“I see the connection today as the ministers coming together to stand for justice, to stand for unity, to stand for righteousness, as the mighty wind that will transform the state of Massachusetts, the nation of the United States, and the world.”
It was more a marching church service than a typical demonstration.
Sunday afternoon, a few hours before thousands gathered in Boston to protest the murder of George Floyd and other black Americans by police, several hundred clergy and members of the faithful gathered in Nubian Square in Roxbury, then walked up Malcolm X Boulevard to Boston Police Headquarters about a mile away.
Organized and led by Ministers In Action, Baptist Ministers Conference of Boston, Black Ministerial Alliance, and Massachusetts Council of Churches, the pastors and reverends who spoke, sang, and prayed said they were there not just there to send thoughts and prayers to protesters nationwide, but instead were demanding massive social, political, economic, and legal reforms.
The march, officially dubbed Clergy United in Prayer, Protest, Peace + Justice, was organized in less than a day via text and email threads. The march emphasized that the political and the spiritual are, and should be, inextricably intertwined. Reverend Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said regarding issues this country is facing, “If the church is silent, we all need to resign our pulpits and the credibility of the Gospel is lost.”
The march did not fall on an ordinary Sunday, but on Pentecost, the day Christians believe that a group of some of the first members of the faith were overtaken by the Holy Spirit while gathered in prayer, giving them the ability to speak in foreign languages and thus spread the Gospel to different communities.
Rev. Lima Lewis-Guy of Nesher Ministries, one of the organizers, saw a connection between the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the movement of clergy fighting for justice in Massachusetts.
“There was a sudden rush of a mighty wind, which was a transforming point for the church,” Lewis-Guy said. “I see the connection today as the ministers coming together to stand for justice, to stand for unity, to stand for righteousness, as the mighty wind that will transform the state of Massachusetts, the nation of the United States, and the world.”
Another of the phenomena witnessed by those gathered at the first Pentecost is perhaps even more poignant: the Holy Spirit appeared as flames as it overtook early Christians. The striking connection between the fire of Pentecost and the fires lit by protesters across the country was not lost on Pastor Matthew Thompson from the Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan. Marching with congregants, Thompson said “fire is not just destruction, fire is purification. Fire is sanctification. Fire is protection… It is not an accident that at this prophetic moment, at this prophetic time, this is the weekend, the day of Pentecost, and literally our nation is on fire.”
In addition to Pentecost, this was also the weekend of the related Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai after their exodus from Egypt. In her blue and white prayer shawl, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline was one of the only visibly non-Christian attendees of the march. She saw the event on social media and thought it was important to come to as a person of faith and a clergy member.
“The Torah teaches about human dignity and that every human was created in the image of the divine presence,” Kreiman said. “So if we are going to receive Torah, we should receive it fully and recognize that every human is created in the image of the divine.”
After arriving at police headquarters, leaders of the march led those gathered in eight minutes and forty-nine seconds of silence, the length of time George Floyd was pinned by police officers. Nine minutes is a very, very long time when you sit in silence and watch the minutes pass. Slowly, people began to drop to their knees; as the minutes went on, someone let out an audible sob and doubled over in anguish.
Following this painful meditation, leaders of the march spoke powerfully of how the spiritual informs and necessitates their calls for secular justice. Dr. Brandon Thomas Crowley, senior pastor of the Myrtle Baptist Church in Newton and instructor of ministry at Harvard, called the murder of George Floyd and other black men and women “sinful” and told the crowd that the “real sin of racism” often gets ignored while other so-called sins like homosexuality are constantly harped on by the Christian community. He called for widespread change not only in the political and judicial spheres, but within “white ecclesial settings,” and demanded that white Americans use their privilege to enact this change.
Reverend James Harrison of the Southern Baptist Church in Roxbury read out the statement of purpose for the march, his booming voice reminding those gathered of the victims of police involved shootings here in Massachusetts. Harrison also called for economic, social, political, and medical justice: “We cannot be a city on a hill when so many are trampled underfoot,” he preached to applause.
Rev. Everett carried an icon, Our Lady of Ferguson Missouri and All Those Killed by Gun Violence, throughout the march and gathering. Created by the artist Mark Doox, Everett “felt it was important to me to bring this image of the Holy Mother because we heard George Floyd cry for his mother, and so many people respond to Mary’s cry for her son.” “My hope,” the reverend said, “is that every mother can understand the worry of black mothers for their sons.”
The event ended with a prayer by Rev. Lewis-Guy, asking God to send the Holy Spirit down in order to transform those gathered from the inside out, adding that “we know that change must begin with us.”
Moving forward, leaders and participants in the march plan to take the spiritual power they felt this weekend and channel it into secular action. Rev. Everett said there will be more events and actions planned by the group that organized the march, and posted a list of follow-up actions on the Facebook page for the event.
Pastor Thompson said he doesn’t plan to join any other marches or protests, and is instead focused on organizing for change.
“I think prayer is important,” Thompson said. “I think it is important to march, but after we’ve marched, after we’ve prayed, now there is some planning—so that why we are marching, we won’t have to march for that issue again.”