By: Christa Meland
Relief. Exhaustion. Sadness. Resolve.
These are some of the feelings that Twin Cities clergy say they’ve experienced following the long-awaited verdict of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty Tuesday on three counts of murder and manslaughter for killing George Floyd in Minneapolis last May—an event that sparked a renewed call for racial justice worldwide.
Over the past 11 months since Floyd’s death, many Minneapolis-St. Paul area clergy have attended and spoken at vigils, marched for justice, protested police brutality against people of color, donated food and cleaned up streets during the uprising last summer, preached and led small groups on anti-racism, and provided a pastoral presence amid the anger and hurt in their communities.
Rev. Dana Neuhauser, who serves New City Church—a church plant in South Minneapolis—was at the site of George Floyd’s memorial when the verdict was announced. Most of the people she was with were bracing for an acquittal.
“My initial reaction was shock, then relief,” she said. “A Black colleague with whom I was standing said, ‘we matter, we matter, we matter.’”
Rev. Dr. Ron Bell, Jr., who serves Camphor Memorial UMC in St. Paul, said he had no hope that there would be a guilty verdict. He’s pleased to have been wrong, but he is also acutely aware of the racism that’s still rampant in our society.
“I held my breath as the verdict was read; part of me is still holding my breath,” he said. “All I know is I’m grateful for a drop in the bucket of justice, but this work, this pain, this racialized trauma is unceasing. We have a community whose grief continues through Daunte Wright while also healing from George Floyd.”
Rev. Tyler Sit is also grateful for the verdict—but he’s even more grateful for the community members whose tireless work led to that outcome.
“I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘what Chauvin did was so egregious, that would have been the result of a trial regardless of the protests,’” said Sit, who serves New City Church. “However, that is not what the elders in the community tell us. There have been many, many instances of police brutality in the exact same area where Mr. Floyd was murdered, and the fact that this trial led to a guilty verdict is purely resultant from the passionate advocacy and stalwart witness of the community on the ground. So, I am feeling particularly grateful for people who have brought attention to this trial for the past eleven months.”
Meanwhile, Rev. Laquaan Malachi, who serves North UMC in North Minneapolis, said he feels like he’s in a limbo of sorts. “We are celebrating the mediocrity of our justice system,” he explained. “This verdict does not exonerate the system but instead highlights how difficult it makes justice when there are no cameras watching. This verdict was a baby step and we have a long way to go.”
Rev. Shawna Horn, who serves Fairmount Avenue UMC in St. Paul, similarly described feeling relieved but also still having a knot in her stomach.
“I am relieved because the verdict is holding Derek Chauvin accountable,” she said. “I am grateful that our justice system was able to work through the process with a new outcome—an outcome that we have not seen in Minnesota before: a white police officer being held accountable for killing an unarmed black man. This verdict sent a clear message that there is another way for our system to work. I am relieved because last night, my city slept a little easier.”
At the same time, she laments that in the middle of the trial, another Black man—Daunte Wright—was killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, and that the grief and public outrage over that killing were met with the combative response of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bangs.
Rev. Karen Bruins, who serves Lake Harriet UMC in Minneapolis, said it’s felt like the city of Minneapolis has been holding its breath for the past year—and recalls how sad and strange it’s been to have National Guard Humvees in her neighborhood and hear the constant circling of military and news helicopters.
“It feels like we can breathe again,” she noted. She rode her bike to Floyd’s memorial a few hours after the verdict was read, and a crowd was beginning to gather there. “There were people of every race, Jews, Christians, Muslims, young people, and old people,” she recalls. “There was a brass band playing. There were people handing out bowls of soup and others serving food…It was a picture of what community and peacemaking could look like.”
Where do we go from here?
For many local clergy, the verdict served as a reminder that significant work remains before justice will truly “roll down like waters,” as the prophet Amos imagined.
“Unfortunately this verdict cannot bring back the life of George Floyd, a beloved child of God, but I hope the verdict will bolster our commitment to work for God’s liberative justice in our communities and in our world,” said Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard, who serves Hamline UMC in St. Paul. “I recognize that part of being a follower of Christ—who was clearly anti-racist—means that I have to keep doing the inner work of examining how my heart may be hardened to my neighbor or the ways that I may be contributing to systems of oppression, and I must be willing to make changes in my own life and relationships if I want to see changes in our society.”
Horn echoed that sentiment. “I have challenged my church to consider their sphere of systemic influence,” she said. “In what systems do you have a voice? Is it a board room? Your child’s school? Your work place? Your neighborhood? Start there. In Minnesota, we have to start asking whose voice is missing in this conversation? We have to look at the policies in our institutions and ask where did they come from.”
The church has a critically important role in dismantling racism, local clergy say.
“It can begin by examining the ways its own systems uphold racism and racist outcomes,” said Malachi. “As we look ahead, it is important for all of us to be honest about the ways we participate in harm and to reduce and cease that harm going forward.”
Sit’s hope: “I would love to see people stop talking about following Jesus and social justice work as if they’re totally separate things. What does following Jesus mean but to built the Kingdom (Kin-dom) of God, and what is the nature of that kingdom but of justice? The Bible shows us a vision of God’s liberation, and the Holy Spirit guides us in living into that every day.”
Something that Horn has pondered: “I wonder if we as an institution sometimes test the waters of racial justice work, but when the water gets colder in the deep, we retreat to the shallows.”
Neuhauser pointed out that we are reminded in baptism of our belovedness and the belovedness of all people. We are called through baptism to “...accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” As the church, we are called to embody that belovedness and help birth justice in the world, she said.
“There’s so much work to be done. Sometimes it feels like shoveling in the middle of a blizzard and all I’ve got is a teaspoon, but I’ll keep shoveling.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church