Editor’s note: On Sunday, June 7, the Charlottesville Clergy Collective livestreamed an interfaith service, mourning the deaths from COVID-19 and racism. The following is an article based on an edited excerpt from that service.
We are the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, and we gather to lament and mourn the deaths from COVID-19 and racism.
We are “Prophets,” truth-tellers naming our present, ugly reality, but also proclaiming our responsibility to our world.
We are “Bodhisatvas,” who, in the Buddhist tradition, sense suffering in the world and respond with compassion to liberate all being.
We are “Priests,” “Pastors” and “Healers,” who provide care to those who grieve and mourn.
In the Sufi path, we are “Nabi,” comforting the broken-hearted, supporting those in need, befriending the lovers of truth.
In the Baha’i Faith, we are “servants of God” who believe all people are called to uplift the human spirit and to promote the well-being of all humanity.
We grieve the pain upon pain we have suffered.
We speak the truth, and to name our reality.
We apply salve to wounded souls – ours included.
We honor the lives of those who have been killed by the viruses of racism and COVID-19.
We name the ugly reality of this pandemic disease: COVID-19.
We mourn the ugly reality that COVID-19 kills black Americans at a rate that is 2.4 times higher than white Americans, and 2.2 times higher than Asians and Latinos.
Within this pandemic, we also name the ugly reality of another disease: racism.
This disease has ravaged black and brown and native bodies in America for over four centuries.
Racism has infected our law enforcement, so that instead of protecting all citizens, it has systematically afflicted black and brown and native communities.
We mourn the ugly reality that while black Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, 31% of those killed by police are black.
We speak the names of its most current victims: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery.
Tragically, less than a week after our service, the name of Rayshard Brooks must now be added to the list as the latest black citizen killed by police.
These two diseases, COVID-19 and racism, are in the air.
The first disease is carried by the air we breathe. We use masks designed to protect others and ourselves from infection.
The second disease strangles and lynches so we can’t breathe. It also rips black bodies by bullets, bludgeons by sticks, confines in prisons and separates by neighborhoods. It has used hoods designed to anonymize white oppressors and terrorize black communities.
The first disease is minimized by “social distancing” as one tactic to deter people from infecting each other.
The second disease is maximized by segregating black, brown, red and yellow bodies into prisons, internment and detention camps to prevent them from “contaminating” white bodies in their schools and neighborhoods.
We name racism as the underlying spiritual disease that has exacerbated the physical disease of COVID-19.
And the impact of both has been separation and isolation, and the fomenting of fear, anxiety and distrust.
Until both diseases are eradicated, we can’t breathe.
And because both COVID-19 and racism kill black people disproportionately compared to other populations, we are compelled to say Black Lives Matter.
Both diseases operate under the principle of “divide and conquer.”
In order to attain healing, wholeness and shalom, we must come together and acknowledge our common humanity.
German Pastor Martin Niemöller is best remembered for this quotation made in the 1930s:
“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me; and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We offer our own version of this quote, with COVID-19 and racism identified as “they.”
- First, they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out because I was born here.
- Then they came for the elderly, and I did not speak out because I am not old.
- Then they came for the incarcerated and detained, and I did not speak out because I am neither a felon nor undocumented.
- Then they came for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual, but I did not speak out because I am “straight.”
- Then they came for the meat processors, produce pickers and store employees, and I did not speak out because I am not deemed “essential.”
- Then they came for native tribes, and I did not speak out because I don’t live on a reservation.
- Then they came for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, and I did not speak out because I am not black.
- Then they came for the protesters, and I did not speak out because I’m not “antifa.”
- Then they came for health care workers, and I did not speak out because I’m not sick.
- Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak or care for me.
We are Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.
We are the essential workers, the elderly, the vulnerable and marginalized.
We are all in this together.
We are one race.
Until you are safe, we will remain at risk.
Until you are whole, we will remain broken.
Until you obtain justice and equity, we cannot remain silent.
Until I can mourn your losses, we can never heal from my own.
Before there can be healing, we must create a Beloved Community.
For if we don’t, what do we tell our children?
What do we tell ourselves?
What do we tell God?
How we answer those questions will determine whether we learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.
May God be with us and have mercy upon us all.
Michael Cheuk is a leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.