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The Challenges of Racism and the Priestly Ministry

Dr. Isaiah McKinnon and Fr. Donald Archambault speak to seminarians about race relations.

by John McKenzie

On Thursday, January 25, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. It was certainly a day that offered the opportunity for all seminarians to reflect on our own conversions in the Lord. As some of us draw closer to our ordination dates when we will forever be configured to the crucified Lord, it was fitting we end the evening feast day with a more serious conversation regarding challenges we will face as priests ministering in different communities of our home dioceses.

As part of our monthly "Seminarian Formation Nights" Msgr. Todd Lajiness, Sacred Heart rector, invited Dr. Isaiah McKinnon, the former deputy mayor and police chief for the city of Detroit and Rev. Fr. Donald Archambault, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish located on the west side of Detroit, to speak to the seminarians about race relations. Both men provided a testimony of his life and discussed exposure to issues sprung from past and recent racial tensions. In so many ways, their experiences resonated, as there are seminarians with a strong desire to work in an inner city or minority communities in urban and rural areas. 

by John McKenzie

Dr. McKinnon shared his experience as one of the first black police officers in the city of Detroit. One of his reasons for joining the police force back in the 1960s was due to an altercation he had at age fourteen with a white police officer. Dr. McKinnon explained that although he had done nothing wrong, the police officer brutally beat him and he did not understand why. He went on to describe how that event left him traumatized, yet at the same time, he did not want this experience to ruin his life.

Dr. McKinnon had a deep sense of his call to become a police officer, and the desire to show to the community that there are good cops on the police force— men and women who desire to protect and serve all citizens. After sharing other great stories, Dr. McKinnon spoke about an encounter he had with the late Nelson Mandela on one of Mandela's official trips after his unjust imprisonment. Mandela expressed great compassion toward Dr. McKinnon's own life. Then officer McKinnon was amazed that a man who had endured so many great sufferings was able to be compassionate toward others and show love and justice to all people. Since this encounter, Dr. McKinnon has followed Mandela's example.

Dr. McKinnon encouraged us to always assist those in great need, even if they look or speak differently. He expressed the necessity to reach out to residents of local communities, particularly to young black males. He believes these young men can have a great future, one Jesus Christ himself, in and through his Church, desires to share with them.

Father Archambault also shared experiences about his thirty-year ministry on the west side of Detroit as pastor of Corpus Christi Parish. He provided a more pastoral approach to race relations and priestly ministry. One great piece of advice was, "be yourself." Even if one is a white priest serving in a minority community, it's okay to be yourself.

Minority communities, particularly the African American community, have historically accepted pastors of different races serving their parishes. Father Archambault explained, "As long as you act yourself, they will accept you." The advice may be simple, but it isn't always easy to do. Father Archambault further shared the enriching gifts of his life in ministry to Detroit's inner city.

He was once protected during the crucial moments of the 1967 Detroit race riots by a man whose family was his host. It took great courage from this black man, to provide shelter for a white man. At the time white people were not allowed in the neighborhood where this family lived. Defying those rules, the husband and father hosted Father Archambault, then only a young seminarian. He shared the immense cultural experiences he had learned while living with this family, including how he almost learned how to dance.

Both special guest speakers gave us much to think about as we discern how God wants us to minister in settings where we are the minority. One priest at the conference spoke about how priests "must help to change a culture for the good.” We must be men who are able to see the problem and assist in the solution.  As we embark upon the New Evangelization inside and outside of Detroit, we pray to God we might have open hearts to all people no matter their ethnicity or their color.  

John McKenzie

John McKenzie is a third-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.