Episcopalians in Minnesota, churchwide call for justice in killing of black man in police custody

By David Paulsen and Egan Millard
Posted May 29, 2020
George Lloyd mural

A mural memorializing George Floyd and other black victims of police violence is located near the site in Minneapolis where Floyd died May 25 while being taken into police custody. Photo: Paul Lebens-Englund

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal clergy and congregations in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and churchwide are voicing outrage and lament at the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died May 25 while in Minneapolis police custody, as protests against police brutality intensify – both locally and nationally.

Some Twin Cities Episcopalians have joined in-person demonstrations denouncing Floyd’s killing amid increasing calls for charges against the officers involved. On May 29, Derek Chauvin, the officer who pressed his knee to the back of Floyd’s neck, was arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter. Floyd could be heard in a bystander video saying “I can’t breathe” while pinned to the ground.

“We are heartbroken and angry about the killing of George Floyd. This horrific act of violence reveals deep racial injustices that continue to be present in our common life,” Minnesota Bishop Brian Prior and Bishop-elect Craig Loya said in a joint statement May 28. (Loya’s consecration is scheduled for June 6.)

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined Prior and Loya in their statement and shared his own lament for Floyd’s death and the deaths of others before him, at a time when the county also is dealing with a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 102,000 Americans.

“This crisis reflects deep sores and deep wounds that have been here all along,” Curry said in response to the unrest in the Twin Cities. “In the midst of COVID-19 and the pressure cooker of a society in turmoil, a man was brutally killed. The basic human right to life was taken away. His basic human dignity was stripped by someone charged to protect our common humanity.

“And perhaps the deeper pain of this is the fact that it’s not an isolated incident. The pain of this is that it’s a deep part of our life. It’s not just our history. It is American society today. We are not, however, slaves to our fate, unless we choose to do nothing.”

Prior and Loya’s statement included a list of actions Episcopalians can take, such as contacting elected officials, giving to a fund created for George Floyd’s family, and addressing racial bias within one’s own congregation and community. They also encouraged donations to local organizations working on racial justice issues and a community nonprofit in the neighborhood most affected by the protests that have followed Floyd’s death, which in some cases turned violent.

Some Episcopal priests have joined peaceful protests across the Twin Cities in the wake of Floyd’s killing. The Rev. Joy Caires, rector of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul attended an evening protest May 28 outside the Hennepin County Government Center and found reason for hope despite “so much damage to our Twin Cities,” she said in a May 29 post on the church’s Facebook page.

Caires was joined by the Rev. Georgianna Smith, a church deacon. “Tensions were high, but no weapons were drawn – by either protesters or police,” Caires said. “We stood, in our clergy garb, as witnesses. Hands in prayer – calling out, alongside the protesters, the name of George Floyd.”

At one point, she said, a young black man asked if she was with the police, and when she told him no, he persuaded her to accompany him as he tried to question police. The man approached an officer and asked why no one had been arrested yet. The officer responded that investigators needed time to ensure a strong case against those responsible for Floyd’s death.

“For a moment, while the crowd roared across the plaza, two men stood together seeking connection,” Caires said on Facebook.

The Very Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund, dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Minneapolis, issued a message to his congregation on May 29 warning of the “bitter root” of systemic racism. Earlier in the week, he added his signature to a letter from the Downtown Interfaith Senior Clergy that condemned Floyd’s killing.

“Our hearts break, going out to the family and to those in our community who continue to bear the historical brunt of racially-motivated oppression that too often leads to violence and even death,” the interfaith clergy letter said.

Lebens-Englund, in an interview with ENS, said he attended an evening rally May 28 organized by a group called MAD DADS, which seeks to ensure healthy communities while developing young leaders. The rally was peaceful, and Lebens-Englund said he was impressed by the teenagers who spoke about their desire to change the system for the better.

The rally was held outside Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct police headquarters. Afterward, Lebens-Englund left to join other mourners who were gathered just to the west at the site where Floyd was killed. He soon learned from a parishioner that some protesters had set fire to the police station and adjacent buildings.

“It is a small subset of folks whose tactics involve property damage and chaos creation,” Lebens-Englund said. He and other Episcopal leaders are trying to find ways to walk alongside church leaders in the local black community in peaceful demonstrations of solidarity. He also appreciates the guidance the Minnesota bishop and bishop-elect provided on ways Episcopalians can take action, he said.

Voices across Episcopal Church speak out against injustice

Churchwide, Episcopalians have participated in online prayer vigils and diocesan leaders issued statements calling on Episcopalians to channel their anger into advocacy against systemic racism.

Bishops like the Rt. Rev. Gayle Harris, bishop suffragan of Massachusetts, have highlighted the importance of considering the historical context for the protests and riots in Minneapolis and other cities.

“The reaction on the streets of our cities is another eruption of frustration from over 400 years of oppression and injustice for people of color on this continent,” Harris said in a statement urging Episcopalians to “be a new and changed community.”

Some church leaders have said that Floyd’s killing – along with the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky – magnifies the reality that racism is killing people of color in America, a reality made even more apparent in their disproportionate rates of serious illness and death due to COVID-19.

“We have to recognize the connections between the deaths from COVID-19 and these deaths on the streets of our cities at the hands of police,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and stewardship of creation, told ENS. “The lack of public health access in vulnerable communities – that has been an act of racism.

