‘Ethnic minority groups should not have to struggle for justice’– Service marks start of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Leaders and members of Dublin’s main Christian Churches gathered in Christ Church Cathedral yesterday evening (Wednesday January 18) for a powerful and inspiring service to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2023.
Organised by Dublin Council of Churches, Archbishop Michael Jackson and Archbishop Dermot Farrell represented the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church. Other active participants represented the Presbyterian Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church, St Thomas Indian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, the Religious Society of Friends and the Lutheran Church.
This year’s theme ‘Be–longing: Praying for Unity amidst Injustice’ was chosen by the Council of Churches in Minnesota in response to systemic racism as witnessed in the brutal killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Participants prayed about and reflected on injustice, oppression and exploitation of people.
The theme was given particular resonance in an Irish context by Geraldine McDonnell and the Revd Canon Fr Paul O’Driscoll of the Parish of the Travelling People who spoke of the exclusion and discrimination experienced by members of the Travelling community and the impact that has on all areas of their lives.
Opening the service Archbishop Michael Jackson observed that Christian communities across the world would be reflecting on the same theme and praying for unity amidst injustice throughout the octave which culminates on the Feast of St Paul who is an inspiration and a guide on living a life of Christian belonging. “We carry the spirit of those who seek justice with us where ever we meet others this week in the name of Christ,” he said.
Welcoming the congregation to the cathedral Dean Dermot Dunne said that Dublin Council of Churches had broadened out the Black Lives Matter theme to look at the theme of the social evil of racism and exclusion. “There is a passive racism [in Ireland] which happens as a result of exclusion,” he commented.
Geraldine McDonnell said that Travellers made up less than 0.7 percent of the population of Ireland. They have always identified themselves as a distinct ethnic group of Irish Travellers and this ethnic status was recognised by the State in 2017. Despite this, she stated, not much had changed for Travellers in terms of racism and systemic exclusion with only three percent of Travellers being over the age of 65. The suicide rate is seven times higher than the national average.
She cited a recent study which found that 77 percent of Travellers had experienced discrimination in the past year and 43 percent had experienced discrimination while accessing employment and 40 percent said that they or their children had been bullied at school due to their identity. They also fare poorly on every indicator used to measure disadvantage.
“We as Travellers believe that some of our community are adapting our behaviour and the way we present ourselves in multiple areas of life in order to fit in more,” she said. “Some of our young people are hiding their identity to gain employment because they feel they won’t get an equal chance or opportunity if they identify as a Traveller to an employer. But in the face of this we are a strong and resilient community…. Respect for our culture has the potential to deconstruct centuries of internalised shame in our community and allow future generations and our children to grow pride in our identity. The promotion and celebration of Traveller culture and heritage is important in showing respect for Traveller identity. Ireland is a multicultural society. Ethnic minority groups should not have to struggle for justice and equality. We want to live life and not just survive it.”
In his sermon, Fr O’Driscoll took up the theme and observed that no one can choose their nationality, their colour or what part of the world they are born in. “When you are born, you are landed … Much of who we are is what is given to us,” he stated. He said that racism for white people had been likened to a family with a crazy uncle who had been locked away in the attic for generations – they know he’s there but they don’t want to take him out in public because they are embarrassed. But because he is rich and the rest of the family are living of wealth and power he has accumulated. “Even though many of us disapprove of the tactics he has used to gain his fortune, few of us want to be written out of his will. The legacy of racism has fuelled the house of collective white identity for centuries,” he said.
Fr O’Driscoll explained that we experience racism and injustice as individuals but when a crisis occurred we experience it together and without the opportunity for relief, there is a shattering of equilibrium. “On the 25th of May 2020 a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead. A shocking stillness settled as eight minutes and 46 seconds ticked by. Pleas to let him breathe were ignored. We could not unsee the cruelty. We could not continue the public pretence that we all have equal protection under the law. The true crisis for humanity is diminished compassion for others,” he said.
He suggested that people could listen, love their neighbour and host the spirit. He said that the wounds on society are experienced as a collective trauma and these wounds were recurring. He said when meeting people who had experienced trauma we often asked the wrong question. “We ask troubled young people what is wrong with them instead of asking what has happened to them. They are unable to advocate for themselves or their community. They are prisoners of the perceptions of themselves,” he said adding that young people are more likely to act upon their rage.
The intercessions continued the reflection on the theme and expressed shame that racism and exclusion continued to be endemic in society: “We honour all those people who have been victims of racism and xenophobia. We fall silent and acknowledge that many of their names are not known, many of their stories not heard, justice not delivered. We remember and honour parents and friends of those whose lives were snuffed out, we remember and honour all who fight tirelessly for justice.”