The Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) had their annual Christian Leadership Forum in Dallas, TX at the American Airlines Training Center during the first week of June. I coordinated the worship along with leading an idea lab on liturgy on the streets.
The conference started Wednesday afternoon and went until Saturday morning. Each day we had two, 30 minute worship services--one in the morning, one in the evening. The worship services connected to the theme of each day and to the overarching theme of "Active Faith Matters." The CLF also grounded itself in the 60th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the murders of Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. What does an active Christian faith mean in the face of supremacy and domination?
I came to Dallas with structure for each liturgy, hoping the energy, world view, and passion of participants would be infused into the structure. For our Friday evening liturgy, I created a structure for a liturgical die-in. What follows is the liturgical framework, sermon, prayers and reflections from the leaders of this liturgy and its participants.
This is what was created in a mere 30 minutes.
We gathered in our conference room standing as a mass. No chairs. We were standing up while singing "I'm on My Way to Freedom Land."
(play the song while you read the rest of this blog)
Emily Wilkes, intern at Church of the Pilgrims, shared the Mark story of a group of friends busting through a roof of a house to get their paralyzed friend, who was on a mat, as close to Jesus as possible. Emily had memorized the story and she told it by heart.
Emily's Reflection from the experience:
Standing among a crowd of nearly two hundred people, I began to tell the story of a paralyzed man whose friends tore off the roof of a building. I wove in, out, and through the crowd; their physical closeness and excitement gave me permission to channel their energy in my storytelling. It was an ecumenically diverse space, where many shouted affirmations as they felt moved. This evident participation drew me even more deeply into the story, and I was transformed through its telling. Within myself, I could imagine I the confusion, tension, anxiety, and joy the crowd surrounding Jesus must have experienced. The two hundred of us inhabited and embodied the story together. After we’d entered into the story as a community, we were then ready to enter into the sermon.
After Emily's storytelling, we sang a Gospel Canticle, "Blessed be the Lord, for he has come to his people and set them free" from the bilingual hymnal, We Pray in Song. We sang this several times with contemplative energy.
gave the sermon, also weaving through the FTE crowd.
Hands up! Don’t shoot! These words and the gesture have become a rally cry of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has swept our nation. In the aftermath of the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, many people set out to demonstrate against a system that was oppressive. And here, we find the paralytic man in his own oppressive state. He is confined to a mat, unable to move.
While we don’t know what lead to this man’s paralysis, we do know that he is a representation of something. This paralytic man is a representation of what oppression can do to a person, and even a community. He represents hopelessness – he has been in this state of paralysis with what seems like no hope of healing. He represents this notion/thought/idea that this paralysis is permanent. He represents helplessness– because of his paralysis; he can’t even get to the one who could offer hope. And on top of that even if he could move himself, he can’t get past the crowd – the crowd that should have been crowd surfing him to Jesus in the first place.
But thank God for the four men. It is the four men that stand in solidarity with him. It is worth noting that all the texts that narrate this story call it “their faith,” which Jesus says. That the paralytic had faith himself, we know from the proclamation of his forgiveness, which Jesus made before all that were gathered. What we are taught in this moment is that not only did the man have faith, but the bearers had the same faith with him. While the paralytic couldn’t change his condition on his own, they recognized that there was one who could help him. All they had to do was get him to Jesus – the source of his healing. Spiritual healing – his sins were forgiven. Physical healing – he was able to pick up his mat and walk.
And here, we find ourselves – our America – paralyzed by oppression. The oppression of addiction, homelessness, hunger, depression, poverty, war, gender inequality, racial injustice and a myriad of other things. Think again of Ferguson, of Cincinnati, of South Carolina, of Baltimore. Think of the protests that were taking place. Think of the die-ins. Those who lay in the same position as the paralytic man. Die-ins represents this same image as the paralytic – helplessness and hopelessness. Those who participated in these protests did so as a sign of solidarity to fight against all that was and is taking place in the city and the broader community. Like the four who carried the paralytic man, each of those who have made gestures likened Christ to have done so for one purpose and one goal – to get to the truth. These four bearers carried the man to the truth. And today, I invite you to pray in the posture of this paralytic man and those who have laid in solidarity. That our prayers would be like the four men, carrying us to truth. That our prayers would speak love. Speak community. Speak life. And tell the story of our faith, as a community, that will lead us to healing.
