Tonight, as we gather in prayer and reflection to honor George Floyd, I remain haunted by his final cries for his own mother – Cissy Floyd – as he took his final breaths. Black men and women have given their final breaths to white supremacy in this country for far too long. And mothers bear both a particular witness and a particular responsibility to stop injustice and suffering. Tonight I am reflecting on how I was affected by George Floyd’s murder as a mother. As a Roman Catholic, I now turn to my sacred texts to help ground my reflection.
Specifically, I look to the book of Genesis and the story of Hagar – a matriarch for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Hagar’s motherhood story is a painful one. A slave in the household of Sarah and Abraham, Genesis tells us that Hagar was forced to bear Abraham’s first son Ishmael. While pregnant, a jealous Sarah treated her harshly, and Hagar ran away – to save not only herself, but her son – not yet born.
In Hagar’s dark hour of suffering Genesis tells us that this vulnerable pregnant girl, a slave with little choice in her life, ran into the wilderness. Alone, vulnerable and afraid – an angel of the Lord comes to Hagar and offered her a vision of her future – a future both glorious and difficult; God paid heed to her current suffering and promised Hagar that she would be the mother of multitudes; at the same time God also warned Hagar that she and her son Ishmael would lead a life of struggle.
In response to this revelation, Hagar calls out to God – the God who spoke to her – and Hagar names God. Hagar – the pregnant slave girl, lost in the wilderness is the only person in Christian scriptural tradition given the incredible honor of naming God. Hagar calls God “El-roi,” translated best as “God Who Sees Me.”
Later in Genesis, after Ishmael is born, and Sarah gives birth to Isaac – jealousy, discord, and distrust thrive in Abraham’s household. Sarah and Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. When their water was gone, and death was surely coming, Hagar placed Ishmael under a bush, and cried out to God “Do not let me look upon the death of this child.”
Hagar cried out to the God-Who-Saw-Her to not let her see the death of her own son, her child, her beloved. And God heard the anguish of Hagar and Ishmael, and God saw their suffering and God provided Hagar with water, and saved Ishmael from death.
This sacred story of a fearless mother and a beloved son, pushed to the fringes of community, affirms that God sees our suffering, God hears the cries of the oppressed, and God is merciful and compassionate and just.
As George Floyd called out to his mother with his final breaths, Cissy Floyd was not on this earth to help him. Instead we heard George’s cries for his mother, and we in turn cried out “Do not let us look upon the death of this man.” But we did see his death and we heard the testimonies of those who bore witness to the end of George’s life.
As a mother, I take some comfort in the story of Hagar and the “God-Who-Sees-Her.”
Indeed that is the name of God I will invoke with a closing prayer:
And speaks to them in their darkest hours,
We call upon you God - to give us the strength of Hagar, a mighty mother who loved her son.
May we be the strong mothers who cry out against injustice
May we be the strong mothers who demand that we no longer see the death of our sons and daughters
God-Who-Sees, we ask you to show us the waters of justice
And let us drink from those waters, and suffer no more.
“I can’t breathe.”
These three words rang out across the world as millions of people sat at home in lock down...watching George Floyd being killed: knee on neck, hands in pockets, tears running down faces, cries for help and mercy. The world witnessed the voices of Good Samaritans begging for George Floyd’s life being ignored by those sworn to serve and protect. Cries for his mother, slowly being silenced. It was a sight that caused outrage, pain, lament, grief, heart break, righteous indignation, confusion, disillusionment. The scales that were once on people’s eyes about the reality of police brutality and systemic racism, were falling.
This time last year, I was working as a chaplain in a long-term care facility, with predominantly white residents. I remember visiting one of the residents, an older white gentleman, who grew up as a farmer in Pennsylvania, and admittedly did not have much interactions with people of color. He was sitting in his recliner, with the news on as they continued to loop the scene on May 25th in Minneapolis, over and over again. As I entered the room and began to greet him, all he could do was shake his head, in disbelief. With his head bowed, he mumbled, “I can’t believe black people are still being treated like this.” By the tone in his voice, I surmised that, if he had not sat there all day watching this scene of an officer’s knee on a man’s neck, he would not have believed it. I was horrified but not surprised.
But something broke open in me that day, to the point I had to draw on the strength of my ancestors, the cloud of witnesses. And my plea to them was: you have seen far worse, you have lived through dire circumstances, How? How did you not fall utterly into despair at the constant messaging that your life, this black flesh, this brown body does not matter?
It during this petition, that I was reminded of Baby Sugg from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, described as an “unchurched” preacher who after escaping slavery, makes a life in Cincinnati, Ohio and creates a safe space for her community made up of black men, women and children who also escaped from slavery. She gathers her community around her out in a clearing and proclaims to them that ‘over yonder” they might not love your flesh, but here in this space away from the gaze of society, being witnessed and embraced by trees, sun, sky, and each other, they were to love their flesh, dance their stories, cry, sing. Laugh, shout, be affirmed in their full humanity. It was in this space that they created together that they knew they belonged.
This work of creating spaces where all people feel affirmed, loved, cared for materially, emotionally, socially, and spiritually because their life matters to the whole of society, is the work of justice. To widen that circle of care and concern is our work. It is not easy; it can be downright exhausting at times and it cannot be done alone. We do this work in community. We do this work drawing on the strength of ancestors, the practices of our traditions and communities that help to ground us and remind us of why we do this work.
One such practice that has helped to tether and anchor me in this season is dancing mindfulness meditation. Growing up in an African American Baptist church, movement was used in both celebration and lamentation. And over the past year I have come to know dancing as a way of meditating and expanding one’s mindfulness. While there is not enough time to lead you through a dancing mindfulness meditation practice, I would like to invite you to participate in a brief moment of silence. As we stand here in silence, I invite you to rest your hands over your heart, and feel your chest rising and falling as you breathe. In this silence may we remember the life of George Floyd, and his family who continue to grieve, may we bring to our remembrance the names of those who died at the hands of police and in police custody: Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Andrew Brown, Makhila Brown, Breonna Taylor…. may we speak their names…
At the conclusion of our moment of silence, I will offer a closing prayer from within my tradition.
To the God of our weary years and our silent tears, we cry out to you, rending our hearts before you because of the injustice we see all across our land. We pour our hearts out from the depths of our souls because of the deaths we have witnessed around the world. We are tired of living under death- inducing systems, life-destroying institutions, breath-constricting structures. We cry out to you: We cannot breathe! We cannot breathe! We are weary and worn, and only have our tears as our bread. But you are a God who hears our tears, who understands the language of weeping and wailing, of hollering and shouting, and your spirit interprets our deepest groans. You are a God who sees the suffering of all people and is moved from the womb of your heart with compassion. We believe you to be a God of justice and mercy. And so, on this day we gather remembering that you are a God who bottles up our tears and you water the seeds of justice, the seeds of love, the seeds of compassion, the seeds of hope. May we who are gathered here today be a sign of hope to many who don’t dare to hope for fear their hopes and dreams may dry up like raisins in the sun. May our presence here today be the hope that change is possible, that change can spring up even “over yonder, “that our circle of concern and care can expand when we act in courage together. Amen.