Last Tuesday evening, Arline and I attended a Vigil of Remembrance, Repentance and Hope, an event sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa in observance of the anniversary of George Floyd’s death while being arrested in Minneapolis. I didn’t see any west county people there, but who knows, a lot of us were wearing masks.
As you probably saw on television, the main officer involved pinned Floyd to the street by keeping his knee on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, even as Floyd gasped his final breaths and cried out for his momma. The officer was recently convicted of murder and other charges for his actions that day.
In the falling light, we gathered on the church lawn around which were 172 little white bags with sand and battery-powered candles in them. On each bag was the name of someone who had died due to racial, ethnic or religious violence in America over the last few years. Each of us was invited to pick up one of the bags and take it to our seat.
I picked up the bag with Miguel Espinal’s name on it. I had never heard of him. When I looked him up, I learned he had been shot and killed by an officer after a car chase in 2016. Espinal was unarmed. Like many of those whose names were on the little bags, Espinosa very likely should have been arrested, but he should not have lost his life.
Yes, the vigil made us aware that what happened to George Floyd happens a lot. It happens in all parts of the country. Racial, ethnic and religious bigotries appear to be involved, which means this is a deep running trouble among us.
Far as I could tell, everyone at the vigil was white, and there seemed to be a shared feeling that attitudes we may not be aware of contribute to long-established structures of white supremacy in our land. Pastor Dale Flowers said as much in his opening remarks. In quiet, searching words, he acknowledged that George Floyd’s death had been a wake-up call for him. He could now see the web of prejudice that gives rise to such violence, he told us, and he needed to repent of his unwitting part in that web.
Singing a quiet, yearning song for peace, we moved toward the saying of the names. On signal, we spoke in unison the name written on the little white bag we had picked up. Then a gong sounded. Then we said the names again. Then another gong. Then we did this a third time. With the third gong, I had a sense of the enormity of the suffering and grief so many of our fellow citizens endure. I felt it sinking into me. It was close to overwhelming.
Then we were silent for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, with a gong sounding each minute as it went by and at the end. For this whole time, Arline was crying. “It’s just so sad,” she said when the last gong sounded. “I kept thinking of Jesus on the cross. He cried out for his momma too.” So we felt something of what is felt by those who suffer racial, ethnic and religious violence in America. In this we stood with them, it seemed.
Finally, with night gently falling, there was another quiet song of peace and a benediction. It was then I noticed this whole event had taken place beside a weeping willow tree. How fitting, I thought. How thoroughly fitting.