Bringing Worship to the Street of the CitiesLast night I went to church.
It wasn't, however, the most conventional church experience. In fact, the leaders organizing the gathering didn't call it church and likely didn't think of it that way.
First a handful of young adults who serve our Unitarian Universalist faith in various professional roles, gathered at my house. My partner had made signs and we brought our Standing on the Side of Love gear. We talked and shared stories of protests and times we'd had difficulties with police. We had some snacks and drinks. Reverse coffee hour, if you will. And then we went out to worship.
We gathered with many others in a small park in Dudley square, right across from the Boston Police Department in Roxbury. There were, by the estimate posted on the Facebook event afterward, some 1600 people gathered. We began with 4.5 minutes of silence to honor the 4.5 hours Mike Brown's body lay in the street after he was shot by officer Darren Wilson. 4.5 minutes feels long when you are in a large crowd, waiting for something to happen. 4.5 hours is so very much longer.
This, for me, was prayer, a time to connect with the source of my being and meditate on the knowledge that Mike Brown was fully beloved by God, full of worth and dignity. To let the utter wrongness of his death sink in, once again. To stand in sacred silent anger and know that the creator mourned with us.
Next, black elders were called to the makeshift stage in the bed of a truck. They called out names and lit candles for black people killed by law enforcement. Some names I knew (Amadou Diallo, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin). Some names I did not know. Other names I knew but were not called (Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford). The candles were passed through the crowd and we took time to hold the candle, honoring the life it represented.
I held Amadou Diallo's candle as it moved through our midst. When I heard a classmate talking about Diallo during my freshman year of college it was the first time I'd ever heard about an unarmed black man being shot by police. This was the beginning of me starting to understand systemic racism and racist violence as a young middle class white woman from a predominately white community. Diallo was shot while on his front stoop in New York City by four cops; they shot 41 times and he was hit by 19 bullets. I looked at the flame and said his name in my head. "Amadou Diallo. Your life matters. Your death matters." This was our collective ritual.
Soon people began to share stories and urge us toward action. Many were young black women. They spoke of pain and anger and being tired of being afraid for themselves and their community; they urged us to the streets. These were our sermons.
One woman, from an older generation started to sing Bob Marley's Redemption Song. We sang along. "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?" This was our hymn.And then we began marching, chanting, holding up our hands.
Turn up, don't turn down, justice forMike Brown! No justice, no peace! No racist police!We moved, a mass of people, with rhythm and purpose and anger and hope. We walked through the streets, empty of cars, filling blocks and lanes.
Whose streets? Our streets! This is what democracy looks like!We stopped, then at South Bay House of Correction. Lights came on and in lit windows we could see silhouettes - people standing, both hands up. Other hands waving in time with our chanting:
Hands up, don't shoot! Black lives matter!
This, this was our offering and this our time of fellowship. This, our hands up and theirs, some of us blocking the on-ramp to I-93 and others of us incarcerated behind the bars in the windows, this was how we greeted one another. This march to this particular location was how we acknowledged that the same system killing black men is also incarcerating them, this was how we gave something of ourselves to the congregation of struggle.
After some time of confusion as to our next move and intimidation by streams of police cars coming up to our crowd and swiftly driving away, our little crew, now dwindled to three UU ministers and my partner, decided to head home.
Just as we were turning to go, we heard cries of "let's take Mass Ave!" Curious, we followed, since we needed to walk that way regardless. As the larger group streamed onto the busy thoroughfare, we heard honking and cheers. Many drivers and passengers, inconvenienced though they were, were smiling, giving thumbs up, taking photos, and even rolling down windows for high fives. Their greetings and support were our benediction, our "go in spirit and resilience" as we turned off on Washington Street to make our way home.
So I went to church last night. Because last night I worshiped. I worshiped the God who loves all people, the God who cares about every single black life that is ended far too soon by violence. I worshiped the spirit of life which moves our bodies for justice, pulls us toward one another, toward strangers and new friends, toward inmates, and yes, even toward the police we passed as we reached our neighborhood, who were standing around chatting and shouted, "Hands up, Don't shoot!" in support as we passed.
This struggle to end racism has been going on for centuries and it will continue to be hard, soul-wrenching, depressing work. For those of us who cannot rest until freedom comes, we need this worship, this way of being together, this space to honor anger and sadness and hope.
May you find such holy work in your own community, wherever you happen to be. May you seek it out and show up and give of yourself. And may you be spiritually sustained for this long struggle.