Prayer and Protest: June 14

Approximately 17 members of St. John’s joined the New Haven Interfaith Protest organized by Varick AME Church on Sunday.

–By Kyler S.

On Sunday afternoon, a group from St. John’s joined hundreds of other New Haven area residents in a “Prayer, Protest, and Peace March” organized by a local interfaith social justice collaborative. We gathered in front of Varick Memorial AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue to hear from the event’s organizers and other community leaders before marching to the New Haven Green for a time of prayer. The event gave us a chance to join with Jewish and Muslim neighbors as well as many other Christians in mourning the brutal killings of George Floyd and so many other precious black lives and praying for God’s justice.

Before even arriving at the Green, however, I was heartened and encouraged by an image of unity inscribed by the racial diversity represented at the rally. This unity was much more visible in the crowd assembled to lament and to pray than in what we have considered “normal” life in New Haven. White people and people of color mingled naturally and freely, which is something that doesn’t often happen when our neighborhoods are so segregated. I benefited from the preaching of a black pastor, which is something that doesn’t often happen when our churches are so segregated. It really is striking that only as we come together to mourn a slew of violent deaths and demand justice are the streets of New Haven beginning to look a bit more like the streets of the heavenly kingdom, inhabited by a host from many nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues.

In reading Jennifer’s post from yesterday, I was struck by her observation about young people’s desire to be part of the generation that changes the world, which drew to mind a tension I find in myself. By nature, my instinct is to turn my attention and energy toward changing my particular corner of the world, investing in the people God has already placed in my path and using the influence given to me by my particular circumstances. On the other hand, I’m eager to capitalize on this cultural moment, where the issue of racial injustice has captured national attention in a way that feels increasingly unique.

I don’t know if this tension necessarily has a readily available resolution, but I do think that while we work to understand what spheres of influence God is preparing for us, it is also vital to establish who we are going to be within those spheres of influence. I’ve been impacted by the words of Henri Nouwen, who wrote:

Prayer and action can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. . . . Action with and for those who suffer is the concrete expression of a compassionate life and the final criterion of being a Christian. Such acts do not stand beside the moments of prayer and worship but are themselves such moments.

I think of this vision as one of “contemplative action,” where a life of action does not detract from a life of contemplative prayer but is its natural result, where an awareness of God’s loving presence to the innermost part of your soul is the primary energy that fuels each of your conversations and actions in the world. For me, the protest was a means of embodied action, a way to demonstrate my anger and hope and support with more than just a hashtag on a social media post – there is something undeniably compelling about hundreds of bodies pouring through the streets. The sight of people lifting their hands in prayer as they marched left me with a powerful image of contemplative action, the point at which action and prayer are one. That is the image I hope and pray will increasingly define who we are in whatever sphere of influence God does prepare for us, so that our life of prayer overflows into the steps we take (physically and metaphorically) in our communities as we strive to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6.8).

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