The voices of Southland Episcopalians were prominently featured in a Union of Black Episcopalians May 31 online prayer vigil that drew a rainbow of 300 black, white, Asian, Latino and Native people from across the United States and from as far away as France.
The “Vigil for Racial Justice and the Healing of Our Nation” was organized in response to the recent deaths of African Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed and Ahmaud Arbery, by police or vigilantes and called for prayers, lament, witness, racial justice, action, healing and hope.
George Floyd, 46, died May 25 after Minneapolis police arrested, handcuffed, and pinned him to the ground. In a widely circulated video, an officer can be seen with his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes, as Floyd pleads, “I can’t breathe.” That officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested May 29 and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter. (Charges were upgraded to second degree murder on June 3; three other officers were indicted for aiding and abetting.) Floyd’s death has sparked widespread outrage and civil unrest across the United States.
Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, 21, was shot May 6 after he was stopped by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police who said they had observed him driving recklessly. His death was livestreamed on Facebook.
Breonna Taylor, 26, an emergency room technician, died March 13 when Louisville, Kentucky police used a battering ram to break down the door of her apartment in a misplaced drug raid. During the subsequent confrontation, Taylor was shot eight times.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was killed February 23, while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, a coastal city about 250 miles south of Atlanta. Two armed white men chased him and, after a struggle, Arbery was shot twice. A prosecutor, who later recused himself from the case, had argued that the two, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis, 34, were acting within the state’s citizen arrest and self-defense laws. The McMichaels were arrested May 7 and charged with murder and aggravated assault after a New York Times investigative report.
The voices of Southland Black Episcopalians
Canon Suzanne Edwards-Acton, chair of the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Program Group on Black Ministries, addressed the online vigil, held at 1 p.m. on May 31. The Rev. Mike Kinman, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena and Casey Jamal Jones, national UBE assistant young adult representative and campus missioner at St. Michael’s University Church in Isla Vista, were also invited speakers.
“When I was asked to bear witness to what our community is experiencing and feeling, I checked in with local Black Episcopalians throughout the southern California region,” said Edwards. She read text messages from unidentified Southland Episcopalians:
I’m watching the news and I see intense justifiable anger. We are fighting on two fronts, this new virus COVID-19 and the old disease of racism.
Today I saw the video showing three officers on top of George Floyd as a fourth looked on. I told my friends I couldn’t swallow that. I couldn’t physically swallow. Later I heard Trump say “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
People are crying out for help.
The murders of unarmed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor by a police force paid by us and sworn to protect and serve us has plunged our community into a collective pot of anger and despair. I cried out in anger and dismay as they murdered a man right before our eyes. To make matters even more difficult to comprehend those cowards weren’t even charged.
I am heartbroken that my 9-year-old grandson’s innocence must be shattered with “the talk.”
I’m extremely angry and disappointed at the low value or nonvalue they place on our African lives. I am scared for my black children.
This situation has brought to surface all the anger I had kept inside of me. I am so grateful that my parish church keeps us involved in many services.
We have 7-year-old twin sons and we hoped that in their future they wouldn’t have to deal with the injustices we are facing. Now we are doubtful.
As a health care worker, I am poignantly aware African Americans comprise a greater percentage of COVID-19 deaths than we do of the general population. I am in great pain and great sorrow. Also, I am saddened to see that my nonblack Episcopalian brothers and sisters don’t seem to have any awareness of pain and sorrow and suffering I feel when our black community members are accused and murdered without any semblance of justice. Their silence means concurrence to me.
And, in a reference to statements made by Donald Trump in 2017 after a young woman, Heather Heyer, 32, a paralegal and civil rights activist was killed when a man drove into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia: When black people riot, it is to get attention for justice and we are called thugs. When white people riot, … it is because they want to make America white again, and they are called very fine people. Wow.
James Alex Fields Jr., 21, the driver of the car, was convicted of first-degree murder and eight other charges on December 7, 2018. The rally had been organized in part to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and was attended by hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, Neo-Nazis and other white nationalists.
