“This is not a protest. It is a demonstration of faith.” From the moment we arrived at DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church, the focus was not just on Sandra Bland but on the God who had created Sandra and saw the injustice that led to her death. The church where Sandy attended for almost two decades found itself mourning under the spotlight of the media and hype of what has been a long, long year of mourning, since Michael Brown died in Ferguson last summer. When Rev. James Miller stepped into the semi-circle to address his grieving congregation, the video cameras said “Speak into the mic, please. Will you say your first and last name and spell it out?”
Rev. Miller refused. He was not at a media circus. He was at church, at home, the second home of African American culture, and this house did not change its rules because the cameras were rolling. Hundreds of people gathered around the courtyard of the church, spilling into the parking lot. It was hot. Humid, the way July is supposed to be. All the women in their best church dresses, all the men in suits. The ushers didn’t even take off their white cotton gloves. Church is church, even when grief lands in your backyard.
Rev. Miller led the crowd in “Amazing Grace,” two full verses. He took a handful of questions from the cameras, asking for Attorney Lynch to open an investigation and lamenting the injustice of an innocuous traffic stop ending in death. He spoke of God and justice and praised Sandy’s life in a measured tone. When he was done speaking, he said to the cameras, “My name is Reverend James Miller. James spelled the way it is in the Bible. If you don’t have a Bible, go get yourself one.” The crowd murmured their approval.
And so the prayer walk concluded, long sheets of petitions still spread across the table next to the front doors. The cameras packed up and left. But they missed the real action.
We had arrived–half a dozen of us from the Mennonite church–a little timid and awkward, but certain this was the most important thing we needed to do on Sunday morning. To be white bodies in a black space. To make clear Sandra Bland’s death was not a black issue, it was an American issue. Lisle is a good 25 miles from Chicago, but it still surprised me how few people showed up. There were hundreds, certainly, but what is hundreds in one of the most heavily churched counties in the country? We were 15 minutes from Wheaton, the capital of Evangelicalism, and how many churches had found something better to do than solidarity? How many people–how many, many Christians–were sleeping on it in DuPage County when injustice finally arrived on our doorstep?What more are we waiting for?
No, Sandra Bland is not Eric Garner. The circumstances of her death are still ambiguous and the official account still says all evidence points to suicide. But there are such clear factors in the case that indicate racial discrimination, that Sandy was treated in a way no white person would have been in Waller County, Texas. What more sign do we need that it is time for white people to show up in solidarity? What more sign do we need before we realize that “Black Lives Matter” is not a statement we say often enough?
I was gratified to see my church–my small, suburban Mennonite church–asking these questions. While those of us who could sat in the pew at DuPage AME, those in the pews back home offered their prayers and begged God for justice. It is, I hope, only the beginning.
As Rev. Miller preached, he made it clear that while he spoke to his own congregation, he knew the media–the white media–was watching. He pulled out his Bible and read Psalm 137:
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down
and we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs
and our tormentors for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
It is a weary Psalm. It is a Psalm that says “Not again. How many times? How many times will our captors keep spinning Beyonce in the white clubs while they keep man-handling our people?”
They did sing, of course. You can’t go to church–especially black church–without singing. But they made it clear their songs were not for Babylon. Their songs were their own and if we white folk were going to join in, then we had better stick around for the long haul.
Rev. Miller said, “I am not an activist.” He did not ask for the spotlight. He has not been marching in the streets all this long year. But he is black, and what we in the white church often don’t acknowledge is that many black people don’t want to be activists. They don’t get a thrill from marching in the streets or getting arrested for civil disobedience. White people choose activism. Black people often don’t–they simply go through their lives with the constant pressure to defend their identity. Activism becomes self-defense. Rev. Miller did not ask for the spotlight. But the cost of being a black preacher is knowing that someday you might need to preach a sermon on why your parishioner has suddenly disappeared.
The pastor did not once say “Black Lives Matter.” He did not turn Sandy into a bigger cause, but the reality is that honoring Sandy inherently elevates a bigger cause. Elevates the vision of God’s kingdom, where black lives do matter, more than they do in our culture now. As he wound to the conclusion of his sermon, half-singing, half-praying, he said,
“When I think about Sandy, I’m gonna think about the disciples. People say, ‘How can you be proud of Sandy when she was on the ground cussing?’ I say, ‘Read your Bible. Peter cussed.’ When I think about Sandy, I think about Peter. When I think about Sandy, I think about Jesus. She was raised in a blended family, like Jesus. She was arrested, like Jesus. She died in police custody, like Jesus.'”
It should not radical theology to condemn police brutality. Especially in the historic peace churches–there is nothing radical about calling violence violence. And yet, as the six of our pale, underdressed bodies sat in the pew, it was a radical moment. It was a moment that called us to use our white bodies the way God would use them, the way God would call them, as instruments of justice and not privilege.
It was not a big thing. It was not something we deserve a merit badge for. But it is the sort of thing white Christianity needs to do, over and over and over. Until black lives do matter, in this government. Until black lives matter the way they matter in God’s kingdom.