On the morning after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer less than 10 minutes from where I live, I prayed and asked, “God, how do you sleep at night? Because seeing everything, all of our humanity at once, is the stuff nightmares are made of. Every murder, every crime, every life cut short, in real time? I couldn’t do it.”
Luckily, I’m reminded, God doesn’t need sleep.
Almost a month ago in Minneapolis, a police officer kneeled on the neck of an unarmed black man and extinguished his life while three other cops watched and did nothing to help. A brave teenager recorded the incident for everyone in the world to see. The video is tragic and horrifying, especially given the last words out of George Floyd’s mouth: I can’t breathe.
Breath. It’s what every living person has in common: our prana, the Sanskrit word for breath, is what the yogis call our “life force”, or our “vital principle”.
Breath is the great unifier.
The other thing we all have in common? A mother: whether we grow to know our moms or not, we all start with one. And before George Floyd tragically took his last breath, he called out for his mama, already passed on; I believe she welcomed him into eternity with the kind of hug only a mother can give. A hug like Breonna Taylor’s mother would have loved to give to her daughter on her 27th birthday.
Breonna Taylor should have celebrated a birthday this month, but instead she’s on the other side of heaven, too. Breonna was shot in her home by law enforcement with a no-knock warrant and bad information – the person they were looking for was already apprehended, miles away.
READ Breonna Taylor’s mothers tribute — It’s hard to breathe without her.
Breonna is yet another Black body exterminated by the police when she had so much life left to live. The police who murdered her are still free.
When is enough going to be enough?
To take someone else’s life force and to rob a mother of their child is wrong in every sense. Especially when the victim is begging for their life.
George Floyd was not a danger – his crime? Using counterfeit bills. I’ve been paid by someone in fake money before, and when I took the bills to the bank for deposit I didn’t get even a reprimand — they bank just kept the “money”. I’m convinced this was due to the color of my skin (and this is why I no longer accept cash for photo shoots). It sucked I experienced a financial loss, but my life didn’t end when I made a money mistake. I wish the same could be said for Mr. Floyd. He was denied a basic human right to safety when the officers who were sworn to serve and protect failed at doing the basics of their job.
Then the city exploded. Anger boiled into the streets. Thousands of protestors showed up to the site of George’s murder, and beyond. When the peaceful protests were met by violence from the police carrying rubber bullet guns, fires broke out — though, it is hotly contested as to who started them, and they’ve already apprehended a Brainerd man for traveling down to the twin cities to escalate the protests into riots. Found footage also shows an officer from the SPPD who crossed the river in full riot gear to start the fires that destroyed much of Lake Street, where minority-owned businesses are predominant. Anyone could have lit the next match. But many parts of the city were burned in rage.
My own anger burned white-hot on the morning after the first night of Minneapolis riots, when Christian and I left a shoot early and walked around the burned-down Wendy’s and a razed AutoZone and a still-standing police precinct. I grew up in this part of town, and the morning after the riots it felt like a war zone, people walking around bewildered at the mess as firefighters sprayed water into still-burning buildings, the air hanging heavy with the smell of smoldering plastic and leftover teargas. Almost everyone I saw was wearing a mask due to Covid-19, but still we all choked for breath as we took in the scene.
It was hard to breathe.
We must have arrived between protests, because when we got there only a few straggling sign-holders remained. As Christian and I approached the wall of officers standing guard outside the police precinct, more protestors gathered, many who were crying or simply standing still. Eventually, someone started talking – a Black man who spoke in stories, offering a sermon of words to the officers, asking them to stand up for what’s right.
More voices joined in until there was a chorus of frustrated folks speaking out against injustice, begging for the police standing in front of them to say something — anything — to condemn the violence. Soon the voices started to demand it, but still the officers stayed silent. I got caught up in the moment, and said some unsavory things to one officer about the size of his “gun”. One of us must have gotten too close to the officers, because suddenly the rubber bullet guns pointed at us. “Heads up, they’re pointed at us! Heads up!” the protesters warned each other. We backed down.
