“If you take away their breath, they perish and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
This passage from Psalms was included in the Responsorial Psalm on Pentecost Sunday, May 31. After more than a week of civil unrest around the country following the horrendously brutal death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, the timing of these words seemed fitting for our world today.
Floyd’s breath was taken away from him as he lay helpless on a Minneapolis street May 25, handcuffed, with the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin pressed against his neck. “I can’t breathe,” were among the last words he spoke.
As our country comes to grips with this sad episode of police brutality and racial discrimination (Floyd is the latest in a string of black men and women to die at the hands of law enforcement officers), we have to ask ourselves how we, as people of faith, can end a culture of racism. It is a sin that divides the human family and it offends our God, who created all of us in his likeness.
At Pentecost, we celebrated the Holy Spirit descending upon the early Christians, allowing them to speak in other languages. Can the Holy Spirit descend upon us today and help “renew the face of the earth”? Not by allowing us to speak in other tongues, but to see beyond skin color.
Fifty-one years ago, a Presbyterian minister better known as Fred Rogers invited a black man to his neighborhood. In the episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired May 9, 1969, Rogers asked Officer Clemmons, a black police officer on the show, to join him and cool his feet in a small, plastic wading pool.
The simple act, on a children’s television program, would seem meaningless today. However, at the time, near the end of the civil rights movement, when blacks were still not welcomed to swim in community pools, the sketch spoke volumes. It was an intentional action aimed at breaking a color barrier.
“It was such an easy thing to do, profoundly simple and easy for two friends to sit down and put their feet in the water to relax on a hot summer evening,” François Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons, told Pittsburgh City Paper in a 2018 interview. “I carried the hope inside of me that, one day, the world would change. And I do feel that the world still has not totally changed, but it is changing. We’re getting there.”
At the end of the sketch, Clemmons used Rogers’ towel to dry his feet. Rogers then used the same towel. Simple acts like these can help rip the deep-seated roots of racism from our homes and churches. How can we dip our feet into the pool with people of color?
Our churches in northeast Wisconsin are filled with statues, stained glass windows and paintings of saints — most, if not all, with the same skin color. Perhaps it is time to welcome sacred art into sanctuaries that express the diversity of the universal church more accurately. The same might be said when naming new churches, schools or building additions. Among the possibilities are Martin de Porres, Charles Lwanga, Peter Claver, Benedict the Moor and Josephine Bakhita, all saints with African heritage. In our private prayers, we might also ask these saints to intercede for us.
In 1993, Officer Clemmons made his final appearance on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The two men recreated the pool scene, but at the end Rogers took the towel and dried Clemmons’ feet, much like Jesus did for his disciples.
In this moment of despair, it’s time for us to do the same. And so we pray, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”