Here is Kimberly's personal reflection after the die-in:
It’s happening in Florida. It’s happening in Ferguson. It’s happening in New York. It’s happening in Ohio. It’s happening in South Carolina. It’s happening in Baltimore. It’s happening all around us – hundreds of people are laying motionless on the ground in a position of death staging die-ins as a form a protest to the atrocities that are facing our communities. While this act of protest has, as of recent, come on the heels of a death in the Black community, this day, it happened as a form of worship. For days we gathered in Black Hawk Ballroom to talk about #ActiveFaith, and in this space we had the opportunity to put those discussions into deed. The act of a die-in has become a sort of rally cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we were able to see the correlation between these die-ins and the one that the paralytic man faced everyday due to his own oppression. As the scripture was recited, the crowd began to fidget.
As the sermonette went forth, the crowd verbally affirmed the words. And then, in that space, we were all asked to get in this posture of the paralytic man and those who have laid in solidarity. As the history was given, names of those Black and brown bodies that have been gunned down were read off, and prayer was offered up, the images of unmoving bodies strewn on the floor floated in my mind. I imagined every face. I felt every body. For a few moments, I opened my eyes and looked to my left and to my right. Feelings of grief, shock, fear, anger, hope, and a myriad of others things overwhelmed my body. We worshiped in this position. We prayed in this position. And in the end, just like the four men who carried the paralytic man to Jesus, we helped each other out of that position and back onto our feet. While we know that the oppressions of the world won’t be healed in one moment, in that hour of worship, we stood in solidarity with the ones who will fight until healing comes. We stood in solidarity with the dreams of our ancestors. We stood in solidarity with the dreams of our neighbors. We stood together after laying in a position of death. We stood, in order to tell the story of our faith, as a community, that will lead to healing.
Marquisha Lawrence led the die-in prayer after Kimberly's sermon.
Here is Marquisha's prayer:
n Ferguson, we die in for 4.5 minutes representing the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown's body lay in the street. As you lay there, we ask that you reflect on the word that was given to you on Wednesday...reflect and pray about how you can be bring innovation, wisdom, connectivity, transformation, healing, dreaming, discovering, risk taking, questioning, truth telling, boldness, authenticity and new possibilities back to your ministry settings, in your own congregations, in your own cities, in your own states, in your own denominations, in your own academic settings.
I invite everyone to die in...now...
(Ashley's note: When Marquisha said "now" 200 people dropped to the floor on their backs in an instant. We stayed on our backs throughout the entire prayer).
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way. We lie here before you praying for our cities, praying for our congregations and praying for ourselves that we might have courage, that we might have wisdom that we might be bold enough not to cower when you have called us to stand tall...when you have called us to be innovative...when you have called us to speak truth to power...when you have called us to dream a bigger dream...you have called us to sing a new song...when things get tough and we can't find our way, help us to remember that our work is not in vain and neither were the lives of:
John Crawford III
I invite you to silently rise and support each other as we get up.
We end this die in the way that we end every die in with the words from our dear sister Assata Shakur: repeat after me:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win.
We must love and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Marquisha's Personal Reflection
In preparing for the liturgical die-in, I was sure to add in the names of many of those who died in police involved deaths. The list is pages long, but I randomly selected 33 names. When the section of the prayer came to the 33 names, I told myself to: “slow down and articulate every single name. Do not go too quickly, for this may the last time that their names are called in honor.” As the names were read, the tension in the room swarmed with people crying, moaning, and tapping--all with their backs on the ground. It was hard to tell whether these reactions were from despair, discomfort or a myriad of other feelings, but for that moment, these 33 people were acknowledged as humans, worthy of honor.
