“How long, O Lord?” Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
These are names we know. And these are the words of Psalm 13. After the death of yet another black man they are my words as well. The psalmist is angry, questioning why God has not acted. Yet in days of old, the stench of sin filled the nostrils of God. God smelled it, tasted it. As of old, it is again today.
As a 38-year-old black Jesuit priest, this is a familiar smell for me. It stinks. Its smell and the reactions it provokes in black Americans is impossible to avoid. It is a strange and bitter fruit.
The video that allowed the world to witness the murder of George Floyd stinks as well. I have undergone periods of paralysis, disbelief, anger, numbness, fear and despair since watching those agonizing nine minutes.
I feel paralyzed because I am away from the community that I normally rely upon to process this filth. I am in disbelief that George Floyd’s death is yet another black male body that has been brutalized and murdered right in front of my eyes. I am angry at the banal and vanilla statements put out by many, including too many Catholic leaders. I have become numb by the sheer number of these events.
But there is something new to me in this experience. It is the fear I feel not just for myself or for black Americans in general, but for the 80 young black children who are students at the middle school I have been asked to lead: Brooklyn Jesuit Prep. I fear what this summer has in store for them and other black children of central Brooklyn. I fear that without summer jobs or camps, and faced with over-policing, more black youths will have encounters with police—encounters that often do not end well for people who look like them.
I must admit that there have been times that I have found it difficult to hold despair at bay. In the face of those nine minutes, words telling these black and brown children how much I love them, how much they are valued seem to fall flat. But it is not only that they fall flat; it is that these children are already loved; they already know they are loved as children of God. Yes, we all need reminding of this, but in the face of these nine minutes they do not only need to be told that they are loved. They are not void of love. They are not victims. It is not they who need a message but our world, our country and our collaborators. Perhaps you do as well.
As a black Jesuit and a priest, I mainly live in a white world. Which means it is my burden, responsibility and task to talk about events like this with my white brothers and sisters. These conversations happen after every sensationalized black death. Sometimes my friends and collaborators just want to talk. Sometimes they call to listen. Usually, these conversations include a desire to better understand or to participate in some way.
But I must admit that I often avoid these conversations—and not because these people are unimportant to me or because these issues do not need to be discussed. I avoid them because they are exhausting. They are exhausting because, I have found, that while white people can engage these issues at their leisure, discuss them in person or on social media and then withdraw again to their daily concerns, I cannot do that. The students whom I love and for whom I am responsible cannot do that. Black America cannot do that. I am exhausted because we cannot withdraw from this painful cycle.
And I am tired of it. Change requires change.
Of course, this means making changes to our unjust system: We have to change the structures that prevent black people from voting. Substandard education must be improved. We need to change unjust laws that produce economic inequality. The criminal justice system must be reformed. All this remains true.
But how does such change happen? Simply put, these structures will not change until white America—which means individual white Americans—gets close to black and brown people. Until you can smell the stench of sin that we smell, until the smell of that strange fruit fills your nostrils and will not let you inhale the sweet fragrances of the world; until you can see in those nine minutes a black man as a brother and not withdraw from his suffering; until you can feel the pain of that knee on your own neck and suddenly find it hard to breath in front of your computer screen; until then nothing will change. These structures will not change until that body has a name and relationship to you.
And let me be clear: This is Christianity. This sharing in the experience of others is what it is to be one body in Christ. I am not inventing this. Here are Pope Francis’ words: “Christian doctrine...is alive,” he insists. “[It] knows being unsettled, enlivened.” This means Christianity has flesh, breath, a face. In the pope’s words, Christianity “has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: It is called Jesus Christ.”
It is also called George Floyd and Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin.
It is the soft flesh of these black bodies that America must grow close to. It is Jesus in the soft flesh of the black and brown children at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep and schools all across this land that this country must come to know.
How long O Lord?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Psalm 13 is the cry of black Americans. We have been crying out this question for centuries. But we cannot cry it alone anymore. Until you grow close to our suffering, until it fills your eyes and ears, your minds and hearts, until you jump up on the cross with black Americans, there can be no Easter for America.