Holy Week in Minneapolis

It's almost Easter.

In a courthouse 6.5 miles from my house, a White police officer is on trial for the killing of a Black man just 4.5 miles from my house. The White officer knelt on the Black man's neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, until breath would never again fill his lungs. 

The sun is shining today in Minneapolis, but the weather is deceptive - like assurances of justice or of healing that will come without requisite pain. It's 30 degrees outside but feels like 18, with 17 mph winds blowing to the northwest.

If only that wind would blow it all away, the decades of entrenched racism buried under White Minnesota Nice; the fat virus particles carrying COVID-19 and its variants, stubbornly refusing to leave our youth sports leagues and college campuses and rural bars and restaurants. 

Blow it all away. The memories of the past year: empty shelves of toilet paper, lonely and quiet elementary school playgrounds, masks and gloves piling up next to restaurant dumpsters in the alley behind our house.

We are smack in the middle of what Christians call Holy Week, and I wonder what is Holy in this land anymore.

On Monday morning a 65-year-old Asian American woman was brutally attacked on the streets of New York City, by a man who kicked her in the stomach over and over again. This in a country whose former President blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on China, alternately calling it the "Chinavirus" or "Kung Flu." He would say he was just having fun, or that China's authoritarian government had repressed information about the origins of the virus. But China's Communist leaders were safely ensconced in their mansions overseas. Those who would pay the rhetorical price were defenseless Asian Americans. This in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in Atlanta that targeted Asian women who worked in massage parlors and spas that advertised their Asian identity.

Reports about the attack in New York City revealed that video footage showed at least three people in a nearby luxury apartment complex stood by and watched while the attack took place. I couldn't help but wonder what I would have done. Would I be frozen in place? On the sidelines of history? Afraid? Indifferent? 

What would I have done if I were walking down Chicago Avenue past Phelps Field Park on May 25, 2020, at 8:17 p.m., when Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pulled George Floyd to the ground. Still handcuffed, Floyd's cheek rested on the pavement, and Chauvin knelt on his neck. George Floyd couldn't breathe.

I don't know what I would have done if I was there, because I was 4.5 miles and several worlds removed from George Floyd that night in Minneapolis. On May 25, the sun didn't set until 8:47 p.m., so at 8 p.m. my family and I might have still been at the neighborhood park, happy to be outside and alive after months of quarantine. Maybe we were walking the block back home to our house, where each of my boys has a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and a clean bathroom to wash off the sand of the park.

I wasn't doing anything important that night, I know that. Maybe I was walking into the basement to finish the day's last load of laundry, or rinsing off dinner plates to put in the dishwasher, or standing in front of my sink and washing my face. Changing out of that day's sweatpants into another pair of elastic waist pants for the evening. Telling the kids to brush their teeth. Watching something on TV. Putting in a mouthguard to keep from grinding my teeth all night long. Going to sleep without the sound of sirens or gunshots.

May 26 was a Tuesday. We printed off assignments for online first grade. I recorded a video about "Hope in Trying Times." And slowly, the video of George Floyd's death made its way around our city and our world.

I did not watch the whole thing. I don't think I've ever been able to. I reasoned that if George Floyd were my son, I wouldn't want the world watching him die. But George Floyd wasn't my son. The video desperately needed to exist, if only to force people like me to stop averting our eyes.

The next Sunday after May 26 was May 31, Pentecost Sunday, the least known Christian high holiday in America, after Christmas and Easter. You know that because Reese's doesn't even sell chocolate Reeses flames for Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit released its power on earth, after Jesus' death and resurrection, and all the believers gathered in one place had tongues of fire on their heads, and they could suddenly understand one another despite speaking and knowing all kinds of different languages.

Pentecost was the day of fire and truth, the coming of a Holy Spirit that brought fire and understanding to a world and a people who would rather ghettoize ourselves and sort ourselves out according to perceived righteousness. Pentecost is a Biblical reversal of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, when people tried to climb up a tower to reach God themselves, so God divided us into different languages, and we could no longer work together to try and become gods ourselves. God would instead come to us, and even then we'd kill him.

Despite Babel and Pentecost, Americans are still trying to make ourselves gods, with money, power, and hatred of others. And we're still determined to speak different languages, refusing to consider another person's viewpoint, refusing to imagine that white Americans' "land of the free and home of the brave" is Black Americans' evil slaveholder, the nation that bound Africans in chains and condemned them to a life of involuntary servitude, then hundreds of years later would still claim to be benevolent and righteous in its discrimination.

On Pentecost 2020, the Holy Spirit came again, even in America. White Christians were forced to look into a mirror and see our own racism. We recognized the dual pandemics of COVID and racism, both targeting our country's most vulnerable people, both illuminating the ways the wealthy and powerful enriched themselves at the literal cost of other Americans' very lives.

On June 2 Minneapolis clergy marched silently toward Cup Foods and back. Occasionally, people who didn't already know each other talked to each other for the very first time. Behind our masks, we glimpsed a common humanity. 

People joined book clubs and made art: music, painting, videos, memes. I rode my bike to protest marches around the city. I felt like I was flying, even as my legs grew wobbly.

