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Hands Up in Prayer Vigil, San Diego Partnership of Churches, November 28, 2014, San Diego Partnership of Churches

by The Rev. Kaji Douša, The Table:  United Church of Christ of La Mesa

Rev. Dousa

Rev. Dousa

Whenever I do something in my ministry that requires some real and sustained effort, I have to stop, pray and wonder with God. The main wondering of my heart is this: Does this come from a place of love?

I asked this question as an idea started to grow. I kept reading headlines of people across the country and in my own city gathering and rallying around the pain of the injustices crystallized and emblemized in the Ferguson, Missouri experience. And I read about my home church, the first church I ever joined, the church at which I was ordained 8 years ago, The Church of the Redeemer in New Haven, CT. Like the church I now serve, Redeemer was historically a white church, but had grown to become quite multicultural and multiracial over the years.

Being multicultural and multiracial sounds wonderful, and it is deeply, beautifully wonderful. But it also means that in communities like these, we don’t have the option of ignoring each other’s issues as some congregations tend to do. I had been watching the mounting energy around the killings of black men across this country, but wasn’t sure how to approach the topic besides my own reflections from the pulpit. I knew there was more to do, but I was not sure what that would look like in our context.

Monday, November 24, District Attorney Robert McCullough announced that the Grand Jury’s decision on whether or not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. The Rev. Dr. Shelley Stackhouse, Senior Minister at the Church of the Redeemer, knew that her community and her city would need a place to gather and prayerfully reflect over this indictment. So she opened up the church for prayer and offered a simple, but powerful, liturgy of worship.

I was inspired by Shelley’s work and wondered if we might offer something similar in San Diego. But first, I had to ask the love question: would I be working to offer this in a spirit of love? Would I be prepared to pray for and with people who disagree? Would that love carry me through the opposition we would face for offering this, both within and outside my church?

I had to turn to my own experiences with law enforcement, in particular, to find an answer. In my student years, I drove some really awful cars. Rusty, dusty, old and in and out of repair shops where the mechanics definitely knew me by name, they were what I could afford. In New Haven, a city with lots of other rusty, dusty and old cars, this was not a problem. But when I graduated and moved to serve a lovely church in Darien, CT, a beautiful hamlet on Fairfield County’s wealthy “Gold Coast”, things changed. Driving my beat up Corolla, I began to be pulled over with such regularity that when a week went by that I wasn’t pulled over, I was surprised. The interactions weren’t awful, but they were annoying, and a little scary. It is never easy to sit and wonder what an officer is going to do to you, especially when you know you hadn’t been breaking any laws. I had to plan to leave extra time for things, in case I might get pulled over. I wondered if the officers might start recognizing the car and leave me alone, but this did not happen.

Finally, the carburetor (or was it the muffler?) fell off and I couldn’t drive up a hill without sending sparks from the car. I knew that I’d never make it through the streets of Darien with this problem. So I broke down and, with the help of my parents, bought a new car. I had to think a bit before deciding what to get. My main question (besides cost, resale value, crash test rating, etc.) was: will it help to keep me from being pulled over?

We settled on a MINI Cooper, a subtly luxurious, playful car that I believed would be sufficiently unthreatening to the Darien Police Department. I was correct. I was never pulled over in Darien again. And, over time in my ministry there, I developed a good relationship with many officers on the force.

My next major interaction with the police was, once again, related to my car – this time, at the end of its life. You see, I totaled my car one morning on my way to a church. The State Trooper who responded turned out to be headed in the same direction, so he offered to take me the rest of the way. The conversation we had on that trip was nothing but holy; we even stopped, on the way, at that glorious New England institution, Dunkin Donuts, for coffee. He dropped me off at the church and promised that another trooper would come to get me back home. He did not have to do this, nor did the gentle trooper who took me home that evening – an hour and a half away. It was through this sacred set of experiences that I began to develop a deep love for our people in law enforcement. There are good and great officers out there. They deserve our support.