At this I turned around to see a congregation of close to 100 people behind me. I wanted to use my white body to stand between the protestors and police, and others joined me. One white woman flashed the cops. Another stood her ground and demanded the police say something to us.
Finally, one did. I had told a 50-something year old officer taking down the POW-MIA flag, “You know, it’s never too late to change professions. It’s not too late to stand up for what’s right — you can still be a good guy”. To which he said to me, “25 years. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Don’t judge everything based on what you see.”
I said, “I’m judging the actions of your colleague and begging you to condemn them. If you stay silent, you are condoning the violence. Will you speak out? Will you leverage your 25 years of experience for good? Will you condemn these violent crimes against Black bodies???”
At that, he stopped talking to me. And when he lowered the American flag to take it down, I shouted “GOOD – you don’t deserve that flag. All you cops do is serve and protect YOURSELVES”.
I came back to my office exhausted, unable to focus on anything but my hurting city and the righteous anger of the protestors. My hair and skin reeked of smoke.
I tried thinking of good words to say, something to add to this mess that would make it better, but no such ideas surfaced from the depths in my mind. I scrolled social media reading post after post of outrage, righteous anger, and fear for the future. The rioting was a bigger problem to many than the reason for the riots, and that infuriated me.
We should be righteously outraged that the persecution of black and brown bodies persists in our country, and if some buildings have to burn to the ground for people to realize they’re a part of the system that oppresses others and perpetuates racism? Then let them burn. If the cops are forced to pick a side — and they must choose the side of the oppressed to prove they’re a “good one”? Then let them take off their uniforms and join the side of the oppressed, even if it means they lose their jobs.
Standing silent in the face of injustice is just the same as acting unjustly. For a nation who brags about our “Christian values”, shouldn’t this be a no-brainer?
Micah 6:8 New International Version (NIV)
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
My face still burning from the heat, I came home and collapsed on the couch to think and pray about what to do next. I hadn’t prayed at all, save for one little Christ Be Near! uttered at the site of the precinct protests (but really, is there any more powerful a prayer?). My friend Asma is a great follow on twitter, because she’s always taking action and helping others do their part. She’s also always reminding me to pray – Asma is Muslim and 1000% more devout than I’ve ever been, which is reason 972 why I’m deeply grateful for my interfaith friendships.
I sometimes avoid praying because I don’t always agree with God about how to handle things — usually, my instinct is to keep very busy moving in the direction of what I think is right to avoid having to hear what God thinks at all. And that’s more or less what I did in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s murder: I got to work sharing resources, volunteering, organizing, making noise, raising funds. But the day we saw the buildings burn and the anger rise, I knew I needed to hear some ancient wisdom that only comes with getting quiet before the Creator of everything, who’s eyes have seen it all and who doesn’t need sleep.
I never mince words when God finally gets me on the line.
I said, I’m fed up and I don’t know how to show up. I’m angry at every single perpetrator of injustice in this country – from our rapist president to our corrupt cops and every piece of our broken systems and everyone who’s ever hurt me in between. I said, I don’t even know HOW to pray when all prayers feel like thin words. Except one word kept coming to mind, and it’s heavy with meaning. Forgive.
At first I thought, who needs forgiveness? I already asked God to forgive me and purge my heart of any racist thought within me. It happened during bedtime prayers with Lola the night Mr. Floyd was murdered, which opened up a meaningful discussion with her about how every single one of us has been racist even if we’d never consider ourselves A RACIST. “But mommy, you’re not racist!” Lola had said, and I got to be the one to tell her racism is baked into our culture like the crust on bread. We can’t avoid it, we don’t get much of a say in how we’re raised and where, but we do get to examine our biases and decide to do anti-racist work to combat those baked-in beliefs. More on that important work another day.
Back on the couch, I’m trying to pray and all God keeps saying is to “forgive”.
