Faith groups respond to George Floyd’s death

Clergy March
Led by African American clergy, a group of demonstrators walked down 38th Street on June 2 as part of a silent Clergy March. Photos by Becca Most

Led by African American clergy, including Stacey Smith of African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Paul, hundreds of people, from a variety of faith congregations in Southwest and the metro area, walked silently to the site of George Floyd’s death on June 2.

Many donned traditional sashes and religious garb and held signs with messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “The Bible is Not a Prop.” They gathered quietly before taking a collective knee and praying together outside of Cup Foods.

Some religious congregations in Southwest have taken a stand since Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25. Many have organized medic stations, facilitated food and supply donation drives
or participated in a number of protests and demonstrations around the cities. Others have turned inward and sought to re-examine their own values and biases.

Rebecca Voelkel, a pastor at Lyndale United Church of Christ, said she has helped mobilize congregations of different faiths in the wake of Floyd’s death, following the lead of organizations like Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective. Voelkel said various other congregations within the SpringHouse Ministry Center have participated in protests, run medic tents and organized donation drives.

Some of the initiatives she’s working on call for reallocating resources from the Minneapolis police budget to other community services.

“I have asthma and this whole time of COVID-19 I’ve just been so focused on being able to breathe,” she said. “The video of watching someone literally be asphyxiated … I saw a sign the other day that said, ‘Jesus was killed by police too.’ And I’m not saying that George is Jesus, but the same system that crucified Jesus crucified George. And his words were the same as Eric Garner’s: ‘I can’t breathe.’ I just had a physical reaction to that.”

Clergy March

Travis Norvell, a pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Kingfield, also attended the Clergy March last week. He said it has been necessary to move past responses some white liberal Christians have taken in the past. Although study groups and book readings are still important, he said, there needs to be a more active change from the community, especially since racism is ingrained not only within the policing system, but in housing, education and employment.

“You just feel like your heart was ripped out, just this total lack of humanity,” he said. “Just thinking about what we have allowed to happen and the systems that we have been perpetuating … It was just a deep sense of anger, but also this personal responsibility and culpability.”

Jen Crow, a minister at First Universalist Church in Lyndale, said her congregation has been focused on listening to black leaders in the community and offering support in the ways they are asked to.

Often white supremacy culture shows up in behavior as a sense of urgency, or the desire to do something immediately to relieve one’s own sense of racial discomfort, she said. Listening and educating yourself on the history of racism and white supremacy in America is essential groundwork for making change, Crow said.

On May 27 the congregation held two virtual services — one for black, indigenous and people of color and one for white members of the congregation in order to meet the needs of each community. On Sunday, May 31, she said the whole congregation came together with one service, along with other Unitarian leaders across the country and the world.

“We’re doing less telling people exactly what to do and instead giving them some principles and values that we all share,” Crow said. “[We’re] asking them to do this listening and then do what’s in their heart.”

While participating in the Clergy March in St. Paul, Crow said the group was surrounded by National Guard and police officers. Overhead, a Black Hawk helicopter hovered low to the ground, making it nearly impossible to hear black clergy members leading the communal prayer.

“Looking around at who I was with, I felt safe because of the other people that were there marching. I did not feel safe because the police and the National Guard were there,” she said. “That was such a clear moment for me. Here we have literally the police state trying to drown out the voice of the black clergy.”