This is the manuscript from which Rev. Greg preached on Sunday, 31 May 2020 (Pentecost Sunday). Check against delivery.
“I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner spoke these words in July 2014 under duress from the four police officers restraining him to the point of death.
In my family, when we hear those words we immediately stop whatever it is we’re doing. Sometimes we’ve taken a ‘rassle’ a little too far. We know that the most basic human response upon hearing the words, “I can’t breathe” is to stop. Whatever you’re doing, just stop.
“Momma, I can’t breathe.” George Floyd spoke these words on May 25 while a police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck. For over 8 minutes. For over 8 minutes, several police officers tortured George Floyd. They killed him.
And so the United States has erupted in public demonstration and rioting.
“Momma, I can’t breathe.”
These aren’t protests we’re witnessing. The looting and arson and anarchy, they are not some strategy to bring a specific change. The people who are doing this are not fooling themselves into thinking they’re going to fix America. They didn’t get together to strategize. What we’re seeing on the news is an expression of rage. We are witnessing rage fill the streets of LA, Atlanta, Minneapolis. We are witnessing rage burning.
What are you doing with your rage?
If you aren’t enraged, what are you feeling?
If seeing this video doesn’t enrage you, what are you feeling?
The people taking to the streets don’t even think about COVID. This is because the messaging people with black bodies receive is that they might not survive the night, let alone a fortnight.
We achieve nothing by injuring other people. I don’t believe we advance any cause by destroying property. But I also feel no inclination to put the fires out, if I’m being honest.
When Martin Luther King Jr led nonviolent demonstrations across the United States with solidarity demonstrations elsewhere, he changed the world. For a time. Segregation became illegal. African Americans saw their laws change for the better. But still, killing Black people had remained excusable. And so Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the 49ers, quietly takes a knee to protest the impunity with which someone like George Zimmerman could kill someone like Trayvon Martin for wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Kaepernick still can’t find work in the NFL because he took a knee. So when civil rights demonstrations don’t fully work, silently taking a knee doesn’t work, the rioting in the streets is the only response we should expect! I don’t condone it, and it definitely is not strategic and will not produce the outcomes we need, but I would not be telling anyone of colour they need to calm down. And I would not be putting out any fires.
As long as the police station is the staging ground for killing black and brown bodies, I would not put that fire out.
As long as businesses pay people with black and brown skin less than they pay someone like me, I would not put that fire out.
As long as banks lend at different rates based on name or skin colour, I would not put that fire out.
As long as homes are the place where fathers teach their sons to fear skin that is darker than theirs, I would not put that fire out.
As long as the fire of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, sets the church on fire and the church does not respond by doing everything out can to transform society, I would not put that fire out.
As long as the White House shelters a man who encourages people to shoot first and ask questions later (the direct quote is, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”) despite having fully supported the white people who brought semi automatic weapons to allegedly protest the very pandemic restrictions that were keeping them safe, I would not put that fire out.
These fires represent the rage of a people that has been enslaved, ignored, silenced, and killed. These are the visual representation of the fires that burn in the hearts of too many mommas. These are the fires that burn in the hearts of too many black men wondering if they’ll survive long enough to support their families. These are the fires of rage when a white woman walking her dog calls the police because someone watching birds has black skin.
I would not be putting those fires out.
I say let the rage pour until the pain begins to subside. Show us the rage until we begin to understand. Scream and yell, until we see each other as beautiful…beautiful children of God.
The miracle of that first Pentecost is that for the first time, people understood each other. For the first time, the foreigner became the brother. For the first time the other became the sister. For the first time the stranger was known as a sibling, for all understood what the other meant. Pentecost is the Holy Spirit baptizing by fire such that we might understand.
And so what?
So what do we, in Castlegar, do with this?
First, we need to tend to our feelings. Rage? Fear? Sadness? Say them aloud. Acknowledge them.
Then, make it known that you believe we can do better.
Then, change your brain. Undo your biases.
Then, organize. Get people together. When enough of us demand change, and change ourselves, we will change the world.
Then, listen to the bodies who are aching, the mommas pleading for their children to breathe.
I believe we, as the persistent incarnation of God’s love known as the church, can be a force for good in the world. The church could be the instinctive meeting place when we feel the rage we experience upon watching these videos.
God gave us the ability to understand another. Empathy, the product of imagination and compassion, is a gift from God. When we empathize, we begin to understand. The Holy Spirit that brought mutual understanding that first Pentecost, is with us. She changes us. She transforms us into agents of love, able to change the world such that each understands the other, and such that God’s promise of peace for all shall become reality.
Let the fires burn. Let the fires burn around this crucible wherein we are co-creating God’s kin-dom. Let the rage move us with the Holy Spirit to create something beautiful.
During the sermon, Rev. Greg referred to some words from a friend and colleague, Maya Brathwaite. Here they are:
“May the plea of “I can’t breathe” be answered by the Holy wind, God’s Spirit, Sophia.
My people, fam… I sit here with wet hair, twisting my locs, aware. I’m aware of my privilege as a Canadian born Black woman with a Canadian accent, even when I speak French. I am university educated thrice over, and I am a church minister… which carries with it immense privilege. I have a house, a car, running clean water, electricity… I’ve been blessed with children. So I know my life is very, very good. And yet…
I know I worked (at times) twice as hard for this life I lead. And I know that when someone sees me on the street all of that… my context, my accomplishments do not matter. My life, my body, my feelings, my family, who I know and where I’m from don’t matter. I’m just Black. I’m Black. I am Black. And because of that… I don’t matter. And I know this not because of what happened during the week. It’s last week, last month, last year, didn’t I address my Emmanuel family nearly 4 yrs ago?! Has anything changed?! It’s 10 – 20 – 30 years ago! From the day I was born, I’ve been Black and instantly dehumanized.
So don’t ask me how I’m doing due the recent events! My life has been a constant state of emergency! I am Black every day! Every day I am aware that I or my children, my big-bodied brothers may be in danger. How am I doing? I’m fine. THIS is my normal.
If. You. Care. Do something! Say something! Bear the load! I’m not tired, anymore than I’ve been since grade school. I’m not afraid for my children, anymore than when I gave birth to my first child… or when the ultrasound technician said the twins were boys. Boys?! Oh no, no, no! The anxiety on their father’s face… the fear in my eyes as I stared forward.
How am I doing? I’m fine. This is my normal. Take a seat. Cop a squat. Welcome to my life. Nothing changes, except the time. Though don’t worry time will make us comfortable again and forget until… the next time a black person pleads for a breath of air. Oh! You want things to change? Well…
Nothing will change unless we change. Nothing. Say that again two times.”