Edwards read more comments:
Our failure to acknowledge the humanity of others and the desire to take and consume resources at the expense of other human beings will continue to result in the disequilibrium of the universe.
There has not been enough progress. Change feels urgent at this time of my life. Will my church be part of the solution?
In order to achieve successfully love for all human beings, we must strive for eradication of all negative -isms — racism, classism, sexism, elitism and the greed of corporatism.
I’m so tired. I’m afraid for my sons.
I sit fighting the feeling of despair and praying for fortitude as my gift at Pentecost.
Trauma and true witness
Jones thanked the gathering for taking the witness of young adults seriously. “Trauma is defined by the way it breaks us,” he said. “We fear the language of brokenness makes us weak, fragile or disempowered but, no matter what we tell ourselves, trauma breaks things.
Referring to George Floyd’s death, he said: “When we bear true witness, we are doing nothing less than opening ourselves up to the possibility of brokenness. When we hear the words ‘I can’t breathe,’ we open ourselves to the possibility of our own breathlessness.
“When we see the kneeling officer, we feel the power and pressure that we apply to others. When we stand by, watching and re-watching, we must confront our own compliance with white supremacy.”
A true witness, he said, citing the work of scholar Jennifer Griffith, “requires us to open ourselves to the possibilities of being victim, perpetrator and accomplice. Why? Because without such openness we are unable to change ourselves in such a way that changes the world.”
And in spite of the destruction that has occurred across the nation’s cities, he added: “We are a nation built on revolution and reconciliation. Our way, as believers, is to offer ourselves, shattered as we may be, to God, and to walk with joy and wonder into the places God sends us.”
‘What white people can do’
The Rev. Guy Leemhuis, UBE national first vice president, and a deacon at Holy Faith Church in Inglewood, introduced some of the vigil guest speakers, including the Rev. Mike Kinman, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena.
Kinman, who is white, noted that May 31 was the 99th anniversary of a race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “the single-worst incident of racial violence in American history.”
The incident, in which white mobs, fueled by rumors a black man had attacked a white woman, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of what “at the time, was the wealthiest black community in the United States. It was called Black Wall Street,” Kinman told the gathering.
He said it is up to whites to “change the narrative that is being sold to us. We need to learn the history — the real history — and we need to tell the history … un-whitewashed … that there have been far more, far more instances of violence perpetrated against black people by white people than the other way around.
He added that it is up to whites to “listen and to hold space for black and brown people, as they express the centuries of trauma they are carrying in their bodies and spirits because of that history.”
Kinman was dean of the Cathedral in St. Louis, Missouri, when 18-year-old unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed there August 9, 2014 by a white police officer. His killing sparked weeks of protest and civil unrest.
“What is playing out right now in this country will continue to happen over and over again, until we change something,” said Kinman. “We need to make some new history.”
Reconciliation, he said, requires self-awareness and amendment of life. The pain and discomfort that many whites feel about the subject of race “needs to teach us to let the pain of black American into our hearts so our hearts and our selves may be transformed. That’s reconciliation also. We have to feel to heal.”
He also said that churches, as well as other organizations, have to stop being complicit by withdrawing support from the pillars of racist systems and structures.
“We need to use the church’s power, privilege and trillions of dollars of the income and assets we have, to withdraw support from them and invest in new pillars, pillars of justice and love. That is the only thing that will bring lasting change, and the only thing that will bring justice.”
Edwards-Acton is involved in a nonprofit organization, My Work to Do, that facilitates online conversations about racism, systemic injustice, racial healing, reconciliation and justice in their everyday lives, she told The Episcopal News.
The 90-minute sessions are held weekly and are free of charge (donations are accepted). Resources used include themes of housing discrimination, implicit bias, whiteness as a function, and systems of white supremacy — as well as where we go from here. “It is a safe space to learn, share, heal and grow,” Edwards said.
The next session begins June 11.