Josephite Father John Raphael is active in pro-life circles, with a special dedication to bringing more of his fellow African-Americans into the pro-life movement. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Father Raphael presently is serving as principal of his alma mater, St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.
Our Sunday Visitor: When did you first become interested in the pro-life movement?
Father John Raphael: I have always been pro-life, but as a child and even as a teenager, it wasn’t a topic that came up in our family discussions. We were taught right from wrong, but I was only 6 years old in 1973 when Roe v. Wade came out. Of course, I went to St. Augustine High School — the school I’m now principal of — and in our morality classes, we are very orthodox in Catholic teaching in faith and morals, and it would have been part of our education. So, it was not a question of being pro-choice or ambivalent, but I would not describe myself as having been actively pro-life.
OSV: When did that change?
Father Raphael: When I went to Notre Dame, it was a much more eclectic experience for me as far as different people’s perspectives on Catholicism. I met people who were much more “progressive,” and it spurred me to get a more intellectual grasp of authentic Catholicism and faith and morals.
The summer after my first year in the seminary, I viewed the [1984 abortion documentary] “Silent Scream.” The impact of that film made me realize it wasn’t enough just to be pro-life and to vote pro-life, but I had to be actively involved. So I would go out and pray at abortion clinics, make the pro-life message part of the communications I had with people. That developed throughout my seminary years, and with some fellow Josephite seminarians and priests — particularly Father Joe Campion — we began to try to organize people we worked with to be more involved.
OSV: How did the black community react?
Father Raphael: We began to meet roadblocks from the beginning. It was then that I realized there was a great apathy about the abortion issue in the black community.
And there was hostility from the political perspective, even with some of my confreres who were pro-life but didn’t want to appear to be aligning themselves politically with “conservative” politicians. That was sort of anathema in the black community, so, many people were pushing the abortion issue to the back burner and pretending it didn’t exist.
From that point, I realized we had a lot of work to do. I had been going to the annual March for Life for years and had noticed how few African-Americans attended, and rarely as an African-American group; they tended to be with more culturally diverse groups.
So we made a concerted effort to begin bringing black groups to the Mass and rally. That was a slow process that began when I was in the seminary and didn’t really become successful until after I was ordained in 1995.
I was then stationed in Texas, and Father Campion in Louisiana, and that’s when we began organizing an annual bus pilgrimage of Josephite parishioners from Beaumont, Texas, to Mobile, Ala., bringing them to the annual D.C. Mass and rally for life year after year. Then we formulated a pro-life committee in our community to bring the pro-life message to places where we worked. Since folks weren’t going out of their way to go to pro-life events, we would bring pro-life people to them. This was especially the case wherever we could find black pro-life people, which is where we hooked up with LEARN — Life Education and Resource Network founded by the Rev. Johnny Hunter — probably the most extensive network of black pro-life organizations. That’s how we actually began meeting other blacks who were active in the pro-life movement, almost all of whom are Protestant.
OSV: What role do Christian churches have to play in bringing African-Americans and the pro-life movement together?
Father Raphael: First, the churches have to be faithful to the Gospel on the life issues; they have to be faithful to the truth because a church that is not committed to the truth is a waste. By and large, the faithful traditional Protestant churches are in the same place with the magisterium on moral issues, and the churches can facilitate opportunities for people to come together and know each other, which is the first step.
Also, churches that are actively involved in the pro-life community need to share with the larger public the good works they do. The majority of the women and children served by these pro-life communities are minorities, people of color. That message is not sufficiently known.
OSV: Do you feel that the abortion industry tends to target minorities?
Father Raphael: So many of these clinics are placed in minority communities, in urban settings, and it’s a continuation of that eugenics mentality of Margaret Sanger [founder of Planned Parenthood]. There was a concerted effort to target black and Latino populations then — one calls to mind Sanger’s “Negro Project” — and that mentality remains; it may not be on the drawing board at the board meetings, but, clearly, targeting heavily minority populations is the trend.
OSV: You’ve said that African-Americans need the pro-life community and the pro-life community needs African-Americans. Please explain.
Father Raphael: The pro-life community is probably one of the most extensive activist communities in the country. I don’t think there’s anything comparable to the annual march and rally for life in Washington, D.C., to that kind of public commitment by literally hundreds of thousands of people. And yet, at times we lose an awful lot of ground, so there’s still a need in the pro-life community to have other segments of the American population embrace this movement to really turn the tide. The numbers are on the pro-life side, but we still haven’t found that right formula to bring these folks together in such a way that we can finally speak to Congress and, of course, the Supreme Court, and get them to recognize what the majority of Americans demand.
The African-American community is being decimated by anti-life forces, and the message of the pro-life community is a powerful message of life, of love, of family, a message that needs to be heard by a community whose dysfunctional parts are creating generations of folks who are not capable of fully embracing all that America makes possible. This concentrated destruction is wreaking havoc on our community psychologically and spiritually, as well as economically.
OSV: How likely is it that African-Americans and the pro-life movement can join together to work for this cause?
Father Raphael: It’s possible, but it’s still going to be very difficult. It begins with individuals and small groups taking baby steps together. I generally find myself speaking as a black pro-life person to a majority white pro-life group frustrated by its inability to connect to the African-American community, or I’m speaking to a majority black group that is probably pro-life, but is not willing to openly embrace the pro-life movement, and when the bottom line comes on election day, they aren’t going to cast their votes on the pro-life side.
OSV: How has the election of President Barack Obama affected the effort to bring the two groups together?
Father Raphael: It is such a tragedy that President Obama is so virulently pro-abortion, because he certainly could have turned that tide in this historic election. But given his political history, it’s not reasonable to think he’d do that. And not just the election, but the political rhetoric of the last 11 months has tended to move the black community as a whole into a real circle-the-wagons mentality of, “We must protect him, our first black president.” I think we’ve gotten to the point where many blacks aren’t even examining the pro-life issue. So, in the short term, it’s much more complicated.
OSV: A minority of U.S. Democratic senators and representatives are pro-life. Does this fact influence African-Americans on pro-life issues?
Father Raphael:Even the little group of pro-life Democrats doesn’t impact the black community because they tend to be from more conservative Democratic areas — Southern or rural — so the black community hasn’t even embraced the pro-life Democratic community — yet.
Is it possible? I think it’s possible, but it has to happen through a revolution in thinking brought about by a profound awakening to the reality of abortion — the harshness, the starkness and the impact it makes on the black community. Remember, some of the most important, influential blacks, such as Jesse Jackson, used to be pro-life, and it’s a tragedy that the black politicians have been bought off by the pro-abortion establishment.
It’s going to take a grassroots movement, because it’s not going to come through political structure. People are going to have to get angry, to recognize that somebody is killing us, and we are participating in it.
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.