I had not forgiven the perpetrators of violence standing uniformly before me at the precinct. I didn’t want to. But as the word kept curling in my throat – FORGIVE – I remembered what my pastor friend Natalia Terfa said in her Uplift devotional, that forgiveness makes room for God’s peace. I’m sure she’s not talking about a peaceful la-la brain where everything is good and golden, but rather the stillness of a quiet soul, the peacefulness that comes when we are listening to God and reliant on God’s direction for next steps. I needed that.
Then I remembered the words of another wise Lutheran, Nadia Bolz-Weber:
Forgiveness doesn’t fix the asshole. It fixes me.
God created emotions, that our feelings would propel us into action. So I know that God wasn’t upset with me for being angry – in fact, two of the twelve disciples were nicknamed The Sons of Thunder because of their anger, even offering to burn a town to the ground when they wouldn’t receive Jesus’ message (Luke 9:54 is a real LOL).
But I can’t live in the emotion of unforgiveness forever, or I’ll never do anything helpful again.
So I prayed, I forgive all perpetrators of violence: the violence enacted towards me throughout my life, and the violence inflicted every single day on black and brown bodies. Forgive me for not forgiving them sooner. I forgive the perpetrators – now show me how to move forward in love.
And, true to form, when I cried out to God I experienced an Acts 3:19-21 kind of renewal in the mind — “that times of refreshing may come from The Lord“.
Forgiveness frees us to imagine a different kind of world. This is what forgiving the cops gave me: the freedom to pray for a new future in law enforcement. I saw a vision for a new precinct, one built up by the community it serves, literally, brick by brick. I saw a mural connecting a police precinct to a community center; I saw a community garden out front. I saw a place where the kids who live near the precinct can take tours, if they want to, and a new generation of kids who grow up wanting to be cops again, not because they get to drive fast and carry a gun, but because kids have kind hearts and they are able to recognize kindness on the force. Currently, 92% of Minneapolis police do not live in the communities where they work. I saw a vision of police officers living in the places where they serve, working for the good of people who are in their own backyards. And I saw an involved community rise up to replace many needs we’ve previously deemed as law enforcement issues, but could be handled differently. I prayed for God to show me my place in this new future, and to forgive my indifference to this involvement in the past.
Forgiveness does *not* erase what happened, or remove the repercussions for the perpetrators. I firmly believe the cop who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars. But I am not the executor of justice, God is. And I know forgiveness paves the way for me to see how God is already bringing justice to earth through human hands, because my God goes with those who seek to help the marginalized. To quote Kate Bowler, God is always on the losing team, on the side of the oppressed (James 2:5). It’s evident in how Jesus lived and how he died and still called out, “Forgive them, Father!’ with his last breath. And in prayer I’m able to see how forgiveness can free up my hands and heart to help bring about justice, because I cannot carry one more thing while holding onto this much bitterness.
Prayer is about changing us anyway, not changing God.
Ephesians 4:31-32 New International Version (NIV)
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
When Christ forgave me, I was fully forgiven and given a clear vision of the future, even if nothing else about my life had changed just yet. But when we can picture the future we find hope for the present. And that is what I found, when I prayed for forgiveness for the murderers of George Floyd.
Later, at a virtual yoga class to benefit Mr. Floyd, our wise teacher reminds us that a forest must periodically burn in order for new growth to appear. It’s like my mom loves to remind me of what Jesus said, that unless a seed falls to the ground, it cannot bear fruit. Death leads to life.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 New International Version (NIV)
Believers Who Have Died
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
Mr. George Floyd was a father, a fiancé, and a follower of Jesus. His faithful walk with God is detectable in the words of those who love him who have spoken out since his death. And I fully believe God will not let this loss go to waste; that we are about to see a reckoning in this country unlike any other. God is using the rivers of justice to bring about racial reconciliation.
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This work might not look like we expect, or be as peaceful as some Christians may hope. So I’ll end this on a quote by the Reverend Al Sharpton from Mr. Floyd’s live-cast memorial service:
“There’s a difference between those who want peace, and those who want quiet.”
Because you can’t have it both ways, I’ll be working for peace and refusing to stay quiet anymore. Black lives matter.