“The defunding and underfunding of public health and housing and education, especially in communities of color, directly leads to a higher proportion of deaths from COVID-19. That’s racism. And the deaths of black and brown and Native people at the hands of police officers who, when they look at us, they don’t always see people that they are sworn to protect,” Spellers said. “They see people that they are supposed to protect someone else from. That’s racism. It’s all connected.”

Spellers and other church leaders are preparing a guide of resources and suggestions for ways that Episcopalians can take action against systemic racism in the U.S., focusing on three categories: act, learn and pray.

“Action will need to happen for months and years to come – action toward justice reforms, the defense of black and brown and Native peoples in a nation that has proved time and time again that our lives don’t matter the same as other lives,” Spellers said, urging Episcopalians to contact local police departments, district attorney’s offices and the U.S. Department of Justice to “demand accountability measures in every police department across America.”

The Episcopal Church’s efforts to promote racial justice in American policing go back more than a half-century, but ramped up in response to several high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the Rev. Charles Wynder Jr., the church’s staff officer for social justice and engagement on reconciliation, justice and creation care, told ENS. The church’s efforts have included political advocacy, grants for churches in areas affected by racial violence, the Becoming Beloved Community initiative and diocesan reparations funds.

The biggest difference between the situation in Minneapolis and other incidents like it is “the degree of terror layered upon complex and compound grieving caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that’s exacerbated by existing racism,” Wynder said. “So there’s a state of terror, right now, in black communities … that requires the church to not only speak but to act and to double down on its ministries of justice, engagement, advocacy and reconciliation.”

The Union of Black Episcopalians will host an online prayer vigil for racial justice and the healing of the nation at 4 p.m. on May 31.

“I realized that we at UBE must do something,” the Very Rev. Kim Coleman, the group’s president, told ENS. “We must respond in a way that will empower our members and help our white allies understand and know their responsibility in helping to bring about change.”

UBE is reaching out to bishops and laity across the church and hopes that all Episcopalians – not just African Americans – will participate, Coleman said.

“We want to intercede, to name, to acknowledge and to empower people to take some next steps in terms of repentance,” she said. “We always come to this place where we have an incident, but we are constantly ignoring the cumulative effect of death after death, murder after murder.”

Like Harris, Coleman cautioned white Episcopalians not to demonize people of color who react to incidents of racial violence in ways they don’t understand. When frustration erupts in violence, as it has in Minneapolis in response to Floyd’s death, often the reaction is “shock, surprise and dismay from our beloved brothers and sisters to whom we’ve been speaking for 400 years, asking them to hear and see that we are in pain and to begin to own their part in it,” she said.

In addition to direct action and prayer, “the church can help people to learn,” Spellers said. “The church can amplify voices that may not have been heard before. We can make sure that people hear the stories behind the stories, and can learn how to tell the truth about injustice wherever we see it.”

Spellers shared with ENS how Floyd’s killing has affected her personally, describing the impact of witnessing countless similar incidents as “weathering” – a word that means both resilient endurance and a gradual wearing down over time.

“As a black woman nearing the age of 50 who grew up down South, I didn’t think that I could still be surprised by racial terror and violence,” Spellers said. “I honestly didn’t think that my heart could keep on breaking the way that it is right now.”

Prayers, prayer vigils and the work of racial healing

In Minneapolis, the Rev. Rena Turnham, deacon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, told ENS that the local Episcopal response so far has emphasized prayer and lament at Floyd’s death, and “we’re still in the middle of the immediate crisis.” She has been contacting parishioners by phone mostly to ensure they are safe and to provide pastoral support. But the work of the church won’t end there.

“I’m personally thinking about what long-term work we need to be doing,” said Turnham, who oversees community engagement for the cathedral. While Episcopalians have long been called to the work of racial healing, in her mostly white congregation, some haven’t yet been ready, she said, until now.

“Folks that were not there yet just got there very quickly and are wrestling with the deep internal questions of what can one white person do,” Turnham said.

Those are questions that the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson expects his congregation at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul to wrestle with in the coming weeks. He led a prayer vigil on the congregation’s Facebook page on May 28 and has begun looking into resources on understanding and fighting racism, which he plans to introduce to parishioners at St. John the Evangelist. The congregation, like the cathedral, is mostly white.

On May 29, Weber-Johnson spoke with ENS in the morning from his home in a residential neighborhood on St. Paul’s west side before he left to check on the church, which is located a mile or two south of some sites of the previous night’s violent unrest.

“I’m sitting on my porch, and I can still smell the smoke,” he said.

Such violence is “hard to ignore, and I know the news media will amplify it,” Weber-Johnson said, but in his mind, that’s not the real story of the past week. “The full story is hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, redlining and capricious taking of life of our black and brown neighbors.” For the church, he added, it’s also about “our inability, particularly in the white community, to respond faithfully to change what needs changing and to repent of the complicity we share.”

The Rev. Robert Two Bulls Jr., as vicar of All Saints Indian Mission on Minneapolis’ south side, is close to the epicenter of the unrest. The church is just west of the police station that was set on fire, and he lives nearby in the same neighborhood.

“You can hear it and smell it and feel it from here,” said Two Bulls, who also serves as missioner for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s Department of Indian Work and Multicultural Ministries. He said in an interview with ENS that he worries that it will take a long time for the neighborhood to clean up and rebuild, but he clings to some hope.

“We’re a good community, and we’ll bounce back,” he said. “And hopefully justice will be served and law enforcement can make the changes they need to make.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org. Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org. Pat McCaughan also contributed to this report.