Where is a Subversive Liturgy?

(5 of 7?)

We gather around this shield at the Pasadena police station:

Courtesy of Mitchell Ebbott

Courtesy of Mitchell Ebbott

There was so much discussion about where to put the memorial to J.R. and where we should gather for prayer.

This shield is not in the highest traffic area of the city hall area. This shield is not the place where all of the officers enter and exit the building (although many do). So, early on, we had to make a decision about priorities: is the symbolic tensions of memorial and shield more important than visibility? We chose symbolism.

As it turns out, it didn't matter that everyone couldn't see the vigil from the roadside. No matter where we had decided to put this memorial, it would have been taken down. In my conversations with police personnel, I was basically told that a memorial to someone killed in police custody is not the kind of thing they want greeting the public at the front door. Point taken: the memorial is at the door where the general community enters and exits. I wonder what that does to the already fragile bonds of trust between the force and the community.

As I wrote that last sentence, I couldn't help but think of an exchange that one of our group had on Facebook, after checking in from the police station. He's a local pastor and has helped me carry every burden of the past six months, including the stone I've lugged around town. Each Saturday, he goes over to the police station, constructs a memorial, takes a picture of the memorial (not a selfie), then uploads that picture to Facebook. On one of these occasions, someone commented on the picture saying: "I hope you never need protection from the police."

Why did this memorial evoke that kind of response? What are the underlying assumptions in a statement like that? There are probably too many factors to name, but it sounds eerily familiar to contentions that have been directed at me for lugging a stone around town: namely, that some people think that speaking out about racism is "stirring up trouble". How interesting. The trouble is talking about racism, and not racism itself? The problem is protesting police killings, not the police killings themselves? How interesting. My conversations with people on the force have been pleasant. They all seem to be good and well meaning people. At the same time, these good, well-meaning people should also consider that perhaps the flowers and candles at their doorstep are not as problematic as the violence that has provoked them to be delivered there.

The other interesting response I've gotten from police personnel is that the memorial shouldn't be at the police station since J.R. didn't die there. That language of "death" is interesting. He didn't just "die". He was killed...by the police. How the connection between this memorial and police action was missed is beyond me. Secondly, that is exactly the injustice we wished to address--that the grief left in J.R.'s neighborhood should not be confined there. The police should bear witness to it as well.

And so when we gather to pray and lament, we do so around that shield, in front of the memorial, in front of the doors where employees and civilians are entering and exiting. The sounds of sirens as the force responds to calls overpower out voices at times. At times, people using the intercom to enter the station is mixed in with the sound of our songs. Something seems right about all of that.

The right-ness of this location in response to J.R.'s death may be obvious. What I wasn't expecting was how right it felt for us. After weeks of meeting at the station to pray, I'm beginning to wonder how worshipping in safe spaces is negatively forming us as God's people. I wonder if we are rehearsing the idea that only these spaces--church buildings--are sacred. I wonder if there is some parallel between confining the grief of the oppressed to their little neighborhoods, and the prayers of the saints to their little sanctuaries: perhaps this is no coincidence, but a necessity for keeping the "peace". Perhaps kings can't abide citizens gathering outside the palace and expressing their displeasure, nor a group approaching the palace walls from the margins singing of a greater kingdom. I just wonder.