Who Is Behind A Subversive Liturgy?
Part 2 of 7 (You can read Part 1 clicking here)
"I knew this was a dumb idea,"
I thought to myself as I left the police station. It had been a few weeks since we'd gathered hundreds of candles, incense sticks, matches and card stock. We intended to do something disruptive by building a memorial to J.R. Thomas on the doorsteps of the police station, since he died at their hands. Even though we expected the police to take the memorials down, it was still discouraging when they did. Even though we stocked all of these supplies to rebuild every day (and we were doing just that), my heart was beginning to sink at their consistent dismissal of this symbol of grief. "It's too easy to brush off," I thought to myself. It was beginning to feel pointless. At the time I hadn't realized how the police were actually becoming more aggressive in removing the memorials, indicating that it wasn't as light an action as I was currently feeling. It's the small moth that won't stop landing on your face that is hardest to swat. We were the small moth, though I didn't see it at the time; and our faithfulness--not our magnitude or lack thereof--was/is the power of our action.
But I keep saying "we". You don't know who "we" are?
We don't belong to any one organization or church. We don't belong to one faith tradition. We are not all local to Pasadena. We don't belong to one racial category. We're not all of the same age group...
In every way you can think of, we are not a people, but we've been brought together by the chaos that fills our neighborhoods and news feeds.
A subversive liturgy grew out of a secret Facebook group called "Something Disruptive", titled exactly for what we had aimed to do. At that time, we were mostly seminary students, administrators, and alumni, with shared grief and energy.
Every once in a while, though, folks from the neighborhood joined us when we were gathered at the station. Many people in the southern part of Pasadena are comfortably unaware of the grief that has become normal in the northwest part of town. Occasionally, people passing our gathering would stop to ask what we were doing. When we explained how J.R. was killed, many of them hadn't heard. This event was apparently not news. It didn't upset the flow of life outside of his neighborhood. It was normal.
That is exactly why people feel provoked to march the streets, to block traffic, to rail at static powers in the open air: because the death of any civilian at the hands of the police should be news--terrifying and tragic news. Imagine if Michelangelo had went in to work on the Sistine Chapel, and somehow in the process the entire building collapsed. Imagine: a grape harvester who can never make it back to the storehouse without smashing all of the fruit. How is this normal? How is this okay?
This is exactly why we feel provoked to scream Black Lives Matter: because a death like J.R.'s deserved to be noticed...and mourned over. It was worth tears. It was worth re-assessing how the police interacts with the mentally ill. It was not like killing a cockroach: unremarkable, inconsequential, trivial. But that is exactly what it looks like, and has looked like in so many deaths like his. His death was unnecessary, and it was all in a days work.
Sometimes I wonder if people prefer this type of segregation. When I lived in Harlem, I would often notice that there were only two other parts of Manhattan so heavily occupied by the police: Times Square and Ground Zero, both sites considered vulnerable to terrorism. The difference between Harlem and Ground Zero, though, was that people weren't being stopped and searched en masse. The police were protecting what was in the lower parts of Manhattan from "outsiders". But the watch towers, and flood lights, and trained dogs, and police cars, and military grade weapons on my block in Harlem were not there to protect our precious black bodies. Their presence was different in the historically black part of town. We were being overseen. Such is often the case.
It's almost as though this new type of segregation honors an unspoken pact between the affluent and the not-so-well-off. An agreement that the police will keep affluent whites safe from their black and brown neighbors. The partitions being what they are, I'm not surprised that so many that stopped to ask us about our gathering were hearing the story for the first time. They had been sheltered from black pain. The point of our little protest was to--at least, in part--export that pain from the neighborhood it had been relegated to, and deliver it to those sworn to protect us.
The liturgies happened by accident though...kind of. A handful of us gathered to build the memorial and light incense sticks and candles. Since it's illegal to leave fire unattended in the open (a reasonable law), we would wait for the incense to burn out. This took about 45 minutes. We often stood there silently for much of the time--staring at the flickering flames, the array of colorful flower petals, and the fragrant smoke swirling in front of the memorial card we'd made for J.R. The silence would be broken by spontaneous prayers and readings from the psalms. One thought would inspire another. The thoughts and prayers would evolve into a discussion on faith and justice.
I think it was the election--the fact that 81% of evangelical Christians were inspired by Trump's misleading rhetoric of fear and division--that made it clear that we needed to be intentional about creating a more subversive liturgy. And with Advent coming, it seemed like the most appropriate thing we could do is keep bringing our deep longing for the reign of God on earth to the police station, and to invite others to join us.
On that first night, I looked up from the shield embedded in the floor, and giggled in disbelief as way more bodies emerged from the shadows than I expected. Somewhere between 50 and 60 people from various neighborhoods and cities, schools and social justice organizations, churches, etc. had come out to pray. It was kind of comical to hear people talk, because no one could identify who the organizer was: was it the local seminary? was it their pastor? and I wouldn't tell them :).
But the most powerful moment in that first meeting was when Jasmine, the leader of Black Lives Matter Pasadena, shared her heart with us. I hadn't even considered the significance of this moment until the next morning. She, a lifelong resident of the northside, gathered for worship and prayer with--among many others--congregants from affluent neighborhoods south of the freeway. "Some think we're rough around the edges," she announced, "but we are full of the Holy Spirit". She spoke about spoke about the healing potential of this gathering, and said: "This is important. This is what the neighborhood needs." The weight of those words, coming from a real freedom fighter, about my "dumb idea", are difficult to convey.
On that night, we became something different. We weren't just a handful people from one social circle. We were locals, transplants, "natives", immigrants, activists, congregants, clergy, and more.
We're still growing.
We're white, black, latinx, and asian, and just about everything else. We're episcopalian, presbyterian, pentecostal, and unitarian universalist, and growing. We're straight and LGBT. We're rich and poor. We're "felons" and unconvicted. We're educated and street smart. I don't know exactly who we are, but I know that we are here.