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(I was asked by Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson to write about Debbie and my experiences participating in the movement for Black Lives Matter. I thought that I would share what I sent her with all of you.)
“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31)
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
These quotations (and many more) helped me to understand my role in the current Black Lives Matter movement. It is not enough to speak out against injustice, but as followers of Jesus, we must stand up and take action. This is what Debbie and I have been doing since the videos of George Floyd came out in May of this year. We have attended rallies and marches, put up two Black Lives Matter signs in our yards, and engaged in dialogue with those around us about the effects of white supremacy in America. I have spoken at press conferences and from the pulpit about our call as people of faith to bear witness to and speak out against racism. To love one’s neighbor is to be persistent in wanting better for them, in seeking justice for them, in standing alongside “the least of these…”
When the news came that Daniel Prude had been murdered in our own town, a small group of clergy who knew one another from social justice events and clergy groups, created a group text to coordinate donations of water, masks, and other supplies. We had staffed a tent during earlier BLM rallies that began in May after the death of George Floyd at police hands and had a lot of remaining items to share. Debbie and I drove to a nearby church to load our vehicle and then drove the two miles or so to Jefferson Avenue, the street where the rally was being held. It was the very location where Daniel Prude took his last unassisted breaths. That first night, I was the only person in clerical garb, and Deb and I were two of maybe five white folks in the crowd. Those gathered were united in their pain and wanted only to be together and share their stories. We were careful to “stay in our lane” and spent the evening distributing snacks and offering cold bottles of water to those gathered. We were a ministry of presence - taking part only in the lament. Standing along-side.
The protests and rallies and marches continued the next night and the next and the next. Always angry but always peaceful. Two nights into the protests, as unarmed marchers were approaching the bridge that separates the part of town where Daniel was killed from the Public Safety Building, they were met with police officers in riot gear firing tear gas, pepper balls, and rubber bullets indiscriminately into the crowd. The following night, the police advanced upon the crowd again, firing tear gas and pepper balls, even as the crowd dispersed and retreated. Later that evening, they even surrounded a church in which the injured and frightened had taken refuge, firing so many pepper balls that the façade of the building was permanently damaged. Deb and I had been there each of the previous evenings, but managed to get home before the violence began.
The next night was Sunday and Deb and I joined with clergy and other elders of the community to lead the march - placing our bodies between our black siblings and the police. Because we had been there every night, Deb and I were honored to be asked to be in the front row. We have remained there, placing our bodies and our faith in front of tear gas and billy clubs and rows of dead-eyed police officers in riot gear.
In the seventeen days since the protests began, a larger group has formed in our group text - including mental health professionals, social workers and more clergy. We wear orange bands and collars so that we can be available to anyone needing emotional support. In that role, I have stood silently - one night for more than an hour - with a young black man who simply remained motionless, staring at riot geared police behind barricade, bold in a way that he might not have been, looking upon the faces of his oppressors in the relative safety of a crowd. As white folks, we monitor our own, like the night that Debbie grabbed a white man who was attempting to make trouble and returned him to the right side of the barricade (she moves like a ninja!). He remained unharmed but was promptly surrounded by organizers and their security. On Saturday, I prayed with a young white woman who emerged from the bathroom at the wrong time on a an early Wednesday morning and was terrorized and then arrested. She was seeking understanding and a glimpse of the image of God in those who had treated her with such cruelty.
Through it we have been surrounded by love, by people who welcome us and call out a, “Hey pastor, Hey Deacon,” greeting when they see us. By folks who are always glad that we are there and who make sure that we know that they appreciate our presence. Together we have laughed and cried, danced and shouted, sung and chanted. The protestors are, almost to a person, folks of good will who are saying in ever growing numbers that enough is enough, that Daniel Prude mattered, that all Black Lives Matter.