Back in 2014, I preached on the story in Exodus of the five women who saved baby Moses from the first recorded genocide. The uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, were happening then, and police were beating people and tossing tear gas in quiet neighborhoods, destroying stashes of food and water and medicine in churches, and smashing reporters’ equipment to keep the real stories from getting out to the world. At that time, I found hope in the fact that our creative and justice-loving God used the materials at hand—five women and a basket—to save the baby who would grow up to liberate the Hebrews. I saw people in Ferguson using cell phones to broadcast the truth, and I believed then that this was going to be the tool of liberation for Black and brown people—who were suffering under the casual violence of police brutality. I thought that if police knew that their horrific actions were being recorded and sent round the world, they would hesitate to commit them.
Last week, I believed I had been wrong. And not just about police and others in authority. I didn’t know in 2014 that so many people of privilege would knowingly, even proudly, bring down pain and destruction on other citizens.
You’ve probably seen the videos of White people calling police because Black people are barbequing, or swimming in their community’s pool, or sleeping in their dorm’s common area, or sitting in their cars, or—just about any activity normal human beings do. Recently a bird watcher asked a white woman to obey the leash laws in the park. So she called the police to say that her life was being threatened by an African American man. She knew full well what would likely happen to him if she did so. There is a long history. And she still did it, even while he and his sister recorded her actions, because she assumed the police and other white people would support and defend her.
That story turned out as well as it could. Christian Cooper did not lose his life. But later that day in Minneapolis, four uniformed men murdered George Floyd in full view of a crowd of horrified bystanders, who were—yes—recording it on cell phones. Again, the police assumed—and rightly—that they would be supported by the awful structure of institutional racism and white supremacy. Those four officers added George Floyd’s name to the list of 87 other Black people who have been killed by police since January 1 of this year—some of them in their own homes.
These actions are what Black and brown people live with daily. And when their grief and anger finally turned into peaceful demonstrations, the police met them with tear gas and batons, and white supremacist groups infiltrated the crowds and began smashing windows and cars, so the Black organizers would be blamed.
And the white supremacist in the White House called the protestors thugs, and threatened to unleash the military on them.
Tremendous evil is loose in America. And it has always been here. It is built into the system that shapes all our lives, from the Constitution itself, to an occupying army of police in Black neighborhoods, to the little everyday outrages. Our fellow Prospectors—people who have sat in the pews with us at Prospect—have shared how they pray every time their children leave the house. How they have been confronted by white bullies while standing on a sidewalk with friends. And those beautiful little girls and boys in the preschool this church helps support—they will grow up into a social environment that is designed to hurt them. In which they will have to internalize the Talk that Black parents must have with their children, about how to get home safely.
This has been a secret only to those who are not its victims.
But maybe there is some good coming out of cell phones, because we who are not the direct victims of this evil can’t deny it anymore. We’ve seen the videos.
And along with this awfulness, we are all—Black, brown, and white—living with the daily anxiety of trying to fend off the coronavirus, and loneliness, and the lack of human contact. Or we are grieving people we’ve already lost to the pandemic. And for some of us there is the catastrophe of lost jobs, or of the need to go back to work even with the virus still rampant. And all of these evils happen disproportionally to Black and brown people, too.
So, the scripture reading for this week is the end of the first version of the creation story. How—in the face of all this—how can we believe that God saw that it was all very good? It sounds like a bad joke.
Well, maybe I can offer a different punchline. In the United Church of Christ, we believe “God is still speaking.” It’s our church’s motto. And so, I want to quote God’s words, spoken through the prophet Fred—or actually through Fred’s mother, the prophet Nancy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
And the helpers are there. In the protests, there are healers with medicine and jugs of water and milk for burns and wounds. White people are acting as human shields between Black protesters and police lines. A few police officers have dropped their weapons and walked with the protestors. Pat Robertson, of all people, has condemned Trump’s actions and police brutality.
Look for the helpers.
But just as we do with the Bible, we can re-interpret Fred Rogers’s words. We can look for the helpers, and we will find them. But we must also be the helpers. We’re grown up now. We are the helpers we are looking for.
We are helping with the pandemic, each of us in the best way we can. And up to about a week ago, these were the most important things we could be doing. And they are still important.
But with the deaths and death threats of the last few weeks, some of us have been made aware—again—of the terrible effects of the disease of racism. Others of us have known all along, of course. And this disease requires our urgent help, because it is literally killing our brothers and sisters. It is a slow-motion Holocaust.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, activists said SILENCE EQUALS DEATH. And now we’re seeing signs that read WHITE SILENCE EQUALS VIOLENCE.
So, what can White people do? How can we help?
Black people have been doing this work for a very long time. They know what they need from us, and they are telling us. Some are compiling lists of concrete ways we can help. I’ve put links to some of those lists in the chat area of our Zoom meeting, and I’ll see that they go out in the Tuesday email, too.
Meanwhile, as we are doing the work, we can educate ourselves, and education never stops. Two excellent starter books for White people are White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.
And we can—we must—educate other White people. We can use our Facebook accounts to share what we are learning, or we can engage with people we meet—when we can do that again! Encounters in Zoom meetings, or the street, on public transportation, in line at the grocery—all these can be opportunities to share, and to help turn racist thinking around.
And we must vote for people at all levels of government, not just the presidency—people who will work actively to transform or eradicate racist and oppressive institutions, including voting itself. Even in quarantine, we can help get out the vote by writing letters and postcards to voters in swing states. I’ll put those links on the Tuesday email, too.
This time is a turning point. Somehow this one death, the murder of George Floyd, has waked the energy of justice around the world. Real change suddenly seems possible. We are seriously talking about transformations that seemed outrageous a week ago—like defunding police departments and moving the funds toward services in Black neighborhoods.
We can—we must!—be a part of this transformation. We can follow the lead of movements like Black Lives Matter to help make these changes—starting with something as simple as an email to the Mayor. We can be part of the small trickle of justice and mercy that will become an everlasting stream that gives and refreshes life for everyone.
And that is very good.
Look for the helpers. They are as close as your eyes and your voice and your hands.