The Christian church celebrated the breath of God on Pentecost Sunday (May 31) while our nation began to grieve and pour out its anger over George Floyd’s death, a man who was refused his breath until he died.
We must not lose sight of the injustice done to this man and countless other African Americans in similar situations because of the violence and looting that has taken place in some protests.
If we allow the minority of violent protesters to write the narrative of the protests that are sweeping the country, we have failed to acknowledge the underlying problems of injustice we can trace to the Jim Crow laws and the slave trade.
We must also speak out against the violence of police against peaceful protesters who are exercising their constitutional rights to speak out against injustice.
I grew up in a Southern Alabama town with less than 700 people. Our education system was divided by a public and a private school, which happened during the early years of integration.
That was the way it was throughout most of the South. Sadly, many Southern towns still look like that.
In my community, many people knew Gov. George Wallace on a first name basis. He was born nearby, had practiced law in the area and was a local hero.
Growing up, I heard the “N” word in reference to African Americans from many people, as if that was what they were supposed to be called.
I was in college before I learned who Martin Luther King Jr. really was and what changes he brought to this country.
However, I am thankful to my family and my church for teaching me to love all people.
I had a lot of black friends in high school, mostly because I played three sports. Yet, none of those friendships was ever as deep as those with my white friends.
Decades after I left Alabama, I returned to visit my high school basketball coach. He graciously invited me into his home.
I went to see him and congratulate him on winning his first Alabama High School Basketball State Championship.
He went on to become a member of the Alabama Coaching Hall of Fame with the most wins for a high school basketball coach.
As I sat in his living room, I noticed he had a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on his wall. It occurred to me I’d never been in a home with a picture of King on display.
Why? Probably because I rarely visited the homes of African Americans.
I suppose, for most white people, King doesn’t rise to the hero level that he does for African Americans. Perhaps that’s part of our problem.
When you are a part of the majority race, understanding what it feels like to be treated unjustly because of your skin color is very difficult.
On those few occasions I have been stopped by police, I’ve been nervous, but I’ve never been afraid for my life.
My wife and I raised two boys, but we never had to give either of them “the talk” about what they should do or not do if they should ever get stopped by the police.
I don’t know what it feels like to be raised in a town where people of a different race own all the businesses.
I don’t know what it’s like to be hated because of my skin color.
I have never had my freedoms denied – freedoms that men and women of multiple races fought and died for in this country.
I don’t know what it feels like to be a minority and have someone hate me to the point they would deny me the right to breathe the air God gave me.
Again, that’s part of the problem.
While I could never know what that’s like, as a white man I know I don’t try to feel the pain of my black friends nearly enough.
And to be honest, I need to do a better job of engaging and listening to African Americans to better understand their plight.
I need to repent on both counts for where I’ve fallen short.
As a Christian, I understand that to show us God’s love, Jesus entered into our suffering.
I see hope in the crowds that are demonstrating because there is great diversity. The movement for justice is multiracial.
I see peaceful protests as a way for people to say, “I am entering into your pain and your suffering. I feel your pain. I am with you as you strive for equality and justice.”
I see hope when I see law enforcement and protesters embracing, walking together and kneeling together.
I also see hope when law enforcement shows up to do their jobs, even while many are being blamed for acts they did not commit themselves.
I hear hope when the family of George Floyd calls on protesters to be peaceful and, without shame, tells the crowd their family is a God-fearing family.
I need to look inside myself and find ways to bridge the gap so “justice can roll on like a river.”
I can start by listening more to understand how my African American friends feel about these issues. I have reached out to several this week to ask for more dialogue.
I can apologize for my arrogance and insensitivity.
I can support legislation that fosters change.
I can work harder to bring people of color together.
I can speak up when racism shows up.
I can stand up when people of color are mistreated.
I can look for my prejudices and seek forgiveness and change.
I can try to love as Jesus loved.
I know if we love as Jesus loved, we will all breathe the breath of change.
Sweet communion and the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. can still become a reality.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.