Black Clergy Testify to Outrage and Hope in Demonstrations Across Washington

The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, addresses a crowd outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sunday, June 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

A series of religious demonstrations in Washington, D.C., over the weekend mixed prayerful calls for racial equality with frustration with law enforcement, lawmakers and the Trump administration.

Early Sunday (June 14), thousands of churchgoers and clergy, most of them African American, assembled at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to march to the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza — previously known as 16th Street Northwest at it passes the White House.

Once there, participants organized by the NAACP and Alfred Street Baptist Church, a prominent black church in Alexandria, Virginia, prayed and kneeled along the street, which is currently painted with the words “Black Lives Matter.”

“We’re here because of what happened with Ahmaud, Breonna, with George, (and) Rayshard,” the Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist, told the crowd, listing the names of African Americans who have been killed in encounters with the police or alleged vigilantes. “We know that, sadly, that’s what we’ve been living with for the entirety of our time in this nation. … It’s important that this nation know that we have not forgotten, that we do not have racial amnesia.”

Just before noon, as the demonstration wound down, the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, delivered the sermon at the Washington National Cathedral’s Sunday Eucharist service.

In a homily titled “America, Accepting Death Is Not an Option Anymore!”, Barber traced the history of hardship shared by people of color and impoverished people in the United States. Noting the evils of slavery as well as times when immigrants to the United States were blamed for bringing disease, Barber drew connections between Scripture, the ongoing pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus and historic disparities that impact people of color.

“If we’re going to turn from all this death, we need real truth-telling,” Barber said. “But not only that: when a nation is facing unnecessary and unnatural death, there must be a response of the people. There must be a refusal to accept easy answers and a refusal to just go along to get along.”

Referring to the biblical prophet, Barber said, “So Amos says, God says: We need real lamenting. … In the text, God says, I need a remnant that will cry in the street and refuse to be comforted.”

He later added: “We need real reconstructing of society rooted in the deep moral values of our faith and of the Constitution.”

The Rev. William Barber, alongside faith leaders, addresses a crowd outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sunday, June 14, 2020, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

A few hours later, Barber appeared in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House, to deliver a similar message alongside Sikh, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who had gathered with clergy of other traditions to protest racism, police brutality and Trump.

Barber highlighted the recent killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who begged for breath as a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

“Every time the church and religious people have seen these deaths and buried folk and sent them to heaven, but did not fight for change here — that keeps this stuff alive,” Barber said.

The pastor argued that the killing of African Americans by police is only one form of racism, pointing to disparities in health care access, wages and the treatment of Indigenous people.

He argued that the growing protest movement is “not just against one form of racism,” but that “what George Floyd spoke is shorthand for all our pain: I can’t breathe.”

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Source: Religion News Service