The last time I led worship in person, or for that matter worshipped with other people in a sacred space and not a zoom box, was on Ash Wednesday. That was February 26. On that day, I took ashes and smeared them in the shape of a cross on everyone’s forehead. “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” our assistant chaplain, Mary, said to me as she placed the ashes on me.
As they do year after year, those ashes reminded us of our mortality that day, and we wore them around campus to remind others that we do not live forever. It turned out, though, we would only need a couple of weeks (in the US) before a pandemic revealed how truly vulnerable we are.
Just three days prior to Ash Wednesday, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered as he was jogging near Brunswick in Glynn County, Georgia. Like others of you, I had no idea about his death until the video of it went viral on May 5. Since then, we have seen the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, not to mention the black and brown bodies that have been destroyed in the last several years since “Black Lives Matter” came into our lexicon.
Racism and white supremacy is America’s original sin. Black lives have never mattered here the way they should. Some have asked me why “Black Lives Matter” and not “All Lives Matter.” God has created us in God’s image and when we defame the image of our neighbor, we defame the image of God. This defamation happens to individual lives, but it also happens to groups and communities. The systemic racism in America that began with the enslavement of black and brown people and continues in new forms today is an example of this. Black lives have not mattered here, and that is why my own protest sign reads “Black Lives Matter.”
Throughout the spring as the virus raged around the world and took its toll especially in the lives and communities of people of color, in the church we moved through the liturgical seasons of Lent, Easter, and into Pentecost. During Lent, we fasted and considered the ways in which we have sinned or missed the mark. We learned repentance. We faced the long journey to the cross where Jesus suffered and died. In Easter, against the backdrop of death all around us, we discovered again an empty tomb. As we zoomed and live streamed our worship, our Alleluias seemed less audible this year, but that made them even more important as we journeyed together through lockdown, grief, and suffering across the globe.
Pentecost is the story of the birthing of the church. It reminds us of the beautiful yet mysterious ways in which God’s spirit moves in the world and through our lives. The mighty wind of Pentecost blew in at the end of May, just days following George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” It has not been lost on me at the timing of this. I did not have a pulpit to preach in on the Sunday following his death, Pentecost Sunday, but it was the moment (for folks who look like me) to speak a holy word about what it means for people to be able to breathe in this country. It means ensuring that Black Lives Matter.
I am coming to grips with my own sins in this matter. I have not fully seen or heard my black and brown colleagues and friends. I have much to read and even more listening to do. I am working with others to open conversations in my own ministry context that will be ongoing as we ensure people are visible, heard and that Black Lives Matter. At home, I am committed to rearing our seven-year-old to be aware of his privilege, engaged in listening to and understanding others, and proactive in his journey to be anti-racist. As we have moved into the streets across the world, I feel mighty winds blowing all around me. It is beautiful and mysterious, but it has come at too high of a price.
The ashes placed on my forehead almost four months ago, weigh heavily as I write these words. Our lives are vulnerable in the age of a pandemic, but they have always been vulnerable. Black lives are vulnerable in America. That has always been the case too. As lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, said in his Commencement address at Emory University this year, “Slavery hasn’t ended; it has just evolved.”
My hope is that the Spirit is at work in the lives of the doctors, scientists, and public health officials who care about all of us to help us remember how to take care of each other (wear a mask, wash your hands, practice physical distancing, and stay home if you are able). My hope is that the Spirit is at work through the protests, webinars, listening sessions, and the work ahead as we move into a world where beloved community is a reality and black lives really matter. My hope is that the Spirit leads you and me to be a part of bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford, Georgia with his spouse and seven-year-old.