‘Faith March 4 Justice’ Draws Interfaith Participants in Washington Heights

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An interfaith rally, march and prayer vigil in Manhattan June 7 emphasizing solidarity against racism featured participation from Catholic clergy and parishioners.

The event, called Faith March 4 Justice, was in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn. Floyd died after Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee down against his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Chauvin and three other officers who were present are facing criminal charges and have been dismissed from their jobs.

The incident sparked protests across the nation and world. Pope Francis issued firm words of denouncement at his weekly general audience June 3, saying, “I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd. We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” The pope also said, “the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating.”

The multicultural rally, in which St. Elizabeth parish played a leading role, occurred outside St. Elizabeth School, after which participants marched for about a mile in the Washington Heights neighborhood to the Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini, where the outdoor prayer vigil took place. Participants marched south on Wadsworth Avenue, across West 181st Street and then north on Fort Washington Avenue to the Cabrini Shrine, singing “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome.” The gathering was reminiscent of faith marches during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The event attracted about 100 people, including priests and parishioners from churches in the Deanery of North Manhattan, such as Good Shepherd and Incarnation.

Catholic priests who participated included Father Thomas Faiola, O.F.M. Cap., pastor of Good Shepherd parish in Manhattan; Father Clement Umoenoh, chaplain at New York Presbyterian/Columbia, who is in residence at St. Elizabeth; Father Justin Cinnante, O. Carm., chaplain at Iona Prep in New Rochelle; and Father Michael Eguino, S.D.B., parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth, who was an organizer of the event.

Also present were two Lutheran bishops from the Atlantic District, Bishop Derek Lecakes and Bishop David Benke, who is retired, and other Lutheran clergy. 

“The one thing missing from all of these protests has been faith, bringing God into this. We as a Church offer a faith-based alternative,” Father Eguino later told Catholic New York in a phone interview.

“Man can change a law, but it is God who changes the heart. Racism is a sin. We have to speak up against injustice. Just as God does not abandon His people, the shepherds do not abandon the flock.” 

Julia Attaway, executive director of Cabrini Shrine, attended the prayer vigil. “We were here waiting to receive people as they arrived,” she told CNY. “It was people of different backgrounds, different denominations, including Jewish people. It was pretty beautiful. It was not anti-anything except sin...Different members of the clergy each said prayers, and then everybody said the Our Father together at the end.”

Along with Father Eguino, speakers at the rally included Lutheran Rev. Dr. John A. Nunes, president of Concordia College in Bronxville; Alizae Burgess, a youth group leader at St. Elizabeth; and Abraham Alarcon, a parishioner of St. Elizabeth who works at the archdiocesan Catechetical Office.

Ms. Burgess, who is of Dominican ancestry, spoke of being racially profiled by police as a teen, added that looting and violence have no place at protests. Alarcon talked about racism being a sin.

Rev. Nunes, of Jamaican descent, spoke about his son experiencing racism and discrimination.

People in the crowd shouted, “George Floyd matters!” And they shouted the names of other unarmed African Americans who have died in police incidents or while in custody. 

About a half dozen police officers from the 34th Precinct were assigned to monitor the rally, march and prayer vigil. During the vigil, there were also prayers for the officers. “Several police officers were moved,” Father Eguino said. “They cried.”

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