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Demonstrators clash at a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA early Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Los Angeles. Dueling groups of protesters have clashed at the University of California, Los Angeles, grappling in fistfights and shoving, kicking and using sticks to beat one another. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)

Last week, images from the usually idyllic campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, were broadcast around the globe. They showed counterprotesters violently clashing with pro-Palestinian students who had established an encampment in front of Royce Hall the previous weekend. Two days later, we saw police dismantling the encampment’s makeshift barricades and taking protesters into custody.

What the rest of the world has not seen are the small acts of peacebuilding and prayer taking place amid the clashes.

The night before the pro-Palestinian encampment was established, I had the honor of joining a panel of religious leaders for an evening of dinner and interfaith dialogue, sponsored by the U.C.L.A. Muslim Students Association. The dialogue between those of us on the panel and the questions from attendees about our Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths were consoling and hopeful. Yet the urgency of the situation in Gaza was not lost on anyone; nor were the protests growing on the campus where we gathered in fraternity that evening.

These types of campus programming and dialogues are a foundational part of our approach to interreligious conflict at the University Catholic Center and other ministries served by the Paulist priests nationwide. It is less about reacting to individual crises and more about striving for respectful, open communication in times of relative peace. To this end, the U.C.C. is a member organization of the University Religious Conference, the oldest interfaith organization in Los Angeles. In the wake of the violence on April 30, our director joined an impromptu meeting of the conference to confer and strategize about the pastoral needs of our students in the coming days.

Given the scenes of destruction and the violence on campus, I imagine some members of the U.C.L.A. community expected a statement from the U.C.C. That is understandable. While I cannot guarantee what the U.C.C. may choose to do in the future, I feel at peace with our natural inclination to lift up community and prayer as our primary recourse in this time of distress.

The first step in responding to the needs of our campus was simply to make the community aware of the availability of our priests and staff, to simply sit and “be” with anyone who needed it. Anyone in ministering during a crisis knows how important this offering is, whether it is taken advantage of or not. Presence comes first.

Student concerns are nuanced and complex. No one wants to trivialize the significance of the issues being protested; all wish to understand more and align with whatever is just. But students also experienced a chaotic scene of screams, projectiles thrown, people knocked down and kicked, all in a space they might peacefully walk through en route to class or lunch several times a day. Holding both the conflict in Gaza and the conflict on campus together is a lot for any human being to process—all the more difficult when the demands from the university where students felt so unsafe do not cease. Many students are understandably shaken, but exams will not wait. Parts of college life seem to continue as normal, even as our bodies and spirits tell us all is not normal.

Through our U.C.C. social media platforms and group text, we welcomed all to gather for a special community rosary led by our student intercessory prayer group. The rosary was offered for the intention of peace and all those on campus affected by the violence. Our Masses have been offered for those same intentions, and it has been heartening to witness how many have turned to the source and summit of our faith for comfort and guidance.

Last week, which was among the most intense I have witnessed in ministry, we adored the blessed sacrament, gathered for our Masses, prayed our rosaries, made our confessions and broke bread in fellowship thanks to the tireless efforts of the U.C.C. student leadership team.

Going into the weekend, the Sunday homily weighed a little more heavily on my mind than usual. At any other time and place, Christ’s command in Sunday’s Gospel reading to love one another as he has loved us could speak to us in a variety of ways. But the experiences of the campus community and the unsettled lingering energy invited some words on the protest and violence that ensued to be spoken in my homily. Clarifying first that I am neither a politician nor a global conflict expert, I sought to present as clearly as possible what the tradition and doctrine our church could offer to sustain us through this moment.

Despite the chaotic direction these protests took, I recalled that the right to protest is a good supported by Catholic social teaching and that Pope Francis has spoken affirmingly of peaceful protest, including during the global protests in the summer of 2020 sparked by the killing of George Floyd. This right to protest is balanced by the admonishment that violence is never an acceptable tactic in achieving a goal.

My homily also called to attention the principles of the church’s relationship with other religions presented in the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate.” As Catholics, we share with Islam devotion to the one God of Abraham, from whom the Muslims trace their lineage. In Judaism, we owe our profound respect to that “well-cultivated olive tree” to which we Gentile Christians are grafted as “wild shoots” (“Nostra Aetate,” No. 4). Islamophobia and antisemitism are unacceptable for Catholics, just as they are for all people. These exhortations to cultivate mutual respect, understanding and ongoing dialogue arise from the theme of our readings on the Sixth Sunday of Easter: Love one another as Christ has loved us.

The casual conversations that followed our four Sunday Masses demonstrated how astute our young people are, how tender-hearted, thoughtful and eager for peace—but not without justice.

Whatever the weeks ahead hold—whether peaceful protests or more violence and destruction—Catholic student ministry will discern and attend to the needs of the U.C.L.A. community as they arise. If asked, I will affirm with the witness of the church universal that protest itself is not the problem. A level of disruption and inconvenience are inevitable; violence and destruction are not. Members of our Catholic community may protest in what capacity their formed consciences should dictate. If we are to avoid the escalation of violence, however, those who protest must do so from a genuine place of love and solidarity for the other. Love. Not self-righteousness and not the glory of crushing an enemy. As, the first letter of John tells us, “He who does not love does not know God” (4:8).

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