It started as a simple idea: organize a silent prayer under the shadow of the iconic LOVE sculpture in Center City for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time for which former Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin held his knee on the neck of George Floyd.
This simple idea, which was meant to honor the innocent Black and brown lives stolen by police violence, became an unexpected demonstration of how power determines when voices can be amplified or reduced to a whisper. As a pastor, I thought to gather fellow clergy on a Sunday afternoon and use the silence as a form of protest that would renew and energize us. No speeches. No platforms. Just prayer and solidarity.
Even a simple idea, for it to manifest, sometimes requires help from others. To that end, I was relieved when a fellow pastor offered to mobilize his church, and his social network, on behalf of the movement. We exchanged text messages and phone calls to discuss logistics. Everyone approached the event with the best of intentions. But, as we know, the “road to hell” is paved with good intentions, and this road was beginning to get bumpy.
I arrived at the sculpture wearing a clerical stole and comfortable jeans that would permit nearly nine minutes of kneeling. The other pastor arrived with a sound system, a tent and a roster of clergy who were all lined up to pray at the silent gathering. Those good intentions had quickly become exertions of power, the type of power that tells communities, “I know what’s best for you,” while policing the tone and tenor of their own voice.
Upon seeing the sturdy tent, audio set-up and the milling crowd a hundred yards away, I decided to anchor myself beneath the LOVE sculpture and take a stand for the event’s original vision.
“We have power over there,” my pastoral partner asserted politely.
I instantly heard the double-meaning of “power” in the context of this event. So, I refused to back down. “The power is in the symbolism of the statue. We don’t need electrical power for a silent prayer,” I said.
He relented. We compromised. We decided to use the “power” to articulate our purpose, instruct the crowd to move to the statue for our silent prayer, then return to the tent for additional spoken prayers.
We were able to work everything out. But, too often, those who have power aren’t always willing to hear the voices of those they perceive as powerless. Those with power don’t always feel that those without it have anything to contribute. The power struggle between me and my colleague was only a small skirmish, but it sheds light on the larger issues we’re currently experiencing.
The pandemic laid bare the health disparities that exist between white and non-white communities. The tragic death of George Floyd, which lit the spark of our current social unrest, emphasizes the decades-long struggle of Black men fighting for their own power and ability to breathe.
More than 150 years ago, Frederick Douglass eloquently spoke about power when he wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
More than 100 years later, in his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the then-assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity: “Unless there is a better balance between rich and poor, the nation can expect further deterioration of the cities, increased antagonisms between races and continued disorders in the streets.”
So here we are. A struggling economy. A virus that seems to be retreating but still has no cure. And a political climate that remains volatile and uncertain.
It was said by Dr. King that a riot is the voice of the unheard. If that is truly the case, then we need to listen to the language that has begun to emerge and pay attention to its power. The closer we listen, the better we can hear and value each other’s voices. Only then will we be able to share in a chorus that can uplift us all.
Rev. David W. Brown is a United Methodist pastor who serves as the diversity advisor to the Office of the Dean at the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.