Hope and love cannot sustain themselves forever. They never die but in America too quickly they sink beneath the surface, when something else, like hatred or nihilism, becomes more profitable or entertaining. The hot summer went on in Minneapolis. The MN State Fair was canceled. Target Field stood empty during Twins games. We went camping at a dusty site in Southwestern Minnesota, while COVID traveled from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally across state lines during the month of August. I was frustrated when my son's school stayed online, while I had to return to work in-person. Then, people close to me got COVID - more and more each day it seemed for awhile that November. We held Christmas Eve services outside in Below 0 temperatures. People wore orange snowsuits and warmed up frozen Communion grape juice between their legs. We held candles and sang Silent Night, and the light was bright but small and under assault from the frigid wind.

Now, it is Holy Week 2021 in Minneapolis. Vaccines are providing hope for tomorrow. My son is back in school in-person. We will be able to sing Easter hymns on Sunday. And the long shadow of George Floyd's violent death stretches over the city.

You might think that a week is far too long to be Holy. Too much is happening. On Palm Sunday the weather was in the 60s and five kids took their First Communion at church, wearing specially made white masks - that the bread of life might not be the bread of COVID.

Holy Week Monday was the first day of opening statements in the trial against former Officer Chauvin. Witnesses who likely spent much of the past 10 months trying to recover from the trauma of May 25 and what they saw were forced to come face to face with it all again. Many of them were wracked with guilt.

Witness Chris Martin, photo credit: St. Paul Pioneer Press

Nineteen-year-old Cup Foods cashier Chris Martin expressed regret over his call to the police. 

"If I would have just not taken the bill, this could have been avoided, Martin said.

Darnella Frazier, who was just 17 when she made the video documenting Floyd's death, said, "I stay up nights apologizing to George Floyd."

Early Wednesday, eyewitness Charles McMillian testified through tears and said, "I feel helpless. I understand him."

The youngest eyewitness, a 9-year-old girl, said she felt, "sad and kind of mad."

Off-duty firefighter and EMT Genevieve Hansen said she was "desperate to help," and provide Floyd with medical attention, but police officers waved her off. 

At one time in America's history, it's likely that most of these voices never would have been heard from in a court of law usually limited to witnesses who were White men only. The voices of Black Americans, women, and children have typically been dismissed or ignored. But this Holy Week, it was these voices desperately reclaiming a too easily lost American humanity. 

"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs."

Jesus said this, admonishing his disciples who would turn away the children from approaching him, thinking them useless or disposable.

To think of trial witnesses as children talking to Jesus is not to suggest they are weak or immature, as for too long America has dismissed voices of those who are not white men. Instead this comparison is meant to illustrate that children are born honest, with an inborn sense of truth and justice, and a keen eye for the inherent value of every single human life; and what our American society too often does is teach children that it's facile to lie, that the one with the most toys wins in the end, and that some lives simply matter less than others.

For those who have been taught these lessons, a shout that attempts to reclaim this humanity -- to say in the face of violent and unjustified killing: Black Lives Matter -- this shout becomes a threat to the established order of death. It must be discredited and dismissed. Anything to obscure the truth carried by women and children and people of color. They must be communists and socialists and Antifa, whatever that is. 

Still, these are the voices Jesus longs to hear - the voices that speak truth.

Still, the truth-tellers stuck to their story in the face of a forgetful and impetuous nation, desperate to return to its heedless consumption and white-washed history.

"I don't know if you've ever seen anyone be killed," Hansen said. "But it's upsetting."

Her words ran and bled over Holy Week, running into the story of Good Friday, the day on which American Christians too often avert our eyes from the Cross, where the ruling Romans and religious elite watched Jesus be killed. 

I keep wanting to turn my own page in my calendar. The Monday after Easter, when I'll pick up long-neglected projects, and prepare an agenda for that week's board meeting. We'll be left with the memory of pink-cheeked children delightedly picking up plastic eggs and finding chocolate inside, the magic of a giant bunny. If Holy Week was only Easter, we could continue to pretend that 9-year-olds didn't have to bear witness to our injustice, and America really was free and brave for all. Happy Easter! No guilt. Cheap grace.

But Holy Week is an entire week. It contains multitudes, like a nation of freedom and slavery, of justice and segregation, of universal suffrage and the world's largest prison population. It contains multitudes, like a God of creation and destruction, of life and death, a God who became human out of an unimaginable excess of divine love and grace for people who didn't deserve it.

Somehow, even - especially? - this year in Minneapolis, it all had to be holy - from Sunday to Sunday. The voices of the ones who finally got the chance to be heard. The churches filled with masked and spaced parishioners. The courts and justice system too often prone to corruption, rising above a racist lineage that enabled violent police, reasserting themselves as hospitable to truth.

Once I would have told you a whole week cannot be holy. It's impossible. Holy is entirely other, a God beyond ourselves, another world of light and pure perfection.

Now I know better. The holy is found when the sacred dwells amongst the profane, when violent death elicits screams of justice and truth, and God's resurrection resurrects the promise of a flawed but ever-aspiring nation, lifted up by those whom it would have rather silenced and destroyed.


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