In a prayer service aimed at recognizing systematic racism in the United States and working toward healing, parishioners at a Lexington church joined churches of different denominations around the country Sunday in remembering enslaved Africans who were brought to the colony of Virginia in August of 1619.
Those who attended the service, which was held at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church on Jefferson Street, sang spirituals, prayed together and listened as bells were rung for four minutes in remembrance of each century since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia.
Father Norman Fischer, the pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, led the service Sunday afternoon. When the bells were rung at 3 p.m., the doors of the church were held open to symbolize the solidarity with other churches across the country that were ringing bells at the same.
“When you know your history, you can know your greatness, but there’s a lot of history that we have to acknowledge first so that we can heal and be in solidarity with one another truly,” Fischer said in an interview before Sunday’s service.
Fischer said that the history of the first Africans who arrived in what would become the United States is sometimes overlooked and ignored, and that it is important to remember the people who were brought to the country through bondage and slavery.
It is especially important for Lexington to look back at the history of slavery, Fischer said. He pointed to downtown’s Cheapside, which was once one of the largest slave markets in the South.
“We have to know that there’s been a lot of horrible history and injustice that was done, even in the heart of Lexington,” Fischer said.
Moving forward, Fischer said it will be important for people to foster dialogue, have healing groups and learn from one another.
“There’s always the possibility of being truly one nation under God, but right now there’s a lot of setbacks because of different peoples who have expressions of one over another,” Fischer said. “The white supremacists groups, there’s so many of those, there’s a lot of distrust from the hurts from one group over the other, and it seems to me that right now it’s easy to say there’s a lot more of those eruptions of violence and hatred toward other races.”
The recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and acts of violence against people who are Muslim and Jewish examples of hatred in the country, Fischer said.
“Right now there’s a lot of factionalism, a lot of division, a lot of hurts, a lot of hatred, and we have to take a stand, we can’t just watch it and be on the sidelines anymore,” Fischer said. “We have to say we are peace-makers, we are children of God so we need to come together now more than ever.”
One member of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, John Phillips, said that Sunday’s service was uplifting and full of hope and love.
“One of the biggest things we have to do when it comes to love, and loving one another, it’s not only just to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but in order for there to be full forgiveness, there must be a debt paid of reparations,” Phillips said. “And we’re not seeing our leaders, especially the top of this country, pulling every part of the nation together, so it’s fractured.”
Bill Grimes, who belongs to St. Julie Catholic Church in Owingsville, was one of several who traveled from other churches to be at the service. Grimes, who is white, said that racism is a continuing problem and that ongoing work has to be done to bring the country together.
“I don’t think we in this country realize what a significant problem we have with racism. I think that we thought the problem was improved immensely when we had an African-American president, but I think it actually in some respects has gotten worse, and so I think every person needs to realize that racism is endemic and no matter how hard we work to not be a racist, there is always something there inside of us that we just can’t recognize or we can’t pull out.”
Educator Dr. Roger Cleveland spoke at the service, and he said it is important for people of the United States to recognize the past, respond to what took place and work toward repairing relationships.
“The reality is that racism is embedded in our country,” Cleveland said. “It’s been here since the inception.”
Cleveland said a systemic response to the damage that has been done is needed, and that it will take courage.