A tragic death, a tough dialogue
WOODBURY, Minn. — A year ago, George Floyd’s killing sparked…
MINNEAPOLIS — To Russell A. Pointer Sr., feeding hungry neighbors is biblical. So, too, is fighting for justice.
The 56-year-old preacher might not be a household name in this Midwestern city of 435,000.
Related: A tragic death, a tough dialogue
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison visited Pointer’s congregation — the state’s only predominantly Black Church of Christ — the same day CBS News’ “60 Minutes” featured Ellison’s high-profile role overseeing Chauvin’s prosecution.
Pointer made the closing announcements at the end of a nearly two-hour worship assembly, then invited Ellison to speak.
The former U.S. congressman hugged the preacher before turning his attention to the congregation.
“It ought to be safe for your son and daughter to be able to go out, even if they’re pulled over by an officer for an infraction, to leave that exchange and come home safely,” Ellison told the roughly 65 church members gathered in person — with many still watching online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It ought to be the case that if somebody stops your child that they don’t put them up under their knee and crunch the life out of their body until dead,” he added. “It ought to be that our families don’t have to worry about their safety from the people whose job it is to keep them safe.”
“Amen! Amen!” the crowd responded. “That’s right!”
Ellison, 57, became the first Black person and the first Muslim elected to statewide office in Minnesota in 2018.
He lives within walking distance of the Central church, which is known for feeding about 200 needy families a week through its benevolence and food ministry.
In an interview with The Christian Chronicle, Ellison explained why he showed up at Pointer’s church five days after jurors convicted Chauvin of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s May 25, 2020, death.
“Dr. Pointer’s a good friend of mine,” the attorney general said. “He has a wonderful body of believers. The folks at this church are known to live out their faith. They don’t just say it, and they don’t just keep their faith inside the church walls. They carry it outside the church walls. … They actually follow Jesus, right?
“So I thought … it would be only natural to come back and just tell the folks how it went,” he added. “Because the folks at this church, they take feeding the hungry, taking care of the people who are in prison, social justice things — they take it seriously. They want a better world.”
State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a Christian who represents the neighborhood where the church is located, accompanied Ellison, a fellow Democrat, to the church.
“This church does have a reputation for being outside of the four walls and really being about change and faith and putting their faith in action,” Champion said.
But the lawmaker stressed, “Not one time has Dr. Russell Pointer asked me about (being a) Democrat or Republican. I don’t think he cares about that stuff. But right and wrong? He’s all over that. Justice? He’s all over that.”
Also at worship on this Sunday: Kimberly Hunt, a Central member who spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C., as a senior adviser to Klobuchar, also a Democrat. Minnesota’s senior senator joined Pointer and other leaders at the Central church this past summer for a news conference on voting rights.
“It’s personal for me,” Hunt said of the Chauvin verdict. “I’m the aunt of three African American males and also a godmother of an African American male, so when we talk about what policing should look like, and police reform, I’m happy to share my voice.
“I, too, agree that young men should not be killed in the hands of police for minor violations,” she added. “Because you have an infraction doesn’t mean your life should be ended.”
The Central church is about six miles from Cup Foods, the corner convenience store where Floyd, 46, was accused of trying to pass a fake $20 bill last Memorial Day.
Bystander videos captured Chauvin pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck — for 9½ minutes — as the handcuffed Black man pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”
Three other former officers who were at the scene — Tou Thao, Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — face a state trial next March on charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s death. They and Chauvin also have been indicted on federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, the first Black chief in the majority-White city’s history, fired all four officers the day after Floyd was killed. The chief soon afterward labeled the death a “murder.”
Arradondo gave “unequivocal and historic testimony” at Chauvin’s trial, condemning the officer’s actions and offering “what is seen by some veteran lawyers as a fresh crack in the longstanding ‘blue wall’ code of silence by police,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.
In a Zoom discussion after the verdict, Pointer praised Arradondo’s testimony and told the chief, “You’re such a good friend.”
Arradondo, in turn, extolled the commitment of Pointer and other Black ministers to improving “the health and wellness and vitality of our city.”
“Mr. Floyd was killed on Monday, May 25,” the chief noted in an interview with the Chronicle. “The morning of May 26, I called members of our Black leadership, particularly the churches, to meet with me.
“That wasn’t by accident,” he added. “Again, it just speaks to the Black church. … That’s where we come for healing. That’s where we come for guidance.”
It’s easy to look for solutions to societal problems in the police department and city government, Arradondo said.
But often, he said, ministers such as Pointer do the important work behind the scenes.
“When our city was literally burning, it wasn’t 60-plus-year-olds that were setting those fires,” Arradondo said. “A lot of the anger and a lot of the frustration and hopelessness was young people, and I will tell you that where many cities miss the boat is being able to reach young people. And Dr. Pointer and his outreach and his church, they’re able to reach young people.
“For any major city chief, if they do not have a strong relationship with their faith leaders in their city, they are grossly missing a vital piece in terms of what community safety is all about.”
Pointer grew up in the Harlem Church of Christ in New York and began preaching at age 11.
The late R.C. Wells, the Harlem congregation’s nationally renowned minister, served as Pointer’s spiritual mentor.
Pointer later attended Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas — the only historically Black college associated with Churches of Christ — and spent two decades preaching in the Nashville, Tenn., area.
