It was not lost on many of my fellow preachers on Sunday that on the very day we celebrate the outpouring of God’s Breath on the church, many black people (and people of all races and ethnic groups) in the United States were chanting “I Can’t Breathe” at rallies stemming from the suffocation of George Floyd last week. As my fellow Twelver Debra Rienstra posted Saturday, many of us have been turning to the Morehouse College Glee Club and their rendition of Joel Thompson’s recent composition “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” and in particular to the movement dedicated to Eric Garner, “I Can’t Breathe.”
The Glee Club performed this piece at Calvin University in March (in what turned out to be the last such public gathering at Calvin for what will continue to be a very long while to come). The next morning at a special gathering of the Glee Club at Calvin Theological Seminary, the current conductor David Morrow testified to how he can hardly stand to look at his choristers when they rehearse or perform this piece. He cannot look at these young men because he knows only too well that any one of them could be next.
And so it was on Sunday that many congregations—still worshiping by remote, still fragmented by this COVID-19 season, still missing most any semblance of “normal” worship—found themselves unable to breathe on the day when the Wind of God breathed on the Apostles and began what we now know as the Church of Jesus Christ. As my colleague John Witvliet noted, it seemed better to use what breath we have in our lungs to pour forth lament than praise on this Pentecost. In a strange time when breathing on each other can be decidedly deadly due to COVID, we were reminded that it is possible to squeeze the breath out of a man with decidedly deadly results due to racism.
But it’s more. It is a reminder that people of color feel suffocated every day, as a black woman at a protest in Muskegon, Michigan, poignantly said to a local TV reporter on Pentecost Sunday afternoon. It is a reminder that COVID-19 has disproportionately devastated poor communities, and that many of those impoverished communities remain densely populated by people of color. Yes, black communities in the Bronx and in Queens, in Detroit and in Chicago, but also Native Americans in the Navajo Nation, as Nicholas Kristof painfully recounted in his Sunday Review column also appearing on Pentecost Sunday.
It’s my being reminded some years ago by my Seminary classmate Reggie Smith that as a white man with kids, I never had to do what a black parent like Reggie must always do with their children, particularly with their sons: namely, to have “The Talk.” I did not have to tell my son never to run through neighborhoods lest the cops wonder why he is running. Once he learned how to drive, I never had to tell my son a series of things to do and not do if he ever got pulled over in his car by the police. (“Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” again and Kenneth Chamberlain: “Officers, why do you have your guns out?”) When my children saw the police patrolling the neighborhoods where we have lived, they felt safer, not more threatened.
As I write this, it is the first day of June. It is now the fourth month in which we have all had to think so much about how precious the very breath in our lungs is since over 103,000 fellow Americans have had their breath taken from them by COVID-19. But on this day many of us in the church feel like we cannot breathe for reasons that have nothing to do with a physical virus.
I lament our land. I lament a too-oft mixed witness of also the church. I lament the privilege I have that so many sisters and brothers can only dream of having. I lament George Floyd having to cry out 16 times “I can’t breathe” while a cop responded only by pushing his knee into the man’s neck harder until he was dead.
All any of us can plead right now—and I confess I plead for it with ever-diminishing hope some days—is a version of the old song of Pentecost:
Breathe on us, Breath of God. Fill us with life anew. Breathe on us, Breath of God until our hearts are pure, until our will is one with yours. Breathe on us, Breath of God until we can see that all lives matter and that each deserves to breathe your Breath after you, full and free and valued and loved.
Breathe on us, Breath of God, so that all God’s children can breathe.
This verse rang in my mental ear at the end of your essay today:
“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” (Acts 16: 6-7)
I think the dear Holy Spirit is here with us, but His is a hard teaching /leading this time. I imagine it was as frustrating to Paul as it is to us.
Scott, Thank you for a powerful essay today. “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” (`MLK, Jr.). Thank you for not being silent.
You’ve articulated what so many of us felt/feel. This needs a broader audience.
Thanks, Scott, for trying to show us a picture that perhaps many whites don’t often see. But come on! Let’s be fair. There is another side of the coin that you’re not showing or describing.
I was raised in the Chicago suburbs and presently live in downtown Chicago. I was explicitly told by my parents what neighborhoods to stay out of if I valued my life. As a young person I went to trade school on the south side of Chicago. The parking lot we had to use was a block from the school and I would dare not walk to that parking lot alone late at night when school let out. One of my fellow student’s brother , who I rode with daily, was killed on those streets by a black gang. I’ve been pulled over by the Chicago police late at night in the same neighborhood and told to get out of the neighborhood I was in if I valued my life. A recent issue of a U.S. news magazine reported that there were nearly twice as many black on white homicides in the U.S. as there were white on black homicides (giving statistics) in the last several years. I watched live television coverage of the protests and riots in downtown Chicago for the last few nights. The peaceful protests occasioned by George Floyd’s apparent murder were participated in by both blacks and whites equally. But when the rioting and destruction of property and life began it looked obvious, to me, the large majority of participants had turned black. Just as there are neighborhoods blacks don’t feel safe in, the same is true for whites. Such fears for both black and whites extend beyond specific neighborhoods. Blacks don’t like feeling insecure, but nor do whites.
