It’s Sunday afternoon, May 31, and tens of thousands of people are in the streets across the United States exercising their right to free speech. Demonstrations are springing up from coast to coast, and rightly so, in a national paroxysm of rage over the death of George Floyd – an African-American man who had, days before, asphyxiated under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer despite his cries for help.
Predictably, here in California – “where we riot, not rally to live and die,” as the song goes – it was no different. Something I kept tabs on from the comfort of my personal ashram.
“Four shots fired” a voice radioed-in over the distinctive patter and static of a police scanner.
“14A27 . . . location at intersection of Lincoln and Rose . . . Code 3.”
In fits and starts, details of West Bureau’s tactical response to an unpredictable crowd began to unfold. Mass demonstrations are among the most difficult situations the police have to manage, and this one, with its recrudescent nature, would be among the worst.
The intersection in question was situated one block away from the scrimmage-line established, just minutes earlier, by a phalanx of officers intending to impose order on the growing swell of protesters, bystanders, and journalists. Keep in mind, too much force can escalate the situation — but so can too little.
Being a member of LAPD’s Clergy Council Pacific Division, I immediately recognized the “shots fired” call as having come from Venice Beach’s Senior Lead Officer. What wasn’t clear was who, if anyone, had been hit. Above and beyond the safety of the officers – many of whom are personal acquaintances – the safety of peaceful protesters from my own congregation had just become a very real concern.
On this night, Angeleno’s on the west side would see the unthinkable. The Grove, an iconic L.A. shopping center boasting more visitors per year than admissions to Disneyland, was set ablaze. On social media, hard-to-watch videos were coming in from around the city showing images of shattered storefronts, “eat the rich” graffiti, and the aftermath of looting, left behind at Rodeo Drive’s exclusive Gucci boutique. From Santa Monica, a video showed a man (in strong physical shape) stopping to assist a young woman pinned under her bike adjacent to heavy, stop-and-go traffic. But as soon as he stepped out of his vehicle, he was met by a swarm of violent crowd members pummeling him in the middle of the street; young pugilists having no apparent connection to the demonstrations.
The fabric of our society is being torn by hatred, and frayed by distrust. So being the minister of arguably the most racially diverse congregation in Los Angeles (with no clear majority of any one race), and faced with the disarray encompassing our city, I felt a burden to address the erupting violence.
Having ministered here for most of my life, including during the ‘92 riots, I understand better than most the world in which our church exists. For example, many of our members come out of a religious tradition where the minister functions as a central figure sought out during times of trouble, pain, or loss; a trusted community leader addressing issues of social welfare, public policy, and at times, even calling for community activism. Therefore, from this perspective, any willful avoidance of this high-profile case of injustice on my part would not be viewed as a reassuring, much less respectable option. I needed to respond and to do so with flesh-and-blood urgency.
I strongly began to suspect God’s providential hand was at play when our associate minister confided in me that his thoughts and prayers had resulted in precisely the same conclusions. Specifically, that God might use our longstanding, bi-racial friendship in combination with a strong, unifying message to cut through the dispiriting circumstances. So we shot a brief video and distributed it to our members through the church’s usual online channels.
Rather than beginning with the immorality of rioting or looting, we consciously began with the precious loss of George Floyd’s life – a life created in the image of God. We reaffirmed that while a preponderance of law enforcement officers aren’t racist, it is still incumbent upon families to instill character and to talk to their sons and grandsons about what happens when being detained by police, emphasizing the need to go the extra mile. Again, not because all law enforcement is bad but because evil exists in the hearts of men and no one can predict the mindset of any one particular officer.
We stated, unambiguously, that any clear-eyed search for truth in Minneapolis would surely find that an injustice had, indeed, occurred and was endemic of attitudes we thought we’d long ago learned to reject. That the piercing image of George Floyd’s final minutes, repeatedly played over and over on social media, was just the latest example in a long litany of documented police brutality.
Our message centered on God’s Word (not the divisive philosophies and platitudes of political parties). That Christians should protest evil wherever it’s found, but we should do so in a righteous way. That any Christian seeking justice should, first and foremost, come to the Throne Room of Grace in preparation for taking on societal structures that perpetuate evil, because the cultural breakdowns we are witnessing are spiritual in nature. Specifically, they are a result of the church’s failure to teach sound doctrine and society’s rejection of a value system established by God.
Our intent was to prompt our viewers to reframe events from a spiritual perspective of hope, integrating one’s faith, if need be, into public expressions of protest. A behavior modeled by the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts, when protesting the injustice of being illegally, and brutally beaten by local law enforcement.
“37 But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”38 The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed.” – Acts 16:37-38
Perhaps, most importantly, we appealed for putting words into action – pointing out that, otherwise, we are simply contributing to the noise. The last thing we need are stilted conversations and seminars punctuated by banal slogans or failed nostrums leading us nowhere. These do not produce reconciliation. What we need are men, women, and families willing to associate with others from different backgrounds with the intention of serving them; or, perhaps, with the goal of working together to serve those in the community who are truly less fortunate. That’s reconciliation, because only then are you part of the solution – accomplishing the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”
Within twelve hours of posting, the video was already the most viewed content we’d produced all year. Most significant was the overwhelming positive feedback. Calls and voicemails tremulously expressing heartfelt gratitude, some repenting from recent acts of reactionary hatred, others describing a tearful catharsis as they listened to their ministers give voice to what had been, up till now, only repressed thoughts and feelings. Best of all, one of our newer African-American families contacted the church wanting to know what was required for baptism and how they could be more involved serving the church.
And while no church is perfect or without its share of problems, it seems to me we’ve struck a blow for something rare: an enduring harmony involving people from all kinds of backgrounds based solely on the Word of God.
Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 34 years and have a daughter and grandaughter.