My mom is often amazed when I recall incidents from my youth in precise detail. She would typically remark, “How do you remember all that?” I guess some things are just ingrained in the mind.
One such time was when I was walking alone down the streets of Wildwood as a boy somewhere around 10-12 years old. It was the springtime and mid-morning on a clear, sunny day. The summer crowds were not around yet. I was returning from Fox Park where I would frequently play with my friends. Our town was usually safe to walk or ride my bike around alone.
As it turned out, that day a group of black youth was coming down Ocean Avenue in the opposite direction. There were about a dozen of them. One teen, obviously looking to start some trouble, approached me. I was minding my own business and hadn’t even spoken a word. Before I knew it, he had tackled me to the ground as his friends laughed and cheered him on. How was this happening to me? I did nothing to provoke such behavior. Fortunately, a passer-by stopped. Obviously, he had seen what was going on and came to my rescue. He threatened to call the police and the gang of youth quickly ran.
Fast forward to my college days. I was in Philadelphia shopping alone at the Gallery—an indoor mall—on Market Street. I was a seminarian at the time. Again, a group of black teens/young adults approached me looking to start something. I had not spoken a word to any of them. I told them that I was not looking for any trouble and that I was, in fact, studying to be a priest. One nearby lady heard me say this and immediately came and stood by my side and told the troublemakers to go before she called the cops.
I try to think of myself as a person who is colorblind. I try not to judge a person because of his or her skin, race or nationality but seek to determine what is going on in the heart. I have vacationed and shared meals regularly with an African-American couple who have been my friends almost as long as I have been a priest. In fact, I tried as best I could, not to allow some bad past experiences to poison the way I look at or treat others.
I have lived and worked with priests from Africa, India, Ireland, Poland, Colombia, the Philippines and Mexico. I studied with men from Vietnam, Poland and China. They were/are some of the finest people that I was fortunate enough to know. What a blessing to be exposed to the many different cultures worldwide that all comprise the universal (Catholic) church!
My deepest scars in life, in fact, never came from some foreigners, but rather from those who should have been a source of strength and support—my fellow (American) Catholics. There were those parishioners who made my life miserable and personally attacked me as a priest for following the request of the bishop to merge parishes. There were those students in Catholic grade school and high school who made fun of the way I looked, or my ethnic heritage.
Tension is running high in society after the recent shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul. People are taking to the streets to protest in various cities. Whether it is the police who were killed and injured in Dallas or certain black individuals who were shot and killed elsewhere, there is mistrust, anger, fear and an ever-growing concern in the general population. We need to support our police who do their jobs day in and day out under increasing pressure, tension and scrutiny. The overwhelming majority perform their duties in selfless, exemplary fashion. We also need to listen to one another and to hear the concerns that lead to protests in the streets.
We are at a difficult time once again in America. May God help us all as the presidential election draws nearer.
We certainly need to pray fervently.
Fr. Ed Namiotka