For many within The Presbyterian Church in Canada, the celebration of Pentecost was extremely difficult this year. Certainly, our church services were affected by the fact that we could not gather together physically to remember our collective identity as God’s People, empowered by the Spirit, and sent out in love to the world. But twelve weeks into the pandemic, most of our communities have actually gotten used to our different ways of gathering, and supporting each other, and worshipping together.
The bigger issue was the awareness of, and deep pain and grief associated with the terrible acts of anti-Black racism over the last week in North America. It was hard to talk about the fire of Pentecost, and not think about the fires raging in U.S. cities where protests turned into more violence and looting. And how could we preach about the linguistic and cultural diversity of the church Jesus established, and not acknowledge that we have failed so completely in building societies that truly honour all people and celebrate our diversity as God’s beloved children?
I know that many ministers in our denomination struggled to find words to speak to what happened to George Floyd last week in Minneapolis—a Black man murdered by a white police officer on a public street, while others stood by and watched. The image of that knee on the back of his neck and the sound of his voice crying “I can’t breathe” will stay with us for a long time.
As a white woman, with more privilege than I yet understand, I struggled to know what to say or what to pray. In as much as I failed to speak out sooner, I am sorry. In as much as I said (or may yet say) some wrong things, I am deeply regretful. In as much as I still don’t really understand the severity and deep impact of anti-Black racism, I want to repent, and to learn, and to stand in solidarity with my Black siblings.
I have been learning a few things this week from my colleagues, friends, and others who are people of colour. First is that what happened to George Floyd is not new. His was the unjust killing that sparked these massive protests, but not because it was unique. Indeed, the protests are happening because it was not an isolated incident, but almost the norm of how Black people are subjected to discrimination, mistreatment, and violence without any provocation but the colour of their skin. Of course, the protests are about George Floyd’s death, but they’re not just about that. They are about the pervasive and systemic racism that endangers the lives of Black people every day.
I’ve also been reminded that this is not just an American problem. Canada is not immune to anti-Black racism, and the events in the U.S. have prompted many people in Canada to speak and write about their own, everyday experiences of discrimination and fear in our communities. Black parents have shared about how much they worry about the safety of their children, and how they train them to interact with police in order to keep them alive.
It pains me to say it, but I’ve also been challenged to see that our churches also are plagued with racism. Certainly, over the years the PCC has made statements against segregation, apartheid, racism and racial harassment. We have thought about the fact that we are a pluralistic church, and emphasized that diversity enriches our congregations and governing bodies. The Social Action Handbook includes a section on People of Diverse Races and Ethnic Origins and summarizes what the church has said and done with regard to racism. Still, our official statements have not put an end to actual racist comments, actions and discrimination that are part of the experience of many Black ministers and church members. I wonder how we might take steps to shed light on ourselves, on our systems, on our practices, and then take action to correct them.
Last weekend when I considered the story of the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, I was struck by the description of the crowd of people from every nation under heaven hearing about God’s deeds of power in so many different languages. God’s vision was for a church that was gloriously diverse in language, culture, colour, gender and age. And yet, we are still so far from honouring all people and thanking God for the diverse and beautiful ways that the Spirit fills us and works in our lives. As a church, we should know this, and take up our responsibility to speak and to act for justice for those who are being oppressed, abused, and killed. We must do something, because Black lives matter.
I am not saying that “all lives matter,” because that’s another thing that I have learned. Of course, all lives matter, but all lives are not being threatened. Some have explained it by saying, “If your friend gets a cut on their arm are you gonna wait to give all your friends a Band-Aid because all arms matter? No, you would help your friend who was bleeding because they are in pain and in need. Or if a person’s house was on fire and someone was trapped inside, are you gonna make the fire department go to every other house on the block first because all houses matter? Obviously not.”