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.