After George Floyd’s death, a groundswell of religious activism

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – George Floyd’s death has triggered a groundswell of outrage and activism by religious leaders and faith-based groups across the United States, reminiscent of what occurred during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Conservative and mainstream religious leaders are joining with Black churches, progressive Catholics and Protestants, Jewish synagogues and other faith groups in calling for police reforms and efforts to dismantle racism.

Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. The officer has been fired and charged with second-degree murder, but protesters and activists around the world are pushing for deeper change.

“We’re seeing it at the grassroots level. We’re seeing rabbis walking alongside Muslim leaders, walking alongside Catholic priests and religious sisters,” said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice group. “We are seeing that race cuts across all religious denominations.”

More than 1,000 rabbis, pastors, imams and other religious leaders held an online conference last week to brainstorm ways to address systemic violence against African Americans.

There is a new “breadth and depth” in the faith-based response, said one participant, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, citing a great hunger for connection after months of social distancing and lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Folks are just so angry. They’re angry about enduring racism, they’re angry about the incompetent response to COVID, they’re angry about bigotry and racism, about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and white supremacy,” he said.

Progressive religious groups had an important role in shaping the emerging movement, much as they did in the civil rights movement, but today’s actions are attracting a more diverse set of participants, Pesner said.

ELECTION ISSUE

Republican Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with strong support from evangelical Christians and Catholics. But Floyd’s death and Trump’s criticism of protesters may be a factor when members of those religious groups go to the polls in November.

While federal tax rules prevent houses of worship from taking an overt partisan stance, clergy are not banned from expressing their personal opinions.

Trump was sharply criticized by mainstream Catholic and Episcopal leaders after protesters were forcibly cleared for a staged photo of him last week in front of Washington’s historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.

Some right-leaning religious leaders have since called him out or joined protests, unlike in the 1960s when some white evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Billy Graham, did not take part in the civil rights movement.

Televangelist Pat Robertson chided the president last week for threatening to send in military troops if governors did not quell violent protests. “He spoke of them as being jerks. You just don’t do that, Mr. President. It isn’t cool!”

Joel Osteen, the senior pastor from Texas megachurch Lakewood, marched with protesters last week in Houston. “We need to stand against injustice and stand with our Black brothers and sisters,” said Osteen.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a Mormon, joined hundreds of Christian evangelicals at a march in Washington on Sunday, and tweeted out “Black Lives Matter.”

Some churches have also stepped up efforts to boost voter registration in recent weeks, much as churches did in the 1960s.

Data collected after Floyd’s death from the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute showed 37% of white Catholics held favorable views of Trump, down from 49% in 2019, and a drop from the 60% who voted for Trump in 2016.

POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN

Religious leaders held an online eulogy for Floyd and interfaith service on Sunday, staged a day of fasting on Monday, and observed eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to mark the exact amount of time Floyd was held down as he pleaded: “Please, I can’t breathe.”

A June 20 online “assembly” including 16 religious denominations seeks to revive the “Poor People’s Campaign” launched after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Subtitled “A National Call for Moral Revival,” it will also focus on Floyd, organizers say.

“We are in a deep moral crisis,” said the Rev. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, who is one of the key organizers.

“What we have to do at this moment is not only address what happened to George Floyd, but the interlocking problems of systemic racism, police brutality, the lack of healthcare, poverty and militarism,” he said.

Najuma Smith-Pollard, a Black pastor and community activist in Los Angeles, said the protests had already triggered action that once seemed impossible – the Los Angeles mayor yanked $150 million from the police department’s budget and diverted it to programs for youth jobs, healthcare and trauma recovery.

“I don’t think it’s a blip,” she said. “Too many things are at stake and too many people are engaged. This is no longer a local matter – it’s national, it’s global.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Amid coronavirus, God goes online to reach worshippers

Reuters
By Umberto Bacchi

TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As coronavirus closes churches, synagogues and mosques worldwide, religious leaders are taking faith online to ensure God’s word gets to the millions marooned by the pandemic.

Services are being streamed on Instagram, prayers posted by video link and timeless texts shared on cellphones to bring spiritual support to the hundreds of thousands of believers denied a place of worship.

“Because I am not physically close to you, it doesn’t mean I can’t be emotionally close to you,” said Miles McPherson, a senior pastor at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, which moved to online streaming on Sunday.

“It’s better when you are with somebody in a room … but the online services in one way give us opportunity to be with people more because we are with them in their pocket,” he said holding a mobile phone during an online video interview.

With almost 219,000 infections and more than 8,900 deaths so far, the epidemic has stunned the world and drawn comparisons with traumas such as World War Two and the 1918 Spanish flu.

In Italy – home to a large and devout Catholic population – priests have turned to technology to support some of the communities worst hit by the rapid viral spread.

When news broke on Feb. 23 that all Masses in and around the northern city of Milan were to be suspended, priest Fabio Zanin came up with a new way to stay in touch with his flock.

Armed with a mobile phone and help from young parishioners, he set up an Instagram account and started streaming daily functions held behind closed doors on social media.

“We though it would only be for a few days,” said Zanin, a Catholic priest from Cusano Milanino, a small town north of Italy’s financial capital.

“In the meantime, the whole word has been turned upside down,” the 28-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Zanin even asked parishioners to send in photos as they watched the Mass online, saying: “People need human contact”.

The highly contagious respiratory disease that originated in China has pushed governments on every continent to impose draconian lockdowns, hitting sport, shopping, travel and faith.

From Japan to the United States, many religious groups have suspended services and moved faith online, trying out new ways to stay close to their communities, as holy sites and public spaces shut, changing the face of many world cities.

HOLY WATER AND TOILET PAPER

Churches have historically been a place of sanctuary in times of crisis and closures have caused disarray.

Last week, the Pope’s vicar for the Rome archdiocese ordered churches in the Italian capital to shut their doors only to back peddle a day later, following complaints from some Catholics and a caution against “drastic measures” from the pontiff.

Besides broadcasting services, some have come up with novel initiatives to raise morale among those confined to home.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have stopped their custom of knocking on doors and setting up stall at busy crossroads but congregants were still meeting in small home groups in countries where it was permitted, a spokesman said.

In Britain, where the Chief Rabbi has urged synagogues to suspend all activities, a London-based congregation called on members not to “let social distancing become social isolation”.

“Whether you are in need of an extra loo (toilet) roll, some food dropped off or a listening ear to share your fears, let us be the planks for one another in the weeks ahead,” Rabbi Elana Dellal of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote in an online post.

U.S. Buddhist magazine Tricycle has published online meditations to help ease people’s anxiety, while the St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California, urged parishioners to put their enforced down time to good use.

“Now is a good time to read Cradle to Cradle and watch those documentaries I asked you to watch!” Reverend Cindy Evans Voorhees wrote in an email newsletter.

In Tbilisi, Georgia, the Orthodox Church – criticised for still serving worshippers bread from a shared spoon – organised a motorcade to bless the city streets and ward off the virus.

On Tuesday, priests holding icons rode on pick-up trucks sprinkling people and pavements from tanks of holy water.

“This will be another good event by the Church to bring peace and calm to people,” said churchgoer Kote Svanadze.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)