Once we were standing after Marquisha's prayer....
We finished with a cathartic song, "Jesus is coming, this I know. Freedom is coming, this I know." We sang this over and over and over again. And over again. Until finally someone tossed open the doors of the conference room, the song coming to a close and off we went to a reception and dance party that included a band with a horn section.
Reflections from Two Participants from the Die-In Liturgy
Hassan Xavier Henderson-Lott
In the fall of 2014 I began to associate myself with the alliance #ShutItDownAtlanta. This organization served as an avenue through which many of differing identities expressed our frustrations concerning police brutality in America. Among the many who gathered in solidarity with the victims and the families of victims who had fallen, were individuals; African-American women and men whose lives though well-lived, are overshadowed by fear and the suspicion of whether or not their lives actually matter. Never before had I been provided an outlet to express my truth. Loudly we marched in hundreds chanting and singing! But there was never was a time to grieve in community. Internally, in the comfort of my own heart and mind I mourned the losses of my sisters and brothers murdered by police. Strength was the name of the game! “Don’t let them see how badly you hurt.” I would not cry. I would not give-in to emotionalism.
However I did not then understand the importance of weeping. Loudly I marched through the streets of Atlanta, solaced by the display of “strength” as intense rambunctiousness. But in Dallas, I was vulnerable. I prayed through weeping. The die-in experience affirmed for me the strength in silence and the credibility in crying. As I lied on the ground I experienced a transfiguration of the room. The carpeted floor became concrete. The silence of the room was loud with the sirens of emergency vehicles. I was Michael Brown and Eric Gardener and Yvette Smith. I heard nothing, including my Mothers mourning the loss of their son. I returned to witness participants striking the floor with their hands. They were supposed to be completely still. They were in pain! I knew that the experience was all too real for many in the room. They beat against the wooden floor of a ship. I was on a ship, lying on my back; my mother still mourning the loss of her son! I witnessed the pathology of black suffering in America. I experienced a historical memory of my past. It became not only real but tangible to me. All within four and a half minutes I traveled back over four hundred years. I got up, on my feet. And I danced in the same confident hope of my ancestors. “Jesus is coming, Oh yes I know!”
Andre Gilford, Jr.
All colors together
During the Forum of Theological Exploration’s Annual Christian Leadership Forum, I participated in a gathering of young adults committed to spiritual renewal and social justice. These individuals came to Dallas with a purpose, seeking a renewed sense of purpose and mission among those who share in that pursuit. During our corporate worship time, our various feelings and experiences came together in prayer, unexpectedly. We were white, black, South Pacific, Asian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, middle class, upper class, in seminary and discerning the call. We were all different, but together we came to a sacred space to worship. And in our worship, we provided space for the Black lives denigrated by the power of a racist and oppressive system called America by dying in. We prayed together in silence by lying on the floor and being still in the moment. Die-ins represent the four and a half hours that Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO laid in the street after being killed with his hands up by a local White police officer.
By lying on the ground together with my peers and colleagues in ministry, I was overwhelmed. My spirit, still standing, connected with the spirits of the ancestors who cry out from the earth calling for this system of racism and oppression to be ridden. I felt connected to the spirit of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and many others who have been killed at the hand of racism. As I laid there, I listen to my sister Marquisha Lawrence speak the name of the known sisters and brothers who unwillingly gave up their lives for the freedom of those who continue to be the subject of violence and pain under the guise of racism. Never before had I felt immense feeling in prayer. There was something to our bodies lying and our spirits standing; all colors together in prayer. We needed that space to take a moment and use our bodies to resist all injustice against those most at risks. In that moment, we stood still and provided space for our spirits to connect with the spirits of all Black lives. Our bodies laid on the ground stood as a symbol that Black Lives (do) Matter.
Professional Photographs by the Forum for Theological Exploration, Atlanta, Georgia.