By Kathy Berken
I live 5.6 miles east of where a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. Floyd was pronounced dead at the hospital that day. That police officer and three others involved in Floyd’s arrest were fired. The officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck has been charged with murder.
Today as I write this, it is Pentecost Sunday. In the days leading up to this feast day, we have witnessed a harrowing nightmare for not only the Twin Cities and Minnesota, but for dozens of cities across the nation.
As a privileged white woman, I hesitate to comment about what I saw on TV and heard from friends who personally witnessed the protests. The color of my skin and the place I hold in society prevents me from fully understanding much about the aftermath, the violence, the burning of businesses, the looting, and mostly the pain and unbearable rage and oppression that black Americans have suffered for centuries. I can only say 400 years is 400 years too long.
As much as I am tempted to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., or any other black leader, I’ve learned this week from making such references on social media that it’s just not my place to do so now. I am guessing that many of you reading this are a lot like me — white, educated, middle class, privileged. Perhaps telling you how I feel about what I’ve been experiencing this week in my city and what I am learning might help in some way make sense of all of this.
First, I feel afraid, scared for the safety of our persons and property. My local Walgreens a few blocks away was broken into and looted. Businesses along my street are boarded up with signs; one in particular reads, “Please spare us. Single women work here.”
Second, I feel helpless. Should white people even talk about racism? Should we ask what we can do to help? If talk is cheap, what can I do that will really help the cause? With eyes wide open, I’m going to read the relevant book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin Diangelo.
Third, I feel a sense of urgency for some kind of spiritual truth to emerge that will heal and begin to bring about justice that will create some kind of lasting peace.
Following Pentecost, we enter what our church calls Ordinary Time, although you know these are no ordinary times. Living with COVID-19 should be challenging enough, but now we have been forced to face yet again another insidious virus: racism and the injustice and hate that it carries.
On Pentecost Sunday, the Acts of the Apostles describes the tongues of fire that overshadowed those gathered, filled them with the Holy Spirit, and when they heard the diversity of languages, they could understand each one (Acts 2:1-11). The Gospel says that Jesus breathed peace into the place where they were and told them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:19-23).
Eureka! This is the message. I watched fire lapping up the buildings in Minneapolis this week. I heard the spirited cries of so many people with so many varying opinions, and pictures of George Floyd are everywhere here with his own dying words, “I can’t breathe.”
Fire. Spirit. Breath. Fire. Spirit. Breath.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz held a press conference inviting a diverse group of community leaders, activists and clergy to speak to us. “This has been building for 400 years,” he said. “How will we be seen by the world? How will we respond and what will we do about it?” Then he stretched out his arms, looked at all those wonderful men and women on either side of him, called for quick and fair justice, and with his voice cracking a bit, sensing a need for unity, he said, “This is what Minnesota looks like. This is the face of our great state.”
It was for me, fire, spirit, breath, Pentecost.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009)).