Presentation Given at December 1, 2021 Colloquium
Part of Educating Urban Ministers in Philadelphia After 2020 project
Presentation Question: How did the murder of George Floyd impact churches and ministries in the greater Philadelphia area?
The fury of generations rained down on the United States of America in the wake of the public torture and murder of George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. In less than two weeks, the video of Floyd’s death, recorded by teenager Darnella Frazier, was viewed 1.4 billion times, and polls indicated that people from all 50 states and 15-26 million people globally, took to the streets in protest of police brutality with a rallying cry for all four officers responsible to be charged with his homicide. The impact on and responses from churches and ministries in the greater Philadelphia area varied and were impacted by race. There were generally three responses among congregations and other Christian organizations—silence, dissonance, action. This paper will provide the foundation for understanding Floyd’s murder in the context of America’s history of lynching, an overview of the responses to Floyd’s murder with examples from the greater Philadelphia context, and an exploration of implications for Christian theological education.
Floyd’s death came on the heels of the high-profile killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and revealed that America was sitting on a powder keg of Black rage. Across the globe, in the face of a deadly pandemic, people defied the orders of health organizations and poured into the streets with anger and vitriol. For Blacks in particular, the events of May 25, 2020, triggered historical and cultural Black trauma—and vigorous protesting and large-scale demonstrations began. Demands for arrests were made. Riots and looting also ensued—with some instances instigated by disingenuous participants. Pew senior researcher Michelle Garcia reported that Black people were the ones most mobilized to learn and take action in the wake of the Floyd murder.1 Almost immediately POWER Interfaith, a diverse organization whose mission it is to “work together so that God’s presence is known on every block, that people work together to transform the conditions of their neighborhood, and that life flourishes for all,” called a rally at Philadelphia City Hall in front of the Octavius Catto statue—a monument erected in memory of a 19th century Black activist who was lynched—to lament, to kneel, and to give a call to action.
Historical Context—A Lynching
George Floyd was lynched. Lynchings are public murders of people who have not been given the right to due process under the law. It is an integral part of American history and the African American experience—a violent form of racial terror, intimidation, and control. To paraphrase an article I wrote entitled “They Will Not Be Forgotten: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” lynching is foremost a form of oppression and social control. Lynchings occur in locations where a legal system for properly bringing lawbreakers to justice exists. Historically these acts were extralegal white mob violence designed to instill fear, to reinforce segregation, and to exalt the ideology of white supremacy.2 As governmental officials turned their heads the other way, Black persons were dragged from homes, roads, jails, and courthouses by people bent on enacting brutal executions. According to Adam Gussow, author of Seems Like Murder Here, Cole Blease, former U.S. senator and governor of South Carolina, said lynching was a “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of jury.”3 As conveyed by the late theologian James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, lynchings were a “public spectacle.”4 And indeed this was. Viewed from this historical context, the May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police encounter—which could have resulted in the issuance of a ticket—resulted in a man’s execution without due process of law.
The inability for Floyd to control the fate of his own body, despite his pleas and the pleas of others, became a catalyst for everything from racial solidarity statements—many of which came from theological institutions—to new sermons series, to personal self-evaluation, to political posturing. Books about anti-Black racism went to the top of the best seller lists. According to a June 25, 2020, New York Times article, “As of [that] writing, almost all of the top best-selling books on Amazon (seven out of ten) and at Barnes & Noble (nine out of ten) take on these topics, including How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.”5 “Half of states passed police reform laws such as banning chokeholds and restricting use of force, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”6 People engaged conversations about defunding the police and demilitarizing the police. Black employees confronted employers about racism in the workplaces and prioritized diversity and inclusion initiatives. According to LinkedIn, the number of postings for chief diversity officers grew by 84% in 2020.7
Impact on Churches and Ministries
Churches and other ministries, already reeling from the devastating impact of a global pandemic, had to wrestle with the sometimes divisive responses in the Christian community related to matters of race. There were three general responses as revealed through a review of the literature, interviews, and a small sampling of leaders in the greater Philadelphia area—silence, dissonance, action.
