Learning to listen

As a Christian community, how do we respond to racially-charged incidents?

Callie Schmidt | News Reporter

Black Lives Matter.

Blue Lives Matter.

Biblical studies professor Juan Hernández Jr. spoke at the first chapel of the year Aug. 29 about participating in Philando Castile protests at Governor Mark Dayton’s mansion and other sites in July.

Hernández did not tell anyone about his topic, other than his wife and daughter.

“I chose to (speak on this matter). And actually, I felt like I had no choice but to,” Hernández said.

Hernández intentionally tried to humanize Castile by reflecting on his life rather than politicize the shooting.

“Once something like that becomes politicized, people become caricatures,” Hernández said.

The night of the protest, Hernández attended a gathering at J. J. Hill Montessori, the school where Castile worked in the cafeteria. Grief-stricken colleagues spoke of Castile’s love for the children.

“He had all 500 of their names memorized, as well as whatever allergies they suffered, so that he could better serve them. There were stories of how, during lunch time, he would slip extra graham crackers to kids who were having a bad day and how he would fill in for other staff when necessary. … He was unanimously described as a gentle man – a ‘Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,’ ” Hernández said.

Hernández said he received unanimously positive feedback from both faculty and students after speaking at chapel. Students who didn’t even go to chapel were contacting him to say they listened to the podcast. And some cried.

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Hernández took his daughter to the corner of Philando Castile’s traffic stop at Larpenteur and Fry. “I wanted her to understand, in whatever way she could, this this hurts us all and that we are all responsible for the world we live in,” Hernández said. | Photo provided by Professor Juan Hernández, Jr.

On July 7, President Jay Barnes sent out an email addressing the Philando Castile shooting to the Bethel community.

“The news broke overnight of the shooting of another African-American man by a member of a local police force,” Barnes wrote. “While details must be clarified, this much is clear–it is dangerous to be a man of color in America. Although it is not easy to be a member of law enforcement today, something seems very wrong when a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight turns fatal. … We grieve for the places where the color of one’s skin increases the risk of death.”

Audio from police dispatch recorded Officer Yanez pulling Castile over because he looked like an armed robbery suspect, due to his “wide-set nose.”

“Having a wide-set nose is not a reason to be shot four times,” Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker said. “Then every African-American male with a wide set nose or dreadlocks looks like a suspect. … That’s racial profiling at it’s worst.”

Bunker said, as Christians, we need to learn how to listen to one another. Know the facts, but be willing to speak up when something is wrong.

Bunker has heard people address the issue by saying more white people have been shot than blacks. But blacks only make up about 13 percent of United States population, which makes the number of deaths disproportionate.

Barnes sent out a second email July 8 to the Bethel community, praying for the Dallas community after the shooting of police officers the night prior.

“As Pastor Laurel reminded us, there is no excuse ever for this type of senseless violence and revenge,” Barnes wrote.

Bethel University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion put this call into action by sponsoring a discussion forum Sept. 19 with local law enforcement members, including Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom and retired St. Paul police sergeant Melvin Carter Jr., who has led a variety of initiatives and founded Save Our Sons, an organization devoted to mentoring and supporting at-risk black youth.

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Bethel’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion sponsor “Policing and Community: A Dialogue with Leaders” Sept. 19. | Photo by Callie Schmidt

Carter Jr. wrote a book with SOS called Surviving Police Stops with Dignity, a picture-book helping black males survive police encounters. Another book they’re working on is called Dismantling Gun Violence at Both Ends of the Bullet.

Bostrom spoke about how people think based on first impressions, but they need to seek understanding by listening and not making assumptions

“It starts by not prescribing anything. … It’s about listening first,” Bostrom said. “Seek first to understand, and the only way you’re going to do that is if you care about another human being, close your mouth, and listen deeply to what they have to say…Each one of us has a role in this.”

In his convocation, Hernández attempted to humanize the victims even further by saying it should not matter if they were black rather than any other race. It should not matter the neighborhoods they lived in or their socioeconomic status.

“These were people with hopes, dreams, aspirations – and rights – just like any one of us – who now had to grapple with the unimaginable, a tragedy that appears to emerge—at the very least—from questionable circumstances and ones that appear to fit within larger patterns of discrimination,” Hernández said.

According to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on nationwide police killings, black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, despite 30 percent of black victims being unarmed compared to 19 percent of white victims in 2015. Police have killed at least 214 black people in the US in 2016.

“Even police departments are acknowledging that there are flaws in their systems and that racial profiling is one of them,” Bunker said. “Does that mean that communities of color hate police? Absolutely not. So, equating standing up for Philando or against any injustice with a hatred of police officers is unfair and is a narrow-minded view. The reality is, as Christians, we have to stand together in the middle and admit that there are bad cops. … Just like there are people who do wrong. Why do we have to be so squeamish about admitting we still have work to do?”