You present a real conundrum. Those walls of insecurity and injustice need to come down. Most of us agree to that. But it won’t happen overnight, as protesters seem to hope for. It will take, possibly, decades. Look how long the battle for equal rights for women has been going on, and we’re still not there yet, especially in the workforce. I agree that there is a racial prejudice problem in our country, as well as other countries. But the solution will have to come from all sides. I, too, would like to see that sooner than later. Thanks, Scott.
You wrote that the walls of insecurity and injustice need to come down but it won’t happen overnight. It will take possibly decades. How many decades were you thinking? I lived in the Chicago area in the 1960’s and witnessed Dr. King’s march in Cicero in 1966 and saw in the streets of the city the results of his assassination in 1968. Here we are 5+ decades later and we would be hard pressed to measure any real structural change. If 52 years is not long enough, then we had better change our tactics. No violence and destruction are not the answers, but neither is the noise of our privileged pandering.
Jonathan, you make a good point. It’s already been decades here in Chicago, in fact much more. The point I was making – contrary to the demands of protesters today, change comes very slowly. Racial prejudice has been around from the beginning of time. The Jews of the Old Testament had problems with every nation around them and still do today. Maybe you can share a situation where racial prejudice has been overcome so that we can know what steps we need to take. And if it isn’t racial prejudice, then it’s religious prejudice. We haven’t done any better there. Every religion is mutually exclusive.
Thanks Scot. I was struck by this and also recommend the sermon by Rev Otis Moss III, The Cross and the Lynching Tree about the death of Ahmaud Arbey who was shot while jogging, and also his more recent one after death of George Floyd, When is Someday?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6985UG0Z3k for The Cross and the Lynching Tree
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_dNzYifsow for When is Someday?
Scott, thanks for your breathtaking words that catch all of us astounded and eager “to turn the world upside down only because of your Holy Spirit” (“Seeking God’s Face” Philip Reinders)
RLG: Please don’t pour gasoline on the fire. “But when the rioting and destruction of property and life began it looked obvious, to me, the large majority of participants had turned black.” So unnecessary, so incendiary.
We’re you not watching the live coverage of the rioting and use of destructive force?
Scott, I applaud your posting. As a grandmother to 16 grandchildren, half of them black or part black, I feel the need to take a stance for the oppressed. The black people have been oppressed for so long and in so many ways that things do not clean up simply. We need to give our whole love and support to see equal rights. We can’t simply look at each race and decide who is correct. If we did the whites would be the culperts.
Thank you Scott, Been thinking about this all day.
May all of us join you in Lament and in the closing prayer. Thanks, Scot.
To RLG: A white man driving in a poor neighborhood would thank a police officer for telling him it is not safe, as your story states. White people like to repeat stories like this. A black man driving in a white neighborhood is likely to be stopped by the police. He will not be warned in a friendly way that it is dangerous. The black man will be taken from his vehicle and frisked. The police will watch carefully for any movement the black man is reaching for a gun. Likely the black man will have his car searched to see if he has stolen goods in the car. It is likely he will be verbally harassed enough to attempt to get him to appear aggressive.
There are a lot more dangerous neighborhoods for black and brown people in segregated white neighborhoods than there are dangerous neighborhoods for white people.
I too watched the live coverage of the protests that turned violent. The violent people I saw were mostly young white women and men.
Susan, you overstated nearly every sentence of your comment. I might agree that many blacks fear what could happen if stopped by a cop. But to suggest that this or that is “likely” to happen, simply is not true. Do you mean to say that seven out of ten (or nine out of ten) times a car driven by a black person (man or woman) is going to be searched or that he/she will be verbally harassed by a cop? Do you really think that neighborhoods on the north side of Chicago are less safe (for blacks) than the south side of Chicago (for whites)? I have black friends who cannot and will not sit on their front porch in the south and west sides of Chicago for fear of being shot. That’s the Chicago south side, the black neighborhoods, that are notorious for crime and gangs. As to safety there is no comparison.
Susan, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see racial prejudice erased, not only in Chicago, but everywhere. But the solution will have to come from all sides or it just won’t happen. The problem is nearly as big (but not quite) as religious prejudice which also contributes to racial prejudice, because all religions (including Christianity) are mutually exclusive.