ave., Detroit
  • WHY: Part of the Disciples on Mission speaker series, a collaboration between Sacred Heart Major Seminary and the Archdiocese of Detroit's Office of Black Catholic Ministry
  • REGISTER: https://www.shms.edu/DisciplesonMission2019 

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