In city where George Floyd died, minister emerges as key champion for justice
MINNEAPOLIS — To Russell A. Pointer Sr., feeding hungry neighbors…
Warren G. Blakney Sr.’s long fight for racial equality stretches back to 1961.
At age 9, Blakney met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and passed out voter registration handbills door to door.
“I saw a lot of things,” said the 67-year-old senior minister for the North Peoria Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla. “I’ve seen acid thrown at people. I’ve been in the crowd when dogs were turned on us. … I’ve seen White guys jump out of cars with baseball bats to beat 12- and 13-year-old kids down and kill them.”
But nothing in the last 50 years, he said, has shaken him like the video of a White Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck as the handcuffed Black man complained, “I can’t breathe.”
“I sat there, and I prayed, and I wished that he would get his knee off that guy’s neck so he could breathe,” said Blakney, president of the Tulsa Urban League and past president of the local NAACP. “There was no sense of humanity.”
Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody stirred Blakney to urge fellow Christians — Black and White — to join the battle against racial injustice.
“As a person, I’m outraged,” said Russell Pointer Sr., minister for the predominantly Black congregation. “As a city, we’re trying to grieve.”
Nationwide, Floyd’s death has galvanized weeks of protests denouncing systemic racism and police brutality. The demonstrations started in Minneapolis and spread, sometimes devolving into rioting and looting.
Protesters were still milling about as minister James Nesmith came to survey the damage.
“Of course we don’t condone the violence or looting,” Nesmith said. “We wish they would take a more civilized approach, but in the same breath, we understand the frustration.”
“The senseless act of violence and indignation bestowed upon our place of worship has brought much sorrow, dismay and confusion,” the church said on its Facebook page. “However, Satan may have destroyed the house of God, but he will not destroy the people of God who remain faithful in his son Jesus Christ.”
On Memorial Day, police were called after Floyd was accused of trying to pass a fake $20 bill at a convenience store.
Officer Derek Chauvin, who pinned Floyd’s neck with his knee and ignored the suspect’s cries, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers who were at the scene are charged with aiding and abetting. All four were fired the day after Floyd’s death.
“We, the undersigned ministers and leaders of local congregations of churches of Christ across our nation, are deeply disturbed by multiple reported acts of violence that have been perpetrated recently against unarmed African American men and women,” said the letter signed by a diverse group of more than 300 Christians. “These incidents have forced us to come face-to-face with the ever-increasing numbers and the results of racial hatred.”
“Something about speaking and saying something is wrong is so powerful.”
Richard Price, minister for the North Green Street Church of Christ in Tupelo, Miss., was the letter’s chief architect.
Price said the message seems to be resonating with many church leaders across the U.S.
“Something about speaking and saying something is wrong is so powerful,” he said.
Among other developments:
• As fires, tear gas and violence reigned on the streets of many American cities, 169 members of Churches of Christ gathered online to pray for justice, compassion and peace.
“In a time of civic unrest, when our country is torn apart because of racial injustices and systemic oppression … it is our Christian duty to exercise our faith through prayer,” said Orlander Thomas, minister for the Southside Church of Christ in Durham, N.C.
Prayer, added Thomas, who moderated the meeting, is vital to “dismantle the wickedness and evil and sin that is at work behind these social injustices.”
• In Memphis, Tenn., where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, White minister Josh Ross and Black minister Jimmy L. Stokes II convened “an honest discussion … on racial injustice, the Holy Spirit, unity and why #BlackLivesMatter.”
“Not all officers are bad. There’s a lot of good officers in our country. In fact, my son is a sheriff’s deputy,” said Stokes, who serves the Northeast Side Church of Christ. “I support the blue, but what I also support is righteousness.”
“It was the religious who said, ‘Crucify him,’ to the point where they let a murderer free.”
Social injustice isn’t new, he said, pointing to the crucifixion of Jesus.
“You see Jesus being taken by the hands of Jewish leaders, and Pilate says, ‘I have no fault,’ and Herod says, ‘I have no fault,’” Stokes said. “It was the religious who said, ‘Crucify him,’ to the point where they let a murderer free.”
Said Ross, who preaches for the Sycamore View Church of Christ: “I know a lot of people want racial reconciliation. White supremacy, abuse of power, forms of oppression — there are a lot of things we have to name so we can move to a place of racial reconciliation.”
Organizer Richard L. Barclay, senior minister for the Stonecrest Church of Christ in McDonough, Ga., said the peaceful gathering’s purpose was “to raise awareness of the critical need for a dramatic change in the manner in which our cities are policed” and “to breathe into our communities a breath of Christian love and care as the best antidote for this pandemic of hate and disregard.”
Marcus Watkins, minister for the Simpson Street church, explained that the area where his congregation is located was a staging ground for civil rights marches.
“Our hope and our prayer,” Watkins said, “are that this evening will be an awakening of the social, moral and spiritual consciousness of each individual here.”
