The invite to the Minneapolis memorial service for George Floyd (or “Floyd” as I knew him) came through a mutual friend. Floyd and I both knew the same coworker of his, neither remains employed by that homeless shelter, and it is a regular stop on my route as a volunteer Chaplain. She actually was the one who pointed out to me on social media who the man was under the knee of the officer.
Devastating. There was no way to know how much so.
I connected with the extended family member and we talked by phone and text several times throughout the week leading up to the memorial service, as his family does not live in the Minneapolis area and planned to drive to this event as well as the other two memorials to follow. He graciously asked me to attend the service with his family.
I met up with the extended family member and his family just prior to noon, and we connected at the memorial site, held on the campus of North Central University in Minneapolis, less than three miles from the site Floyd drew his last breath. Many notables were in attendance – entertainers, politicians and activists. Due to this event occurring during the COVID-19 crisis and subject to health and safety restrictions, the 900-seat worship center was half full at best. Many donned masks to prevent the virus spread and social distancing practices were loosely followed. The total service lasted over two hours. Large crowds gathered outside the building, listening to the service’s audio piped outside permitting larger attendance.
Two of Floyd’s brothers provided context for the man they grew up with, knew well, counted on and loved. Maker of the world’s best grilled cheese sandwiches, hanging laundry on the water heater and Floyd (the family called him by his middle name, Perry) was the constant protector and a father figure to those younger family members. Both of these men struck me as kind, soft spoken and humble. I did not have the opportunity to meet them. Based on the loved they exhibited for their brother in this service, these are men I would be glad to call friends.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, well-known civil rights leader, was called upon to deliver the eulogy. This was no common eulogy, recanting the life and faith of the deceased. His message, more broad, addressed the injustice done to George Floyd as well as utilizing the national platform to push against racial inequality and oppression.
His two most notable quips were:
- “People accuse me of being a publicity hound. Well, no body calls on me to keep a secret”, addressing humorously how the Reverend is commonly involved in high profile crimes and injustices committed against African American people
- “Get your knee off our neck!” utilizing the symbolism tragically provided by the white police officer. African Americans have experienced four hundred years of white people with their collective “knee on” the necks of their fellow American citizens.
We were called to 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. Powerful is not a big enough word to describe the experience. As the crowd stood, I selected a posture with my hands extended, palms up, a position often used when I pray. After some time, I began to feel uncomfortable, as its difficult to remain in a steady unmoving position for any length of time. I pushed against my desire to shift or change my stance, thinking that “uncomfortable” is a feeling that pales to describe Floyd’s experience, nevertheless the collective experience of many African Americans when confronted by a police officer, are found ineligible for housing, the target of a racial slur or refused admittance to a college or social club. I wanted to feel uncomfortable. It seemed the least I could do in the moment. In the smallest way possible, I hoped to connect to my fellow citizens, to know them better and to help me understand their plight. Eight minutes and 46 seconds. Only a small token, but perhaps a step on a journey that I must take as an American and as a follower of Jesus.
In my latest book, Those People, I uncover the great and rich character of many of the homeless people that have become my friends through the work I’m involved in through ministry. I see now how I had many unconscious biases about those in the homeless community, and after spending time with them and getting to know many, I see how so many folks do not match the paradigm. “Unconscious” may not be the right word. I don’t know that I thought much about homeless people, but what little I did I guess I was willing to believe the stereotypes. The main lesson for me (yes, my writing is mostly about my shortcomings and how I’m learning) is that stereotypes are unfair. Lumping a whole group of people into a stereotype is wrong and inaccurate, as well as hurtful. I believe the same lesson applies here.
So, what are we to do?
I have more questions than I do answers:
- Why are there no people of color living on my block? I have 18 neighbors, not in a terribly affluent area of my suburb.
- Why does my church, in a suburb that is 47.8% of “white, alone” population, per the 2010 US Census data, seem to have few people of color in attendance?
- Why does the same census data show 63.8% “white, alone” population in Minneapolis, yet it seems that about 70 or 80% of the folks I see in our homeless shelter system are people of color? I understand that our jails and prisons reflect this as well.
- In my executive coaching practice, why do I have no clients that are people of color and have such a difficult time even finding prospective clients as such?
It seems that most white people, including me, have operated with an “open door” policy to people of color. “Everyone is welcomed” and “I don’t have any problem with a black family living on my block” or similar statements. I wonder if the problem with that is that there has been generations of oppression and barriers erected, so “opening the door” is not enough. We need to also extend a hand, create a bit of a pull, to start the momentum in a direction of wholeness and unity.
What does that look like? How is it done?
I’d love to hear from my fellows in the African American community on this one. I need to admit that I don’t know the answers and need to start doing a lot more listening. I’ve never walked in a black man’s shoes, so I need help in understanding what “help” looks like.
But there is one thing I believe I can do. I can no longer remain silent. Silence is like an absentee vote. I don’t show up, but I still influence the outcome.
Silence is not an option.