Many white evangelical churches and Christian institutions proceeded with business as usual. I remember the fury of being in a Zoom business meeting with colleagues in the week following the murder as the all-white group (except for me) joked and laughed about inconsequential matters as I struggled to hold my feelings in check. As was happening around the country, an uprising was occurring in my neighborhood. A fraction of the 17,000+ National Guard troops had been deployed in my community. In the wake of Floyd’s murder millions flooded the streets in denunciation of the system of injustice that had delayed and denied the arrests of those responsible. But my Christian colleagues provided not even an acknowledgment. Awkward. Insensitive. Lacking in awareness and empathy. Downright infuriating. And a faction of the Church also said nothing. Did nothing. At least not initially. A June 2020 Pew Research Study revealed that 39% of white evangelicals believed that sermons should address topics like “race relations” as opposed to 64% of Black Protestants.8 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. The silence or slow response of white, mostly conservative and/or evangelical Christian siblings—friends, pastors, denominational officials, leaders of theological institutions—was an additional and appalling offense.
Some faith spaces experienced dissonance—that is wrestling about racism, caring for members experiencing racialized trauma, Black Lives Matter, rioting, America’s legal system, and the like. Many leaned into this discomfort and responded by seeking to understand. They started book clubs, conducted listening sessions, and hosted educational panels. In a small sampling of Christian churches and religious organizations in the greater Philadelphia, I found that:
- 72.7% indicated that Floyd’s murder led to their having more discussions about criminal justice or racial justice issues,
- 72.7% hosted or participated in educational forums, and
- 45.5% began to explore anti-racism.
These were attempts to better understand what was happening and—one would hope—were the beginning of a lifelong engagement around matters that have long affected this nation.
Across the country Christians (and those of other faiths) were also moved to collective action. Progressive, liberal, mainstream, and even some conservative evangelical leaders lifted a rallying cry for the dismantling of racism in America’s institutions particularly in the justice system. Prominent religious figures like Pastor Joel Osteen (Lakewood Church in Texas) marched in protest. Rev. Dr. William Barber helped to organize an online gathering of 16 denominations to both mourn and strategize.9 It was his Poor Peoples’ Campaign Moral Monday of Fasting and Focus which included both litany and an open letter about systemic racism to the nation’s lawmakers.10
Local Christian associations protested, rallied, provided emotional support, shared resources, and worked together to formulate plans of action. An interfaith group calling themselves The Clergy Coalition of the Unheard, led by POWER Interfaith and numerous African American pastors including Bishop Dwayne D. Royster (Interim Executive Director of POWER), Rev. Dr. Mark Tyler (Mother Bethel AME), Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan (St. Paul’s Baptist Church), Rev. Cean James (Associate Conference Minister, PA Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, Senior Pastor, Grace Christian Fellowship UCC—now Salt and Light), Rev. Dr. Clarence Wright (Love Zion Baptist Church), and Elder Melanie DeBouse (Evangel Chapel Church), crafted a letter to Philadelphia City Council demanding “deliberate actions aimed at bringing racial justice to Philadelphia’s Black communities.”11 Numerous other faith leaders signed in support of this request for reallocated of the city’s budget, support for the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, covering and removal of the statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo from city property, standing against the rehiring of Philly police who posted bigoted and misogynistic content on Facebook, and standing in solidarity with Minneapolis by speaking publicly in support of arresting the officers who participated in the murder of George Floyd.12 Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Donna Jones developed the Greater Philadelphia Multi-Faith Pray and Act Initiative which mobilized clergy to be supportively present in parks and playgrounds throughout the city. Healing Communities PA under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Chris Kimmenez became more focused on police reform and how systemic racism was such a cornerstone of criminal injustice.
