BLOOMFIELD – Deacon Arthur Miller expected to get arrested on Oct. 5. That happened. What he didn’t expect was to lose his job. That happened, too, but it had nothing to do with the arrest.
Well, not quite nothing. Both his arrest and his job were expressions of his ministry that “black lives matter.”
The planned arrest came about when Deacon Miller and several others blocked traffic at the intersection of Albany and Bloomfield avenues in Hartford.
“What we were saying is that people come into Hartford using that thoroughfare and make their living and leave Hartford and go home, never once recognizing that the people within that city, their lives matter, that they are in desperate need,” he said Oct. 21 in what may have been the last interview from behind his desk at the Office for Black Catholic Ministries (OBCM) in the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield.
That agency closed Nov. 6, part of an ongoing restructuring process within the archdiocese. As he looked forward to continuing his ministry in other ways, the first and only African-American Catholic deacon in Connecticut also looked back with pride at what OBCM has accomplished.
“My ministry has been a social ministry,” he said. “You know, Dr. King once said [in his book My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence], ‘Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men ... and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.’”
Enlarging on Socrates’s belief that “An unexamined life is not worth living,” he said, “A society that goes unexamined has, as its judge, mediocrity.” Led by statesmen, teachers and social activists, society should examine itself continuously, he said. “Without that, it doesn’t even know what it is or who it is.”
Asked what OBCM accomplished over the years, he first said, “Unlike other faith traditions – Baptist, Methodist, etc. – black Americans had to fight to be Catholic.” He said 1932 was the year the first African-Americans were ordained in the United States. They were four men who had studied at the black-only St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
The OBCM, he said, has distributed thousands of dollars in scholarships to black students, furnished libraries in black communities with computers and smart TV’s and sponsored hundreds of talks on social justice. “The office has given the church a voice in a community that had never heard it before.”
The agency’s work will continue at the parish level with organizations that minister to blacks, Hispanics and other under-represented Catholics, he said.
As for Deacon Miller, he will continue to crusade as he always has, teaching a Bible study program at St. Mary Parish in Simsbury, where he is deacon; speaking across the country about “radical love,” meaning that “by profoundly loving God, loving others is easy”; continuing as chaplain at Hartford’s Capital Community College; and telling as many people as he can that “black lives matter.”
“You have to pay attention,” he said. “Thou shalt not be a bystander. You’re not going to be a drive-by Christian or a drive-by Jew or a drive-by Muslim or a drive-by believer in God. You can’t drive by the calamity that is right there in front of you.”
His own evangelization began, he said, after the 1955 brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black acquaintance of 10-year-old Art Miller in a Chicago neighborhood. The event, which he describes in his 2005 memoir, The Journey to Chatham, was the birth of the civil rights movement in America, occurring months before Rosa Parks sparked a black bus boycott when she refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus.
“We were little children and the tragedy [of Emmett Till] visited us,” he said. “I wanted to demystify who he was. The people said he was a willing martyr, but he was a little boy, just a normal little boy.”
Two years later, the Millers moved to an integrated Chicago neighborhood, where the white Catholic priest made blacks feel unwelcome. In defiance, his mother began going to daily Mass there, saying, “I’m not going to let that man run me out of my church.”
Five years after that, 18-year-old Art joined a protest in Chicago by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and got himself arrested for the first time. Fifty-two years later, on “Moral Monday,” Oct. 5, 2015, he was charged with disorderly conduct, put in a lockup and sentenced to three days of community service. “I joyfully relinquish my time and celebrate it,” he said.
“I chose to be arrested,” he said. “Back in 1963, we were called commies. ‘You don’t love America.’”
This time, he said, most of the officers were kind, but one of them used “profoundly profane language” and told him and others who were arrested that if a murder occurs in Hartford while police are dealing with them, “it’s your fault.” That closed-minded attitude is what made the demonstration necessary, he said.
Deacon Miller dismisses as “the height of arrogance” the excuse by some who claim that their words or actions can’t make a difference.
“Why should I want my voice to be heard above the sea of others?” he said. “All I have to know is that I must do my small part and that in doing my small part I’m doing the best I can. And that’s something pretty incredible.”
He cited Luke 10:38-41, where sisters Mary and Martha welcome Jesus to their village. Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is sitting by Jesus’ feet listening to him instead of helping her serve. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Deacon Miller said, “I believe I’ve chosen wisely and that the work that God asked me to do won’t be taken away.”