A holy privilege of the pastorate is that people trust us with their pain. For them, we are safe. Sometimes we are the only safe people with whom hurting people can bear to reveal the depth of the sadness and trauma they silently bear. When person shares his or her pain with me, I am the shepherd offering comfort and help as I am able, quietly bearing witness to that pain before God in prayer. When a community expresses their pain to a pastor, particularly the pain of oppression, prejudice and violence, he or she is the prophet called to speak truth to power alongside them, to demand justice and to name evil for what it is.
After the violent acts of domestic terrorism perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 13, I saw many people sharing this quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” In that moment, every faith leader was called to exercise his or her prophetic duty to name racism as sin. We were called upon to proclaim every person’s belovedness as a child made in the image of the most Holy God. We were called to condemn all hatred and division on the basis of race and to share the good news that we are all one in Christ Jesus.
We were called upon to proclaim every person’s belovedness as a child made in the image of the most Holy God.
I saw that a candlelight vigil was being planned in my community on Staten Island to honor the life of Heather Heyer and to stand united against hate. So I threw on my clergy collar and grabbed my vigil candles, seeing this as one small opportunity to represent my faith in the God of justice alongside others repulsed by the overt racism on display in our country. After the statements and songs and slow, candlelit march around Tompkinsville Park, the 50 or so participants were congregating in small circles. While a few other faith leaders were present, I was the only person wearing any kind of religious clothing. I saw a man who had not been in the vigil beckoning to me, pointing at my collar. He looked somewhat disheveled, his face full of grief. He said that he was a relative of Eric Garner and wondered if I would say a prayer with him just across the street, in the spot where Eric Garner had been killed by a police officer three years ago.
I recognized only then, with amazement, that we were marching for an end to racism in the very place where Eric Garner had been pinned to the ground, pleading, “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died face down on that strip of sidewalk. I had stood on that sidewalk many times before, holding a candle to honor the life of Eric Garner. Over the years, the park had become full of other memories for me, of health fairs and sitting in the sunshine and the entrance to the coffee shop where I like to write my sermons. But for Eric’s closest family and friends, the pain of his loss had not faded. His six children remain fatherless. His mother, Gwenn, whom I often saw at events in the community, still grieves how her son was taken from her so unjustly.
Two other faith leaders and I stood with Eric’s family member next to the makeshift memorial marking the place where he died. We took turns praying, and when I opened my eyes, I saw that a group of the other vigil attendees had surrounded us with their candles. Each one of us shook the gentleman’s hand in a gesture of blessing as we departed, moved to tears at the enormous and long-lasting toll violence has caused and will continue to cause, unless we stand together.
The sin of racism is pervasive, woven into every institution of our nation. The pain of racially motivated violence lives as a trauma in the bodies and memories of those from whom so much has been stolen. We who have committed our lives to proclaiming the good news of resurrection in Christ for all people must not remain silent in the face of so great an evil. The brazen actions of white supremacists as witnessed in Charlottesville should deeply disturb us and move us to communal repentance and action. There is no place for racial hatred and division in the kingdom of heaven. It is our duty to stand up and speak out, as shepherds and as prophets, until that day when all God’s beloved children know peace.
Karen Jackson is director of recovery and community initiatives for Project Hospitality, Staten Island, New York.