This is the statement Bishop Scott Mayer issued in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, all occuring in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
“I can’t breathe.”
In 2014, these anguished words were the last words of Eric Garner. In 2020, they were among the last words of George Floyd.
These words and names became hashtags, digital memorials that use the power of names to encapsulate and evoke the rage and horror of their needless deaths at the hands of police. According a Washington Post analysis, “Black Americans account for less than 13% of the U.S. population but the rate at which they are shot and killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.”
Names matter. These are not statistics. They are human beings, made in the image of God, beloved of God.
The very incomplete list of names below is a litany of years of shame and horror in our nation, years that differ from the centuries preceding them only because now the horrors are being recorded for all to see.
Say them out loud: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Paul Castaway, Melissa Venture, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean.
There are so many more. The systemic oppression of racism stretches back for generations, and our Black neighbors know that. We all must acknowledge it.
This Sunday morning, our own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, tweeted this: “I was a teenager when my father warned me when I learned how to drive, that if ever you have encounters with the police, obey, do what they say. Do not talk back and watch how you move your hands. I was told that in the 1960s and we’re still having to say it today.”
On Saturday, a Black man who is a member of a Fort Worth congregation posted on Facebook, “The loss of Mr. Floyd’s life questions the belief of law enforcement’s ability to understand and treat the cancer within its ranks. Until corrections are made in this divided country this will become a common occurrence. After 70 years I continue to see similar injustices. I received my experience as a nine year old black kid. Being dragged off his porch, placed in a police car and pulled into the Ft Worth police jail on suspicion. That sense of freedom and security experienced before 1949 has never returned. This is my PTSD.”
Also on Sunday, a Black woman who is a member of a local congregation watched the diocesan worship service for the Day of Pentecost. After the Prayers of the People, she asked in outrage, “No mention of the current Protest? Brothers and sisters are in pain and being murdered. But prayers for racist government officials that fan the flames of oppression? #BLM”
The anger was justified. The service had been recorded earlier in the week, but that is not an excuse.
These are our fellow Episcopalians, but their experience mirrors that of so many other Black Americans. Black lives do matter.
The Episcopal Church has been engaged in the work of dismantling racism for a long time, but we’ve got a long way to go. At the 2018 General Convention in Austin, we passed this resolution:
Acknowledge Police Violence and Confront Racism Concurred as Amended
Resolved, That while we honor and raise up the work of dedicated police officers who put their lives on the line to serve and protect, we also acknowledge the numerous inexcusable deaths and intimidation of people of color at the hands of law enforcement personnel in communities all over the United States, including but not limited to Standing Rock; New York City; Rapid City, South Dakota; Falcon Heights, Minnesota; North Charleston, South Carolina; Ferguson, Missouri; and Baltimore, Maryland; and be it further
Resolved, That these and events like them are an unconscionable affront to the Gospel commandment to uphold the dignity of every human being and require a prophetic response by clergy and laity. We therefore deplore any and all efforts that have occurred and may occur to silence these voices; and be it further
Resolved, That The Episcopal Church hereby does condemn the improper actions of authorities against people of color or any actions that make clergy and laity feel they should not speak out or take nonviolent action to eliminate the sin of racism.
I know I am angry and frustrated and in pain about the injustices that have been revealed yet again in the lives of Black Americans. That the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests are playing out against the backdrop of pandemic has also revealed the out-of-proportion and rising death toll in Black communities.
This is the terrible toll of the sin of systemic racism playing out on our TV and phone screens, but most devastatingly in the lives of our Black neighbors.
Anger is a proper response. We are called to righteous anger against these gross injustices. Honor the rage of our Black neighbors. Listen to them. Amplify their voices. Pray with them. Vote. Love.
For it is love that is calling us to action. Love for our neighbors, and love for ourselves.
We also can incorporate the gravity of the current times into our worship is by praying a new collect, composed by a team of Episcopalians and Lutherans, called “A Prayer for the Power of the Spirit Among the People of God.”
Written “to unite us in common prayer and revive us for common mission” during this crisis in the spirit of Pentecost, the presiding bishop and his Lutheran counterpart, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, invite congregations to pray it from Pentecost through the first Sunday in September. The collect was used in Washington National Cathedral’s Pentecost service, during which Curry preached. Read Curry’s sermon
A Prayer for the Power of the Spirit Among the People of God
God of all power and love,
we give thanks for your unfailing presence
and the hope you provide in times of uncertainty and loss.
Send your Holy Spirit to enkindle in us your holy fire.
Revive us to live as Christ’s body in the world:
a people who pray, worship, learn,
break bread, share life, heal neighbors,
bear good news, seek justice, rest and grow in the Spirit.
Wherever and however we gather,
unite us in common prayer and send us in common mission,
that we and the whole creation might be restored and renewed,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.