Note: I absolutely do not wish to appropriate these individuals, their stories, or the problems minorities face by usurping this campaign for my own spiritual experience. I still have blind spots and I still make mistakes, so if this is in any way insensitive, please let me know. Thanks.
I recently had a conversation with my boyfriend about the ways in which people hear and experience God. We both were implicitly taught that the two primary ways to hear God are through scripture and prayer. However we both agreed we more frequently experience God in completely different, unexpected ways. As I recounted one of my more recent experiences, I couldn’t help but begin to cry.
I listened to a Ted Talk titled The Urgency of Intersectionality in which something rather incredible happened. The talk, given by Kimberlé Crenshaw – a well established law professor at UCLA and Columbia, as well as co-founder and executive director of AAPF – focused on the concept of intersectionality (which she coined), specifically how it applies to police violence toward black women. Perhaps you are familiar with the Say Her Name campaign, perhaps not. To simplify, this campaign seeks to reclaim the identities of black women who have been unjustly killed by police but who are often forgotten or not mentioned in headlines. Most of us, even those of us who support BLM and try to pay attention, can name far fewer black female victims than we can black male victims. This unfortunate and telling trend erases the unique experiences of WOC, diminishes the comparative significance of their lives and tragic deaths, and reinforces the need for intersectional advocacy and awareness.
During the talk, Crenshaw led the audience through an exercise meant to reestablish these women’s identities, to reclaim and recognize their importance and value, and to bear witness to the injustice and lack of dignity employed by those who fail to acknowledge them. The exercise went as follows: a large screen displayed the names of black female victims of police violence, and audience members would yell or say the name out loud. Some audience members were subtle and inward during this exercise. Others were combinations of triumphant and desperate. It was a harrowing experience to say the least, and I wasn’t even actually there!
You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the value in another person’s life, so this would likely be a powerfully emotional experience regardless of whether or not you believe in God. I will also admit that an exercise like this employs certain tactics specifically meant to elicit an emotional response, and I am not immune to those tactics. However, I genuinely believe there was more to this experience than benevolent emotional manipulation or some sort of universal connection. I felt the Spirit move me. With the annunciation of each name, I heard the voice of a loving God who mourns for and alongside His children. More importantly, I heard the triumphant cry of a God who hates when we commit evil against one another and who brought redemption into the world through Christ.
Through Christ’s act on the cross, he defeated death and brought redemption and freedom into the world – and he did that through triumphant suffering. Now, I’m not at all suggesting the deaths of these black women were triumphant – in case one is inclined to twist my words in that way. However, I am suggesting that this exercise and the Say Her Name campaign are in fact triumphant reflections of Christ’s act on the cross. They are a form of powerful poetic justice. Just think about it. Someone’s life is lost to violence at the hands of those who have sworn to protect and serve, and to add insult to injury, their names are forgotten, their stories are buried. Shouting their names in this manner and for this purpose is an act of redemption, one which I am inclined to believe glorifies God and exemplifies both the love God has for us and the love Christ commands us to have for each other.
I am constantly astounded by the ways in which I experience God, but I have come to recognize that experiences such as this one are how I hear God most. But, no matter how often I have these experiences, they always takes me off guard. So imagine my surprise, and lack of emotional control, when I heard these names – names criminalized and forgotten by us but cherished by God – shouted in this exercise in redemption. For a brief moment, I thought I could almost understand the way God’s heart breaks for us. I thought I could feel it. Oh, how my heart wept!
You see, scripture tells us that God knows us before we are even born. He knows the number of hairs on our head. These black women meant something to God. Regardless of which side of the BLM debate you are on, if you are a Christian, you cannot deny that these black women had inherent value and were infinitely loved by the Lord. Surely you recognize their deaths as tragic, and that God mourned each and every one of them, regardless of whether or not you personally think they were justified. So, to those of you who oppose BLM and deny that police brutality and racial injustice is a problem in the US, I invite you to join me in tuning our ears to the voice of the Lord. Let’s lay aside our perceptions and differences, our politics and biases, and acknowledge these black women as beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully made children of God whose lives had value and meaning. Let’s celebrate that Christ brought redemption to us and it is still alive and active today, often in the form of surprising and emotional responses to tragedy. Let’s relinquish our pride and stubbornness and participate in this redemption together.
From what I could gather, the following names are those used in Crenshaw’s exercise. This is, unfortunately, not an exhaustive list:
Natasha Mckenna, Alexia Christian, Shelly Frey, Kayla Moore, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley Jones, Shantel Davis, Aura Rosser, Gabriella Nevarez, India Kager, Kendra James, Kyam Livingston, Alesia Thomas, Meagan Hockaday, Miriam Carey, Pearlie Golden, Yvette Smith, Kisha Michael, India Beaty, Symone Marshall, Jessica Williams, Korryn Gaines, Deborah Danner, Alberta Spruill, Danette Daniels, Duanna Johnson, Eleanor Bumpurs, Frankie Ann Perkins, Gynnya Mcmillen, Janisha Fonville, Joyce Curnell, Kathryn Johnston, LaTanya Haggerty, Malissa Williams, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Margaret Mitchell, Mya Hall, Nizah Morris, Ralkina Jones, Redel Jones, Sharmel Edwards, Sheneque Proctor, Shereese Francis, Sonji Taylor, Tanisha Anderson, Tarika Wilson, Tyisha Miller
Please, if you have a moment, say a prayer for these women and other victims. Write them down in your journal or on a scrap sheet of paper and specifically pray over them. Pray for comfort for their families. Pray for grace, forgiveness, and revelation for those who refuse to see the injustice of their deaths. Pray for remorse and accountability for those responsible for their deaths. Give thanks for people like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Abby Dobson for what they do to bring awareness, justice, education, and, ultimately, redemption, back into these black women’s stories. Pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to ignite Christlike love and mourning in our hearts, that we would never grow hardened or numb to the evils in this world. And when you finish that prayer, if you have the courage to do so, say their names. Cry them out or gently whisper them. Speak them with the spiritual authority and love that dwells in all believers.
As believers we are called to love God, love others, and be the salt and light of the world. We are called to celebrate, honor, and participate in redemption. We are also called to listen for the Lord’s voice and recognize His image in others. This is how we do it.