National organizations with a local presence like Christians for Social Action (CSA) launched comprehensive efforts. Andre Henry, author of All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope–and Hard Pills to Swallow–About Fighting for Black Lives, led CSA’s Racial Justice Institute which gave people practical tools for processing grief and for advocacy. They facilitated a series of webinars called Breaking the Cycle of Racism featuring activists like Micky Scott Bey Jones and Rev. Zachary Hoover, the director of LA Voice. They developed a course called Resistance School which prepared people to engage in nonviolent struggle from a faith perspective.
Individual pastors and congregations were moved to action as well. Rev. James Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, a multi-racial congregation shared that the murder of George Floyd “radically impacted” the work of FBC-Philadelphia. In the author’s survey he responded:
Immediately, we saw ourselves as a witness to a city in distress. Church members and/or clergy were part of every major protest in Philadelphia, providing water, face masks, and a sense of solidarity to those marching and attempting to promote non-violent activism. Our pastor was tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and pepper-sprayed on the I-676 parkway while attempting to provide calm assurance to those on the front lines. First Baptist started a still-ongoing anti-racism task force, we offered an 8-part class on racism led by Rev. David Kegler, and weekly sermons regularly addressed issues of racial and systemic injustices. Even now, we continue to lean on the momentum created after George Floyd’s murder to address issues of injustice in our city and abroad. In August 2020, we supported our pastor as he marched the 125 miles from Charlottesville, WV to Washington, D.C. with a coalition of clergy seeking to demonstrate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As we plan our upcoming budget year, discussions around our participation in Reparations are taking place.
Some pastors organized vigils, rallies, and protests like Oxford Presbyterian Church in Mt. Airy, led by Pastor Ethelyn Taylor. Others preached prophetically in the weeks and months that followed Floyd’s murder. Rev. Tamika Holder, for example, the African American Interim Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Norristown—a predominantly white congregation—explored matters of justice, equity and racism in both sermons and small group settings.
Other pastors surveyed spoke to the mental toll on African American members of the congregation. Rev. Donald D. Moore, pastor of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Philadelphia, shared that “racial trauma” and “mental health issues” were evident. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the “psychologically damaging experiences of ongoing systemic racism are further exacerbated through the recurring videos and images of Black people dying at the hands of police officers.” They explain that these experiences that are felt collectively by Black people are overwhelming and produce hyper vigilance. According to the database maintained by the Washington Post, “Although half of the people shot and killed by police are White, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans.”14 Black pastors, while processing their own trauma, needed to minister to their members who were also enduring this mental stress.
Pastor Lorie Hershey of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, a predominantly white congregation, indicated that the focus of their activities changed, and they became more activist or advocacy engaged and the pastor herself joined a Movement/Protest Chaplain group.
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace and author of books such as Beyond Hashtag Activism and Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice said that the death of George Floyd was a wake-up call for U.S. national consciousness about the underlying systemic issues of racism that have existed for hundreds of years. Her prayer is that his death continues to inspire us that we cannot rest until systemic racism is completely eradicated.
Implications for Theological Institutions
Theological institutions constrained to equip God’s servants for service in this world must be attuned to the call for church leaders to provide Spirit-led and contextualized ministry. Clergy and lay leaders must themselves move from apathy to empathy, from sympathizers to allies, from statement writers to advocates, and from mere complainers to repairers of systemic issues. And if they are to do it, the seminaries and other theological schools who train and form them must do their part.
Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism writes, “When it comes to racism, the American church does not have a ‘how to’ problem but a ‘want to’ problem. Given ten minutes, a pen, and paper, most American Christians could come up with a list of ways to increase racial equity in our congregations and communities.”15 Listed below are some ways forward which largely represent a lifelong process rather than a check list of tasks to be integrated into a school’s strategic plan. And these are meaningless, as Cannon states, without the will of institutions to follow through.
- Engage in thoughtful reflection and institutional evaluation led by a qualified external expert. Consider the ways in which the institution has contributed to the oppression of various groups.
