(Source: MJ/Vatican News)

On 23 August, the shooting of a Black man by police officers in the US state of Wisconsin during a response to a domestic incident sparked an immediate social media backlash, protests and a Department of Justice investigation.

The victim of the police shooting, identified as 29-year-old Jacob Blake of Kenosha, was transported to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, where he underwent surgery for his wounds. 

A video posted on social media showed Blake walking away from two Kenosha Police Department officers as they followed him with weapons drawn.

He was grabbed by the back of his shirt as he opened the door of a parked car and shot at close range.

By late Sunday, large crowds of demonstrators began to fill the streets in protest of the shooting.

Against this backdrop, the director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Fessahaye Mebrahtu, spoke with Vatican News.

He reflected on racial tensions in the United States, and highlighted the important influence of economic and social factors in restoring justice, especially among the African American communities in Wisconsin.

Mr. Mebrahtu’s office covers the African, African American, Asian and Native American Catholic communities within the archdiocese.

Lack of jobs, incarceration

According to Mehbratu, two significant things explain the challenges faced by Black people in southeastern Wisconsin, particularly in the cities of Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine.

First, the closures of the big industries which used to provide well-paying jobs. Many people, now unemployed due to the closures, have found themselves in difficult economic situations.

The second, Mehbratu explained, is the “lack of equal opportunities” due to the “very grim” high incarceration rate of people of African American descent.

He noted that Black people make up six percent of the population in the state of Wisconsin, with 70 to 80 percent of that number living in the areas around Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine.

Yet, 50 to 60 percent of the people in prison are African American, and after incarceration, these people find it difficult to get jobs and fit back into society.

These two factors, he explained, have consequently led to increased aggressive policing of these areas which unfortunately sometimes creates tensions.

The Church, actively engaged against racial injustice

Mebrahtu also pointed out that the Milwaukee archdiocese has been an active voice speaking up against social and racial injustices.

On 11 July, the Black Catholic Ministry Commission of the Milwaukee archdiocese organized a mile-and-a-half march to draw attention to the problems of racial injustice after the tragic death on 25 May of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minnesota during an arrest.

The march made stops at various historical sites, including the parishes of St. Francis of Assisi, the former site of Blessed Martin de Porres and St. Benedict the Moor – three historically African American parishes – along with St. Anthony’s hospital, which used to care predominantly for members of the black community.

Two weeks before that, a prayer service titled “Together in Christ” was organised by the Black Catholic Ministry Commission at the Cathedral. On that occasion, the faithful, led by Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, prayed for the healing of the black community.

Bishops in the US have also invited the faithful to participate in a day of prayer and fasting against racism on August 28 or on September 9, the feast of St. Peter Claver, in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. 

Hope for the future

Mehbratu expressed hopes that increased awareness of the issue of racial tensions in the United States will lead to a long-lasting solution.

He said the current situation is “not sustainable” and “is not good for the community that is directly affected and also for the nation.”

Mehbratu acknowledged that more work needs to be done to resolve racial justice issues as they cannot be dismissed any longer and are vital to the fate of the country.

“We are a people of faith, and as a people of faith, we are a people of hope,” said Mehbratu.

More on Novena on racism in the US:

On anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, US Bishops invite Catholics to prayer and fasting against racism

“When will it end?”, US National Council of Churches cries after more “horrific” shootings of Black men by police

By Novena US contributor Matt Kappadakunnel:

Feeling racial injustice fatigue? Here’s why – and how – to keep fighting

Black Lives Martyred: Trayvon, Ahmaud, Breonna, George… pray for us


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.