Jesuit Father Joseph Brown wields a lot of influence in a creative medium he regards as a form of play.
Father Brown, professor of Africana studies at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale, is a poet, writer, educator and apologist for Catholic spirituality, but with special emphasis on what the faith means for Black Catholics.
The poet is a keen social critic who draws inspiration for his work from injustice in all its forms. And in a sobering commentary on the times, elegies for the victims of racism and violence have become the focus of much of his recent work.
A week before the last May’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Father Brown posted a poem, “My Arms are Empty,” lamenting the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. This poem, later published by the Jesuit-run America magazine, calls up the image of Michelangelo’s Pietà, but with the dead Christ missing from Mary’s mourning arms. Written in Father Brown’s unique un-punctuated style, the poem reads in part:
“No I cry and no I whisper
and no one
cares that I am
become the Pietà without a child
And I hum “Oh,
Don’t You Weep” and she is now
here with me
saying No you will you must drain your
until the others come
and the others will
the one who whispers each
child’s name if I cannot hold
them to my breast I will
hold them with my song”
Violence against the innocent serves as inspiration for the socially charged poet. As Father Brown noted in the Arbery case, “These people are dying on the streets and there is no one to hold them, comfort them, protect them. And there was this ache in my heart because I couldn’t be there for them.”
Early in life, Father Brown discovered poetry as an outlet for creativity and play. He has been writing poems since age 12 when his father first inspired him to continue with his creative outlets. He also developed an eager interest in literature, and in a foreshadowing of his teaching career, he helped his classmates in East St. Louis, Illinois, elementary schools appreciate the beauty of the great books.
“I was raised to understand that I was both Black and Catholic,” Father Brown told Catholic News Service. “So part of my faith commitment is to be faithful to the church that has always been part of my inheritance. My faith has had an awful lot to do with my poetry. But my poetry has had an awful lot to do with how I articulate my perspective of faith.”
He regards his poetry as a way to help people form their own identity and self-awareness rather than from what others might be saying about them.
“I prefer to speak for people who may not be defined by the outside but who should be able to speak for themselves,” Father Brown said. “This is especially the case with the poems that have biblical settings. It’s like an encounter of Jesus looking at people and defining them just by looking at them.”
Ordained a priest in the Jesuit order in 1972, Father Brown earned degrees in creative writing and Afro-American studies before embarking on a teaching career at the University of Virginia and at Jesuit universities in Louisiana, Nebraska and Philadelphia. He joined the faculty at SIU in 1997.
The priest has incorporated the Jesuit tradition of taking a pen name — Luke (the Evangelist) — for most of his poetry.
Father Brown’s first book of poems, “Accidental Grace,” was published in 1986. His second collection, “The Sun Whispers, Wait,” came out in 2009. He has also published texts on prayer and spirituality, including 1998’s “To Stand on the Rock, Meditations on Black Catholic Identity.”
For someone so dedicated to sharing his inspiration through the printed word, Father Brown had to be goaded into making his work available to a wider reading public.
Both his collected works came together at the behest of others, and in 2013 — in response to the need to embrace social media, Father Brown founded Sankofa Muse (https://sankofamuse.blogspot.com/), a blog containing nearly 50 of his more recent poems.
“I was pushed to begin the Sankofa Muse project by a former student who thought I needed to join the 21st century,” Father Brown said. “With only 48 entries over these years, I’m amazed that there are almost 30,000 views so far.”
One of most remarkable aspects of the priest’s poetry is their informal structure. Father Brown eschews capitalization, punctuation and other conventional practices common to traditional poetry.
“My posts are supposed to be whispered,” he said. “I’m striving for a very quiet interior for the reader/listener. As I’ve told people from the outset, a poem isn’t finished until you hear it.”
If there is any one central theme underlying Father Brown’s personal quest for a more just society, it would be the imperative of offering hospitality in all circumstances.
“When a believer of any faith tradition forgets the act of liberation from slavery, they are no longer faithful to their traditions,” he said. “The social oppression of other, due to race, gender, class or condition of life, cannot be supported by the covenant.”
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(Mike Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto. He also writes about Catholic fiction for Catholic News Service.)