California faith leaders leverage clergy privilege to stand in support of Black Lives Matter

‘There’s a lot of racism and a lot of white supremacy, unfortunately, also in the church,’ said the Rev. Sally Howard, associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

People gather for an evening vigil against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter in Pasadena, California, Sunday, May 31, 2020. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

PASADENA (RNS) — In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, faith leaders say it’s necessary to leverage their privilege to support Black Lives Matter activists calling for police reform.

“I think this is a moment where communities are watching to see if people really believe in the Jesus they say they do,” Pastor Faith Romasco with First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena, or Paznaz, told Religion News Service. “It’s a moment of choosing to be a credible witness and faithful to the gospel.”

“When all the churches in the community can get behind tangible action, what it lets us do is leverage that power and that capital to make real change,” she said.

Romasco was among the hundreds of people and faith leaders who gathered Sunday evening outside Pasadena City Hall for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Floyd, who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes.

They held signs reading “Racism is a killer virus” and “Stop killing black people,” while chanting “Black lives, they matter here!” Protesters sounded noisemakers and applauded during an eight minute shout of lament that represented the eight minutes Floyd was pinned down.

Activists and religious leaders called on the city of Pasadena to spend less on police and incarceration and more on youth programs and housing. Police were in the vicinity of the gathering.

LA Voice — a network of multifaith houses of worship, including synagogues, mosques and churches — co-organized the Sunday vigil in partnership with local congregations.

Artist and organizer Andre Henry addresses the crowds at the gathering in support of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in Pasadena, California, Sunday, May 31, 2020. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

“We are here on the day of Pentecost in one accord and we are on fire. Some of us are on fire with rage. Some of us are on fire with anger. Some of us are on fire with determination,” said artist and organizer Andre Henry as he addressed the crowds. “All around the world right now like a gale force wind people are saying Black Lives Matter!

“It makes me hopeful because when we’re unified and fired up, there’s almost nothing that we can’t accomplish together,” Henry added.

The Rev. Zachary Hoover, executive director of LA Voice, said if people of faith are not standing against racist policies, “What is our purpose?

“I could only speak for Christians, but we believe that Jesus literally speaks to us, that what we do to our brothers and sisters is what we do to Jesus,” Hoover, an American Baptist minister, told Religion News Service.

“The only reason I’m still part of the body of the people we call the church is because we can have this kind of witness,” he said. “What is the point of the church if we’re just getting together on Sunday to sing songs? If we’re not showing up when people are suffering and dying, it’s like abandoning our Lord on the cross.”

The Sunday gathering happened just hours after a peaceful Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles protest on Saturday ended with police confrontations, vandalism and looting that night. Hoover said some of their clergy were at that protest.

While people gathered in Pasadena for the Sunday vigil, looters had already struck businesses in Santa Monica.

The Pasadena vigil wrapped up around 8 p.m. just as the second night of weekend curfew hours took effect in the city.

The Rev. Zachary Hoover, left, executive director of LA Voice, participates in an evening vigil in remembrance of George Floyd and in support of Black Lives Matter, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Pasadena, California. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

Hoover said the idea for the vigil emerged Friday when Barbara Walker with First Baptist Church Pasadena convened a conversation with area congregations. Within 18 hours, Hoover said the event went from having two sponsoring congregations to 26.

LA Voice chose to communicate with police about their planned event, Hoover said.

“We have privilege as clergy and faith leaders, I think we need to use that and use it well,” Hoover said.

Samuel Lee, 31, was at the vigil and told Religion News Service the Asian community has been silent too long. And, he said, as part of the Christian community, “we’ve done so much harm without knowing.

“I think in America a lot of our Christian churches are pegged with a lot of political and ‘American values,’ and it’s way too blended,” said Lee, who is Korean American.

“You can’t say you’re pro-life for an unborn baby, but then turn your head away from someone who lost their life and pretend it’s not as important. There’s a lot of hypocrisy,” he added.

Lee said he grapples with his faith.

“Why do I still believe? Why do I still maintain my religion? But, I still have hope. I think we can do better. It’s just going to start with us,” Lee said.

The Rev. Sally Howard, associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, said there’s a lot at stake if people of faith don’t stand up against racism.

“There’s a lot of racism and a lot of white supremacy, unfortunately, also in the church,” Howard told Religion News Service. “If those of us who know God in a different way don’t speak up, then that’s the face of God in the country.

“There’s no more being quiet. There’s no more holding back. There’s no more being polite,” Howard said.

This story has been updated.

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