When George Floyd woke on Memorial Day, I doubt he was planning to be a martyr. But that is what he has become because as a victim of police brutality, the video of Mr. Floyd’s death under the knee of a white police officer has ignited protests for racial equality and justice around the world. As the life of George Floyd was being memorialized in Minneapolis on Thursday, people around the world stood or knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the length of time that officer’s knee was on Mr. Floyd’s neck.
Perhaps at long last, the world has seen enough as we painfully recognize how many times in the past people have taken to the streets to protest racial injustice and inequality and yet nothing changes. The list of martyrs includes Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and in today’s paper, Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man from Tacoma, Washington who died on March 3 after being in a chokehold by police, gasping for air as he said, “I can’t breathe.” Those words have become the refrain for people around the world as finally, we seek to breathe together for justice and equality.
What is hopeful is how many young people are not only involved in these marches and protests but in many cases are organizing them. On Wednesday in San Francisco in the Mission District, more than 10,000 people gathered to mourn the death of George Floyd and march against racism. The protest was organized by 17-year-old Simone Jacques, a high school junior who welcomed the crowd that included many young people and families with small children saying, “We’re just youth who grew up in the city. We’re just people who care and love each other, and love each other enough to take care of each other.”
This was also the case of the largest protest march in Oakland following Mr. Floyd’s murder. Last Monday afternoon and evening, 15,000 people gathered outside Oakland Tech High school to protest police brutality and institutionalized racism. The two young men who organized the event, Xavier Brown, 19, a graduate of one of Oakland’s Catholic High Schools, Bishop O’Dowd, and his childhood friend, Akil Riley, also 19, a graduate of Oakland Tech, started talking about doing something to honor the memory of Mr. Floyd but also raise the consciousness of people to the reality of racism. As young black men, they are painfully aware of this reality and are outraged at a system that continues to allow such brutality.
They began to spread the word on Instagram and other social media outlets. They stressed it would be a peaceful march. “No destruction,” they said. They also acknowledged we are still in the midst of a pandemic and encouraged protestors to wear face masks and practice social distancing. A company that distributed masks during the fire season in California donated more than 500 masks and another group that works with the homeless donated 400 bottles of hand sanitizer. When people started to gather, Brown and Riley were stunned by the size of the crowd. “We’re here for George Floyd,” Riley told them. “We’re out here to show our love.”
Power of Relationship
What was striking about their stories, is that both Brown and Riley came to their activism through family relationships. Xavier’s mother marched in Los Angeles in the wake of Rodney King’s beating by police in 1992. Akil’s grandfather, Walter, is a prominent lawyer in Oakland who when he was Akil’s age, organized lunch counter sit-ins in racially-segregated Durham, North Carolina. He also organized voter registration drives and served in a leadership position for the Congress for Racial Equality. Walter Riley has been fighting for racial equality and justice all of his life and it is clear his passion has been passed on to his son, Akil’s father, who is also an activist. On Monday, Walter Riley marched with his grandson for George Floyd as they confronted once again the sin of racism.
The Feast of the Trinity reveals the mystery and power of relationship—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, one passion, one love. Like the relationship of Walter Riley to his grandson Akil, or the mother of Xavier to her son who instilled in them this passion for life, it is a mystery not to be solved but to be lived. It is a mystery that is found in the stories of people like George Floyd who as he pleaded for his life called out to his mother before breathing his last breath. Like the paschal mystery, it is a mystery captured in the words of today’s gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
Paul defines this mystery of relationship found in the Trinity in today’s second reading when he gives us the greeting we often say at the beginning of Mass, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the companionship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” We experience the Trinity—grace, love, and companionship—in the stories of our lives. It is the grace of God we receive in Jesus that frees us to hope when the evidence around us points to despair. It is the love of God, a love both personal and passionate, that is poured out in our hearts and reflected in the faces we meet along the way. It is the companionship of God’s Spirit that moves us to come together as a people of memory and hope. These gifts of grace, love, and companionship are absolutely essential as we journey in faith, especially when we are confronted with excruciating losses.
As Paul reminds us, we are all related and all in relationship. Which is why in the wake of these last two weeks which has awakened the world once again to the sin of racism, Paul’s words strike such a powerful chord: “Mend your ways, encourage one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
The Company We Keep
Our readings for this Trinity Sunday underscore how the model for the relationship revealed in the Trinity is rooted in our creation story, renewed and refreshed in the incarnation, mended, forgiven and redeemed in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Throughout the history of our ancestors in faith and our own faith story, there are times when we need to cling to the reality that God keeps company with us. That is what Moses experienced when he returns to the holy mountain and God gave Moses “tablets of stone” reflecting the covenant of love God desired to have with the people.
Written by God’s hand, our God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity,” this covenant means that God is with us always, especially in times like we are experiencing now with the sharp sting of loss and death—an ongoing pandemic claiming hundreds of thousands of lives; an economic crisis that leaves millions of people without employment; and the deaths of George Floyd and so many others who died because of oppression and injustice.
The prayer of Moses becomes our prayer this week. As Moses bowed down to the ground to ask God a favor, “O Lord, do come along in our company,” so we come together wherever we are, whether it is in the church or on the street, in a cathedral or at city hall, praying at a house of worship or protesting outside the White House, to experience once again how the mystery of this relationship is revealed. Yes, God does keep company with us and God is revealed in the faces of each other, in bread and wine, in a sign of peace, and the promise of eternal life.
We honor the truth revealed in the Trinity by acknowledged that it is through the people who have taught us and shared faith with us that we discover how the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit are living, breathing realities that are found in those whose company we keep along the way. People like Simone Jacques, Akil Riley and Xavier Brown, their parents, and grandparents who instilled within them the courage and the fire to be peacemakers and justice seekers in a world that continues to cry out for racial equality and justice, for truth and transparency, for hope and healing.