Eleven years ago, he was recruited to Minneapolis to help revive the Central church.
The once-thriving congregation had dwindled to about 25 members. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance had grown back to more than 150 on a good Sunday.
When the new senior minister arrived, he put a focus on community involvement. Pointer wanted the Church of Christ to be known for more than arguing over doctrine, he said. He sought to make the Central congregation’s presence felt in the lives of its neighbors.
Mayor Jacob Frey proclaimed Aug. 9, 2020, as “Dr. Russell A. Pointer Sr. Day” in Minneapolis, citing Pointer’s service with the Harrison neighborhood, the Hennepin County sheriff’s African American/Social Religious Leadership Council, the Minnesota Council of Churches and other volunteer groups.
“The stuff that’s in the world is going to hit our church eventually, and social justice is important because … racism is a sin. We have to address it.”
“I’m tired of the Church of Christ, for lack of wording, not doing anything,” Pointer told the Chronicle. “The stuff that’s in the world is going to hit our church eventually, and social justice is important because … racism is a sin. We have to address it.”
Pointer has advocated for justice in deaths ranging from Philando Castile, a Black man fatally shot in 2016 by a Minneapolis police officer, to Daunte Wright, a Black man fatally shot April 11 by an officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, about 10 miles from the courthouse where Chauvin’s trial was ongoing.
Wright was 20. He had a 2-year-old son. His killing hit particularly close to home for Pointer.
As a boy, Wright and his family had attended the Central church.
“I don’t remember him, but I remember the family,” Pointer said.
The chaos that erupted in Minneapolis’ streets after Floyd’s death resulted in the destruction of stores that served residents who live near the Central church.
A Walgreens drugstore and a Cub Foods supermarket — not to be confused with Cup Foods, where Floyd was killed — were shut down for months.
Amid the protests, the church did not change its focus.
“I said, ‘Let’s just feed people.’ So when people marched, we just kept feeding people. So when people got hungry, we kept feeding them. That’s what we’re known for.”
“I said, ‘Let’s just feed people,’” Pointer said. “So when people marched, we just kept feeding people. So when people got hungry, we kept feeding them. That’s what we’re known for.”
About 75 percent of the families served by the church are Hispanic, about 20 percent are Black, and the remaining 5 percent are Hmong and a few Whites, Pointer said. The Hmong are a major ethnic group in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Many arrived as refugees from Southeast Asia.
Many of those helped are Muslims, so the meat provided includes non-pork options.
“We give out four days’ worth of food, meat, eggs, cheese, water, batteries, women’s products, toiletries, the whole nine yards,” Pointer said, giving a tour of the church’s basement, filled with 11 freezers and six refrigerators.
The minister said he believes protesting is biblical, but he felt the church could serve the community better by feeding the hungry. At the same time, he remains active in ministerial groups that prayed for peace and justice after Floyd’s death.
Before the Chauvin verdict, Minneapolis braced for more unrest and violence. Buildings were boarded up. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed.
Related: Protests and prayers
“At first, I was really nervous because I thought they were going to come back with a ‘not guilty’ verdict, then they were going to tear up Minnesota, and I was going to have to move,” Central member Valerie Hannah said.
Hannah said she “doesn’t understand anybody tearing up where they live.”
But the 64-year-old Christian, who watched the entire trial on television, said she believes justice was served with Chauvin’s conviction.
“For one reason, I felt like one of those people standing on the sidewalk,” she said. “I saw what the policeman was doing to the man. (Floyd) kept saying he couldn’t breathe. … I didn’t think it was right. Not because of his color. He could have been a White man, and I still would have felt the same way. It was wrong, just wrong.”
Another Central member, Gail Brown, said she wept when Chauvin was convicted on all counts.
“In all of my 69 years, I have never seen a police officer be made accountable for what he was doing,” Brown said. “So this was really an impactful decision. … It was exciting, but it threw me so much that all I could do was cry.”
Despite driving a sleek black SUV with a personalized “MANAGOD” license plate, Pointer said he repeatedly has experienced the indignity of police stopping him because of his skin color.
After Floyd’s death last year, the minister voiced outrage and frustration.
“We saw life taken out of a person,” Pointer told the Chronicle that week. “We’re all asking for a murder conviction. … Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.”
Eleven months later, as he awaited Chauvin’s trial outcome, he felt a mix of apprehension and exhaustion.
“We thank you for the verdict, but Father, we know … the fight has just started.”
“This has been a long journey from Castile to this incident,” he said. “I knew that if the verdict came back, and he didn’t get guilty, I knew our city was torn up. … So I knew we couldn’t handle another big incident like that.”
The guilty verdict rejuvenated him.
Justice, as he saw it, won.
He thanked the Lord and “went from exhausted to being elated, exhilarated, emancipated.”
Chauvin could face up to 40 years in prison. Hennepin County Court Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over the trial, is expected to decide the former officer’s punishment at a June 25 sentencing hearing.
The Sunday after Chauvin left the courtroom in handcuffs, Pointer lifted his voice to heaven and led the Central congregation in singing “Because He Lives.”
After praising Jesus, church members bowed their heads.
“We thank you for the verdict,” Pointer prayed, “but Father, we know … the fight has just started. We have to continue to embrace your struggle.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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