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This Saint Leapt into the Fight for Racial Justice

Meet St. Peter Claver, the patron saint of African-Americans and racial justice.

We Catholics use every September 9th as a day to remember a Spanish college student who lived in Colombia in the early 1600s. His name was Peter Claver, and he was studying in the port town of Cartagena to become a priest.

Here’s what made Cartagena important, and the reason Peter decided to study there: Every year, tens of thousands of people were stolen from their homes and families in Angola and Congo and packed onto ships so tightly they could barely breathe and shipped to the New World as slaves. The journey took several months and one-third of them died before they arrived. Cartagena was one place where they were herded off the ships and held in pens and sold to slaveholders who worked them to death in their mines and plantations.

Now, just imagine yourself as Peter, sitting in your room studying theology in the equatorial humidity — perhaps reading the doctor of grace himself, St. Augustine of Hippo, who once wrote, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.” Imagine reading that, knowing that ships were landing in the port in your town carrying thousands of people who were being treated worse than animals. 

So Peter set his books down and did something about it. We have a letter he wrote that describes a typical day for him:

Yesterday, May 30, 1627: Numerous Blacks, brought from the rivers of Africa, disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried toward them. When we approached their quarters, we … had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on the wet ground, or rather in puddles of mud… They were naked, without any clothing to protect them. We laid aside our cloaks, therefore, and brought from a warehouse whatever was handy to build a platform… There were two Blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. We pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. Into this fire we tossed aromatics… Then, using our own cloaks — for they had nothing of this sort, and to ask the owners for others would have been a waste of words — we provided for them a smoke treatment, by which they seemed to recover their warmth and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see. This was how we spoke to them, not with words, but with our hands and our actions. 

 

Peter ended up spending his whole life there serving enslaved people, even after being ordained a priest. He earned an early death after wearing himself out and getting sick doing everything he could to support the humanity of those people who kept arriving in ships.

And when ships weren’t arriving, Peter was traveling to the plantations and mines to teach and check on the people being held as slaves. He learned their customs and languages and beliefs to better communicate with them. He baptized many and argued with owners for their Christian and civil rights. He always stayed in the shacks where those who were enslaved lived, instead of receiving hospitality in the plantation homes. 

So this is why we use every September 9th to remember the college student, Peter Claver, who studied God’s love in books and practiced it with his hands. He is the patron saint of African-Americans because he loved them in the worst moments of their lives, in a time and place where people of wealth and power considered it foolish. He is the patron saint of racial justice because he had the courage to see his world with different eyes, to uphold the truth of human dignity that others chose to ignore because it was a lie that was making them rich.

If there’s part of his story that sticks with you, let it be this: Slave ships had been arriving in Cartagena for 100 years by the time Peter arrived there — for a whole generation of people, that’s just the way things were. When everyone else looked at what was coming through that port, they saw business as usual. But Peter saw something evil. And then he did what he could to put love there instead — he rushed to help the people who were suffering in his town. 

What would it take for us to be able to see what’s wrong with the status quo? How do we reach for that vision? Where can we find the urgency to set down our work and hurry toward those who are hurting? 

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