- Commit to an integrated and comprehensive approach. Everything—strategic plans, curriculum development, hiring and promotion practices, admission policies, and alumni relations should be examined. In Beyond Hashtag Activism, Mae Elise Cannon says approaches must be “comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and intersectional…instead of viewing them in isolation from one another—as we ask how God might call us to respond as Christian individuals and as the church.”16
- Offer theological education rooted in shalom (the holistic flourishing and well-being of all human beings).
- Enhance the curriculum. In many educational institutions there are calls to decolonize the curriculum. By curriculum we mean all readings, lectures, and other such material content in academic programs. The program and course content indicate to the student what the institution or professor values as critical, important, or necessary. The presumption underlying decolonization is that “white, Western epistemologies and pedagogies are unjustly favored over other ways of knowing and teaching.”17 The goal, therefore, is that institutions, including theological schools, explore their subjectivities, confront the ways in which they have marginalized and excluded scholarly voices of color from the curriculum while standardizing Eurocentric voices.
- Embrace all kinds of diversity and share power with persons who are different from the dominant group. This means including Black people and other people of color in governing and decision-making roles.
- Cultivate healthy and safe spaces and supportive services for faculty, staff, and students of color who must manage racial micro-aggressions, fatigue, cultural insensitivities, generational trauma, marginalization at work, and general insensitivities.
- Engage alumni. In what ways has the institution ill-equipped former students for ministry in a racialized society? In what ways has the institution done harm to its graduates. Consider an obligation to collaboratively find ways to repair harm done and to fill in the educational gaps with free courses, workshops, and conferences for graduates.
- Collaborate with other predominantly white seminaries and theological schools around these efforts. Resources and expertise can be shared among the body of Christ for the benefit of all.
May the death of George Floyd continue to inspire action around issues of justice. Until we see the day spoken of in Revelation 21:4 when God will wipe every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. May God’s people in every earthly institution continue to work for shalom.
1 Michelle Garcia, “The monumental impact of George Floyd’s Death on Black America,” NBC News, May 25, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/monumental-impact-george-floyds-death-black-america-rcna1021.
2 K. Johnson, “They Will Not Be Forgotten: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” Christians for Social Action, August 17, 2018, https://christiansforsocialaction.org/resource/they-will-not-be-forgotten/.
3 A. Gussow, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 49.
4 James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, reprinted 2013).
5 Elizabeth A. Harris, “People Are Marching Against Racism. They’re Also Reading About It,” New York Times, June 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/books/antiracism-books-race-racism.html.
6 Garcia, “Monumental Impact.”
8 Besheer Mohamed and Kiana Cox, “Before Protests, Black Americans Said Religious Sermons Should Address Race Relations,” Pew Research Center, June 15, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/15/before-protests-black-americans-said-sermons-should-address-race-relations/.
9 Andrea Shalal, “After George Floyd’s Death, a Groundswell of Religious Activism,” Reuters, June 9, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-minneapolis-police-usa-religion/after-george-floyds-death-a-groundswell-of-religious-activism-idUSKBN23G1FS.
10 Poor People’s Campaign, “Open Letter to Our Nation’s Lawmakers on Systemic Racism,” https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/national-day-of-fasting-and-focus/demands/.
11 Allie Miller, “Philadelphia Clergy Call for Racial Justice in Wake of George Floyd Killing,” Philly Voice, June 4, 2020, https://www.phillyvoice.com/george-floyd-racial-justice-police-reform-philadelphia-religious-leaders/amp/.
12 The Clergy Coalition of the Unheard, “Clergy Letter to Philadelphia City Council,” June 2, 2020.
13 NAMI, “The Effects of Racial Trauma on Mental Health: Deaths Captured on TV and Media,” accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Black-African-American/The-Effects-of-Racial-Trauma-on-Mental-Health-Deaths-Captured-on-TV-and-Media.
14 “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/.
15 Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 213.
15 Mae Elise Cannon, Beyond Hashtag Activism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020).
16 James Lindsay, “Decolonizing the Curriculum,” Academic Questions 33 no. 3 (September, 2020): 450.