At a mayoral event at the Dallas West Church of Christ, Johnson invited four ministers to pray: Sammie Berry of the host congregation, John Mark Davidson of the Skillman Church of Christ, J.K. Hamilton of the Mountain View Church of Christ and Jonathan Morrison of the Cedar Crest Church of Christ.
Each minister talked to God for a symbolic eight minutes and 46 seconds.
That’s the length of time that “a human being with a heart and soul had a knee pressed onto his neck on the rough pavement of a city street,” Davidson said. “Even after he cried out that he couldn’t breathe.”
• Just off Interstate 10 in the heart of Houston, members of the Fifth Ward Church of Christ staged a peaceful sit-in, flashing signs such as “Love,” “Dream,” “Peace,” “Honor” and “Mercy” at passing motorists.
Given the ongoing coronavirus threat, the church required the demonstrators to wear masks and sit 8 feet apart.
“At this critical time in the United States and the world … we’re issuing a call to justice, peace and love,” minister Gary Smith said, “but in a manner that’s pleasing to God.”
• In West Texas, the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action at Abilene Christian University organized a community rally promoting national unity.
“In this hour of boiling hostility, the clouds of hatred are pouring down the acid rain of chaos upon the uncovered head of a dis-United States of America,” said Jerry Taylor, the center’s founding director. “We call all Americans to be receptive to prophetic truth that can deliver the nation from its current state of spiritual disorientation and social disintegration.”
Most attendees wore masks.
“How do we get unity in a time when people, in the name of unity, are busting in the stores and stealing? How do we get unity in a world where our president will knock people out of the way to have a photo shoot with a Bible in his hand?” asked Christopher Threatt, Johnson Street minister and elder.
“How do we get unity in a world where people say color doesn’t matter, but they say, ‘I’ve got this Black friend,’ or, ‘I’ve got this White friend?’” he added. “The very adjective that you place in front of the name says that there is an issue.”
Real progress will require more than familiarity between Black and White Christians, Threatt said. Rather, children of God — such as the Northside and Johnson Street members — must become family, he said.
Those two congregations worship together at least twice a year and partner on Vacation Bible School.
“But folks, we can do more,” Northside minister Jim Gardner said. “And we must do more as a living illustration and testimony to a divided world of what unity and harmony in Christ can be.”
David Watkins III, minister for the Twin City Church of Christ in Texarkana, Texas, stressed that the letter penned by the Black ministers concerns more than Floyd’s case.
“This is about decades of systemic racism and oppression against Black people,” said Watkins, who helped write the letter. “And so in the letter we included the most recent occasions of Black people being killed. But certainly we want to be sure to notate that this is not just about these recent incidents.”
“We agree that no longer will we accept the hollow words of our Caucasian counterparts without the investment of their actions concerning our fracturing.”
The letter states: “Our concerns are not localized only to the tragedies mentioned above. Collectively, we call for every American of every ethnicity to use their voice to decry the systemic racism that hunts down black and brown men and women. We agree that no longer will we accept the hollow words of our Caucasian counterparts without the investment of their actions concerning our fracturing. We expect for every believer and American, regardless of race, to recognize the value of Black lives, and advocate for our fair and equitable treatment.”
In an interview with The Christian Chronicle, Watkins described a police officer stopping him for speeding last year.
The minister’s son, then 7 years old, was in the car.
Related: A tragic death, a tough dialogue
“The speed limit changed on me. I was speeding. The cop pulled me over,” Watkins said. “The first thing my son said to me is, ‘Daddy, is he going to shoot you?’”
For a child to ask such a question, Watkins said, “is all that I need to know about what he knows about being Black in America.”
Among the hundreds who signed the letter was Sara Cawood, a women’s Sunday school teacher at the Kingston Church of Christ in Tennessee.
“I feel guilty for being silent for too long and being a part of churches where no one speaks up about injustice.”
“I feel guilty for being silent for too long and being a part of churches where no one speaks up about injustice,” said Cawood, a 72-year-old White woman. “It seems to be seen as political instead of Christian. Too often silence is taken to be agreement, so I’ve decided to own my responsibility to make my views clear and stand for justice.”
Said Adam Metz, who is White and serves as minister for the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center, Ohio: “What especially drew my interest is that this letter was crafted by fellow ministers who happen to be Black. The racial divide is acutely complex in our fellowship, and I feel that African Americans get far too little voice in the broadest sense. … I have striven to just be quiet through this process and listen to the voices who know and understand this so much better than me.”
In the outcry over Floyd’s death, Blakney sees reason for hope.
“That’s in-your-face kind of stuff,” the Tulsa civil rights activist said of the video. “And if God is in you, that did something to you as an individual to say, ‘Something needs to be done.’
“And so I think the young Whites — I think many of them are now getting involved in this process,” he added. “Hope does spring eternal in my soul because (the world) can be different.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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