So there was my answer, the answer to my prayer. I decided that it would be out of this love for those who serve and protect us well that I helped to organize my colleagues from the San Diego Partnership of Churches to gather in prayer Friday night at Mission Hills Church. I believe that the missteps and the shape of racial profiling by some in uniform not only does a great injustice to the victims of their inappropriate use of force, but also does a great disservice to the very good, very hardworking men and women in uniform who truly seek to serve and protect.

Meanwhile, systemic injustices continue. Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white men. The same number of black men are killed by police as were lynched back in the Jim Crow era. Maybe some of these killings were unavoidable. But police very infrequently are prosecuted for them. And in case after case, the killers of black people seem to walk free, which makes a lot of us ask:  Do black lives matter?

Our faith has a very clear answer to this, and that answer is a resounding yes. Of course all lives matter.

And so we began to plan, to gather and pray about this. As we did, my colleagues in the Partnership of Churches began to see a vision, and we decided to gather together hosted by The Rev. Dr. Scott Landis at Mission Hills Church – a congregation well-rooted in the urban landscape.

We decided to pray in critique of ourselves and the systems that privilege us over others. We do this, not out of a desire to condemn, but out of a sense of great love.

If we did not love our country, we would give up on it. I’d turn off the news, shut the papers, close my eyes and walk blindly day to day. I’d watch videos of kittens and talk about milk and toast.

Instead, we choose to live with our eyes open. And we choose to see.

And as I see, and as I invite God to help me to see better, I pray for the vision to see how to make things better. I pray that God would fashion me – or, as the song says:

“Melt me, mold me, fill me. Use me…”

so that I can do my part to make the great privileges of the American Dream apply to more than it does today. So that I can, with the help of a community poised and ready to act, prepare the way for God’s magnificent handiwork.

God didn’t just form an earth and set it in the sky with a “see you later!”

God fashions us all in God’s image. Not just once, not just at conception or birth, but again and again, throughout our lives, God’s still at work in us. Every time we grow, God’s been busy with us. And God’s not done with us yet. We have to believe this.

As we gathered, we sang freedom songs. We sang Oh Freedom. We sang Ella’s Song:

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest…until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.”

Vigil-CandleWe prayed a litany written by Yolanda Pierce:

“…Let us not offer clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.
“Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.
“Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.
“Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.
“Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.
“Let us be silent when we don’t know what to say.
“Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.
“Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.
“Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.
“Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard….”

We heard a reflection, a confession and a hope from The Rev. Dr. Jane Heckles. We were challenged, also by the prayer of The Rev. Dr. Pierce, to ask:

“God, in your mercy…
“Show me my own complicity in injustice.
“Convict me for my indifference.
“Forgive me when I have remained silent.
“Equip me with a zeal for righteousness.
“Never let me grow accustomed or acclimated to unrighteousness.”

At the end of our time in the Sanctuary, we took our prayers to the street, gathered around the Peace Pole as we lit candles and listened to the powerful reflections of The Rev. J. Lee Hill, Jr. who told the story of sitting next to his wife on their living room sofa as they listened to the McCullough press conference. She had tears in her eyes, and as he learned why, he realized that he would never know what it felt like to carry one African-American boy after another in her womb, and to wonder what words she could say to teach them how to protect themselves from an angry cop who might see them, too, as “demon.”

In silence, guided through the dark of night by the candlelight, we walked the neighborhood and found ourselves at a busy street corner. We stood for a moment, now able to see each other’s faces. We came from every generation. We did not know each other – some came from other churches, others came from hearing about it through the news. We were African-American, we were white, we were Asian, we were Latino, we were LGBT, we were straight, we were in tears, we were hopeful, we were…together. We wrapped up our time together singing, and, by God, believing:

“We shall overcome some day.”

Until we do, there is work to do. God help us. In love. Amen

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