On the Beginnings of a Subversive Liturgy

(This is the first of a series of entries to hash out what's going on in these prayer and worship gatherings being held at the Pasadena police station.)

In the wee hours of the morning on September 30, 2016, Reginald "J.R." Thomas was killed by the Pasadena Police Department. He was known as a man of faith, who often went about with two essentials in tow: his I.D. and his Bible. He was father of 8 children, and he struggled with mental illness. Those closest to the incident testify that J.R. had called 911 in fear that he may hurt himself. The police say they never spoke with J.R., but with a family member who reached out for help. When the police arrived on the scene, it is said that J.R. was wielding a knife in one hand, and a fire extinguisher in the other. 8 officers surrounded him. 

They tased him.

Bound him.

They punched and kicked him until he died.

I live just a mile or so up the road from J.R.'s home. I did not know him, but I felt the grief of the neighborhood at his loss. I felt the grief of a nation of people of color, for whom this kind of story is growing inexpressibly exhausting. Only this time, I was not enraged by a stranger across the country: in Charleston, or Ferguson, or Manhattan. I was grieved over someone within one degree of separation to me. A man just a few years older than me. 

There were a couple of demonstrations during the week of his death. I attended them. I marched. I chanted. I blocked traffic for this stranger, my neighbor, my brother. His death was disruptive. I could no longer pass his neighborhood without turning from my route to pass by the memorial that now stood in front of his apartment. 

Courtesy of Jonathan Stoner Photography

Courtesy of Jonathan Stoner Photography

Something seemed unfair about that memorial. It was, of course, necessary because JR's life mattered, and it deserved to be commemorated. But that symbol of commemoration was also a painful reminder of a tragic and unnecessary loss of civilian life. It felt unfair that the grief of the neighborhood should be quarantined, safely away from view of the police and other civil authorities.

It was clear: the right thing to do was to build a memorial to JR at the police station, to bring the grief of the community to the ones who are sworn to protect us. There is a shield at the front door that says, among other things, "How we get the job done is just as important as getting the job done." Next to those words seemed the most appropriate place to put the memory of J.R., because we want to see that value in practice. 

We anticipated that the police would take this memorial down, and so we organized a way to have it rebuilt every day. For a few weeks, small groups of us took shifts to lay down flowers, burn incense, light candles, and post a picture with the story of his death at the station. We'd pray, read scriptures, sing, and share our reflections on God's desire for--and commitment to--justice in our society. 

I noted that many of us who were gathering, especially people of color, were not finding adequate spaces in our churches to express our laments, grief, anger, and fear. Many churches feel that being so specific about a certain "issue" would be too controversial, or divisive, or political. Some would even think it's a distraction from "the main thing" (Jesus). Some would say the gospel isn't concerned with such matters. But as I drove past J.R.'s apartment, these words that Jesus spoke kept playing in my head:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them...See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith
— Matthew 6:26-30

I know the point of that passage is that we should not worry, but the thing that struck me, while reading it this time, was Jesus' conviction that God is so intimately acquainted with the details of the neighborhood. Jesus is says that God knows every sparrow that needs food, and every flower that needs petals, and very hair on each person's head. Did this not apply to Orange Grove Avenue? Did this not apply to J.R.? Of course it did. And if God is so acquainted with the neighborhood, then doesn't it logically follow that God feels the loss when a life is ripped from land of the living? That was the God we needed, not the God who sits aloof in heaven promising us relief after death. We needed the God who grieves when there's one less head of hair to count on Orange Grove Avenue. We needed the God who is invested in the details and intends to do something about it. 

So we were finding space for this kind of expression at the police station together. I found myself enriched and encouraged as I listened to the reflections and prayers of my peers, as they prayed "to the One who conquers chaos," and meets us "in the land of the living." This gathering was supposed to be a form of ongoing peaceful protest (and it is), but it was also turning into a form of ministry that we needed.

Then we realized that Advent was coming...