I first heard the name “Claver” when I came to know a group of Jesuits missioned to form a community in Cincinnati, Ohio, bearing his name. Living, working and worshipping in a largely low income African-American neighborhood, they hoped to be a positive presence, immersed and listening to their neighbors to discern how they could best serve. Black lives mattered to them.
It wasn’t until much later that I heard the saint’s story. As a young Jesuit, Peter Claver was drawn to the Spanish mission in South America. He served for forty years in Cartagena, Colombia, ministering to African slaves and advocating for their health and welfare. It is said that he baptized upwards of 300,000 persons. Though Claver was widely acclaimed after his death, his life’s work made many people very uncomfortable because he lived out his conviction that—slave or free—these were his brothers and sisters in Christ. He vowed to be “slave of the slaves forever.” Black lives mattered to him.
I recently visited the BlackLivesMatter website. Around the time of President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, the organization shared a litany of statistics including the impact of impoverished neighborhoods, high rates of incarceration, educational disadvantages, and increased disenfranchisement through new voter restrictions on black lives. They succeeded with me in their stated task “of making America uncomfortable about institutional racism.” I also share their conviction that “none of us are free until all of us are free.” On this memorial day of St. Peter Claver, let us ask him to help us overcome racism of any kind and, in solidarity with one another, live the truth that black lives – all lives – matter. St. Peter Claver, pray for us!
—Ms. Jenéne M. Francis is the provincial assistant for pastoral ministries for the Chicago-Detroit and Wisconsin provinces of the Society of Jesus.