As the Rev. Jerry McAfee, a Baptist preacher and longtime Minnesota civil rights activist, preached to about 60 people Tuesday night at George Floyd Square, familiar refrains rang out:

The occasional "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!" wafted from the small, solemn crowd gathered by the barriers, memorial items and flowers that still mark the site in Minneapolis where Floyd died last year under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin.

But those responses came from a group that isn't particularly known for them — Catholic priests.

The priests, in the Twin Cities this week for the annual meeting of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, were visiting the intersection of 38th and Chicago to honor Floyd's legacy and to learn how they might do more to counter racism, both as individuals and as an institution — and to face their own church's past in upholding systemic racism.

McAfee, who is pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, led the priests in prayer under evening sunshine at the memorial site to honor the memory of Floyd, then pleaded for their support.

The encounter between representatives of two culturally different groups of Christians came at one of the most recognizable sites in modern-day America just three days before Chauvin is to be sentenced in Hennepin County District Court for killing Floyd by holding his knee on his neck for several minutes as bystanders pleaded with him to stop. In April, a jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

McAfee challenged the priests to especially try to reach parishioners who work in law enforcement or in the judicial system.

"We need you all to join us as we make this move to change all of these wrongs that have been done to a godly people," McAfee said.

The Catholic Church has a history of systemic racism, McAfee said, pointing to historical depictions of Jesus as a white man.

"Y'all know this is a white man's religion," he said in front of a large black and white portrait of Floyd. "I just need you to start getting it right, on your books, on your pictures."

With the exception of the affirmations, the priests listened quietly and with clear interest, many with hands clasped in front of them as if in prayer. The few who spoke afterward said McAfee's message resonated deeply.

"We're very much against racism," said the Rev. Will Connor. At every Sunday service, he said, he prays for "the success of good and defeat of evil" in state and federal government, and that elected leaders "follow a gospel principle" in their governance.

The visit was part of the priests' intensified focus on fighting racism, said the Rev. Kevin Clinton, a retired priest from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who organized the event.

George Floyd Square, at 38th and Chicago, is considered a sacred place by the priests, Clinton said, adding that what happened there on May 25, 2020, laid bare systemic racism, especially in law enforcement, in a deeply tragic way.

For more than a year, the square has been the scene of gatherings of all kinds, most of them organized by activists who moved into the area after Floyd's death.

Just before they visited the square, the group also heard from a speaker who talked about the history of racism in the Catholic Church, Clinton said.

"We perpetuated and conformed too much to the culture we were in," he said of that discussion. "It's time for us to wake up."

Before McAfee spoke, Jay Webb, who has worked as a gardener at George Floyd Square, welcomed the priests and told them their work even as individuals can make a difference.

"One percent of who you are — 1 percent of each one of you — can change 8 billion lives even from this day right now," he said.

After Webb spoke, some of the priests embraced him, thanked him for his work and shook his hand.

When asked by one where the memorial was, Webb pointed at the priest's heart.

"It's in there," he said.

Star Tribune intern Maya Miller contributed to this report. • 612-673-4759

Correction: A previous version misidentified the group of Catholic priests in the Twin Cities for its annual meeting.