A call for peace adorns a sign outside St. Joseph Church, Toms River.  Courtesy photo
A call for peace adorns a sign outside St. Joseph Church, Toms River. Courtesy photo
In the days following George Floyd’s death, protests and calls for racial justice and equality have been taking shape across New Jersey, including throughout the four counties of the Trenton Diocese.

Most of those demonstrations in the Garden State have been peaceful, with the exceptions of incidents that headlined the evening news including Trenton; nationally, there has been violence in Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Oakland, to name a few.

In Toms River, Father Scott Shaffer took note of a peaceful gathering June 2 in which 200 protesters and members of law enforcement marched side by side from a Route 37 shopping mall to the nearby Ocean County Court House on Hooper Avenue.

“I saw the walk early on,” said Father Shaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish. “There were no sirens or news flashes or anything. It looked peaceful.”

Because of problems around the nation and some looting in the state, concerns had been raised about the rally beforehand, he said. In response, he arranged for a sign outside his Hooper Avenue church, which read: “Pray for Peace – Every life is precious in God’s sight.”

He noted that the day before, during a livestream Holy Hour for mourning and lamenting on the Day of Prayer for COVID-19, “We talked about how we lament. As we look at the anger that is inflaming riots, what we are seeing is a misunderstanding of what to do with anger and hurt.”

Decrying Injustice, Ensuing Violence

As of June 4, the Toms River protest was one of nearly 100 held across New Jersey in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minn. The 46-year-old Floyd, who is black, died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck during an arrest on a report of a counterfeit $20 bill.

Derek Chauvin, the white police officer seen on video kneeling into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, has since been fired. He was charged June 3 with second-degree murder, with his original third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges still standing. The three other Minneapolis police officers involved in the death have been fired and charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Church leaders from Pope Francis and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to Trenton’s Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., have condemned Floyd’s killing, the scourge of racism and the ensuing violence.

In a June 1 statement, Bishop O’Connell decried the video of “this black man in handcuffs, gasping and begging for breath under the knee of a policeman as several of his fellow law enforcement officers looked on.”

“That video has been played over and over again on television news broadcasts, the internet and social media,” engendering what the Bishop referred to as a “gut-wrenching reaction on the part of its viewers.”

While citizens have the legal right to protest, Bishop O’Connell expressed regret that “peaceful protests in the name of justice, have, in many places, given rise to rioting, looting and volatile destruction” and detract from the “honest outcry that justice be done.”

Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Trenton Diocese, shared similar sentiments, expressing her “deep sense of remorse and anger” over Floyd’s death. “The blatant disregard for the life of another human being is deplorable and goes against my values, the values of Catholic Charities, the Diocese of Trenton and Catholic social teaching.”

Lao-Collins said she has been disturbed by the violence, rioting and destruction and doesn’t condone such acts. They are, however, “clearly a sign of a greater disease in our society, the disgrace that we as a society have become tone-deaf to the plight of African Americans and people of color.”

Painful Legacy

The current scenes of protest have brought back memories to those who witnessed the racial discord and riots that swept through Newark, Trenton and other New Jersey cities in the last half of the 20th century.

Msgr. Joseph Roldan is rector of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, and Father Dennis Apoldite is pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, the oldest parish in New Jersey. They were both in their Trenton rectories on Pentecost night, June 1, when the aftermath of a peaceful protest morphed into a looting spree in the state capital.

While neither church was harmed, the situation kindled recollections of earlier riots they experienced.

For Msgr. Roldan, it brought back childhood memories of the Newark riots in the summer of 1967. Back then, over four days, 26 people died and hundreds were injured in conflicts stemming from frustrations of poverty, unemployment and systematic denial of employment opportunities.

“I was born in Newark, and my family moved after the riots. I remember specifically, martial law in place and the National Guard,” Msgr. Roldan said. “I remember so clearly they were working the streets with bullhorns and telling us to stay inside and stay away from the windows.”

“My father was very fearful by what had happened, and we moved soon after that,” he said.

Father Apoldite was a student in Cathedral High School when civil disturbances broke out in Trenton following the murder of  the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

He remembers being sent home from school because of riots in the city. “We stayed in one classroom for two hours and then were told to go home,” said Father Apoldite, who walked the two miles to his home in the city's Chambersburg section as buses weren’t available that day. Students were cautioned to be careful as they were dismissed, he said. He didn’t know what to expect and remembers being fearful but arriving home unharmed to await his parents return from work.

With such memories in place, Msgr. Roldan and Father Apoldite said they were saddened by the June 1 violence in Trenton. The daytime demonstration, they agreed, was peaceful. What happened later was not.

“People parked on the street earlier and went to the rally and left. In the evening, people were running, there was evidence of looting, carrying boxes. There was no damage to the Cathedral,” Msgr. Roldan said.

Father Apoldite said the looting wasn’t part of the peaceful protest earlier in the day. Though he didn’t personally attend, he heard that it was well-organized. “Water, munchies and cookies were all available to participants, and the speakers talked about injustice,” he recalled hearing. “It was a diverse group, not exclusive to one race or another.”

He believes instigators showed up later to loot a bank, sneaker shop and a few other businesses in the downtown area.

“People in this neighborhood are good, struggling, hardworking people. They take care of their families. The organizers came back the next day to help clean up. I feel very badly for them,” Father Apoldite said.

The vandals, they agreed, did nothing to honor George Floyd or his family. “The fact that his family is asking people to calm down shows that,” Msgr. Roldan said. “It doesn’t honor him, and it won’t bring him back.”

Both Msgr. Roldan and Father Apoldite received multiple phone calls checking on their safety and offering help and safe harbor if needed.

“Parishioners offered to come and get us,” Msgr. Roldan said. “The Bishop called to make sure we were all right and so did other priests. We were safe inside."

Though relieved for their safety, he and Father Neiser Cardenas, the Cathedral’s parochial vicar, along with Father Apoldite were sad, too.

“This all brings more division,” Msgr. Roldan said.

“Yesterday everything seemed to be OK and today, businesses are putting up plywood. It’s a horrible feeling when you see what 2020 is bringing,” Father Apoldite said.

Msgr. Roldan said he hoped people will learn from the experience that “what has happened affects us as the whole body of the Church. We have to learn that what we do affects us all.”