And So Our Work Begins

Josh Williams ’08 B.A., ’11 M.Div.

Maybe it is masochistic for a black person to pay money to see a film featuring the police killing an unarmed black man. Yet 2013’s Fruitvale Station, which depicts 22-year-old Oscar Grant’s last hours, compelled me.

As a black man who had “the (police) talk” with his parents early and often, I wanted to view the film as a tribute to all the names of those who had died after similar horrors, names I had heard growing up: Sean (Bell), Amadou (Diallo), Rekia (Boyd), Trayvon (Martin), and Oscar himself. Somehow, these names had become like family. I could trace their faces if you asked, recite biographical details, locate their places of death on a map. That’s what led me to a film to view something I’ve seen all too often: unjust black death.

Afterward, as the closing credits rolled, my wife and I found ourselves crying. We were not alone. Eight or 10 others sniffled along with us. The screen finally went dark. We all remained, as if waiting for something. I whispered to my wife, “I think this is where we are supposed to mourn.” Unable to muster the courage or clarity to call my fellow strangers into an ancient spiritual practice, I watched people quietly leave the theater. The moment had passed, but the thought remained: Might mourning be a way to cope with the spate of killings of unarmed black people?

Wounded and Numb

Three years later, I have become pastor of a multiethnic church called Elm City Vineyard in New Haven. Since that night in the theater, unfortunately, the list of unjustified black deaths at the hands of police has multiplied. By now, the roll call cries out for a public response, not just private reflection. Eric Garner … Michael Brown … Sandra Bland … Freddie Gray. Our congregation began to say their names. They brought them to me as questions, accusations, open wounds. I realized we had to take time to mourn these lives – mourn them like family.

What keeps us from grieving with those who grieve? Numbness. Across our diverse congregation, this numbness is rooted in different personal histories. For some, it is the shock of so much raw, murderous videotape in this social media age. For others, it comes from white shame that is unable to break through to solidarity. Others remain wounded and numb from the horrible loss of dignity after their own contentious encounters with law enforcement. Whatever the reason, intentionally or not, paralysis results in a lack of compassion.

Opening Eyes and Hearts

Our church’s vision includes the cultivation of compassion. We were unsure how to practice that after the 2014 non-indictments in the cases involving Eric Garner and Mike Brown. We wanted to act. We wrestled with big ideas that felt unattainable and small ideas that felt hollow. Finally, we realized we had to dig into the spiritual reservoir of our faith. We had to open our eyes to the power of public repentance and public calls to lament and mourn sins, individual and systemic. We dared to believe that mourning together could spark new power in our compassion.

And so our work began. Each Sunday we set aside a time to mourn. We start by naming a loss or a wrong. This implies a claim about the truth of things. One member stood and declared black children are robbed of the joy of childhood as a picture of Tamir Rice smiling appeared nearby. An Asian-American woman, in tears, confessed she is afraid of black men and prayed the fear would end.

These public accounts are short but often heartrending. In a political moment that flagrantly disregards truthfulness and features opposing camps with contradictory accounts of how things are, the simple telling of stories is a dramatic act. It confronts everyone present with a charged, authentic claim about the world. The challenge, the difficulty, is to learn to listen without instinctively dismissing these claims as invalid or ideologically distorted.

There is no easy solution for this problem, but there is something powerful about a story coming from a fellow follower of Christ during worship together. It defies the tendency to reject the speaker as an inferior witness to the truth.

We beseeched God to open our eyes. Something in us needed to change. Many of our white members, for instance, needed a new way of looking at the world, a way shaped by the pain of others. In biblical tradition, sackcloth and ashes can be a sign of both mourning (e.g., Esther 4:1–3; Jer. 6:26) and repentance (e.g., Jonah 3:5–8; Matt. 11:21). For anyone who is complicit in wrongdoing, the call to mourning is necessarily a call to repentance.

Repentance strikes an odd chord in public discourse today. Faux apologies and evasions of responsibility are a more recognizable tune, a thriving art. Our culture remains marred by racism without repentance. Perhaps the church can be both a school and a model of repentance leading to many more open eyes and open hearts.

The Rev. Josh Williams ’08 B.A., ’11 M.Div. is lead pastor at Elm City Vineyard Church in New Haven, CT.