The Heartbeat: The Petri Dish, Ministry, and Protest

The Union Community joined together to protest the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown.  Collective effort empowered the support of a multidimensional protest hub, affectionately known as the “Love Hub.” Students, faculty, and staff worked the jail support hotline, offered temple massages and prayers, organized study sessions, led teach-ins, baked bread, cooked pasta, poured coffee, and listened to the laments of a hurting community. We’ve been clear that this project was appropriate for this particular stage, and we are working to sustainably transition this model. As proud as I am of our collective effort, I have also been disappointed.   I’ve never believed that anything happened by accident. So this break, I asked myself, “What was God trying to tell me here?”

Well, that hit me after a friend got strep throat.

When someone is suspected to have strep throat, the doctor swabs the patient’s throat with a cotton swab. The swab is wiped onto a Petri dish. Eventually, the sample reacts and displays a positive sign in the Petri dish. Doctors can then move forward with the treatment. The Love Hub was a Petri dish, and this is what it taught me. I’m writing these down because I need to remember these tips for my future (and I suppose, present) ministry. No good doctor keeps information to herself:

1.     Everyone can participate. But everyone’s participation won’t look the same.

All the protest doesn’t happen in the street. And not everyone can be out at night at each action. We need to check our ableist discourse of what counts as “worthwhile” protest. We are a diverse community, and we should respect the choices people make with their bodies and hearts. One student wanted to come out with us one night, but couldn’t because she would need to hire a sitter. Instead, she and her family cooked an awesome pasta casserole. And the young daughter of a professor donated her allowance so that we could buy snacks for people headed out.

Each share made the stone soup richer. The Love Hub would not have been as powerful or as productive without the people who made the space as it was. For some, sitting and praying in the space was the most meaningful contribution. For others, it was helping to create signs.  No one can do everything. But everyone does need to feel useful. And everyone does need to contribute something. The trick is in discerning the gift.

2.     Even the most sacred spaces can be contaminated.

Our Protest Hub was not the antibiotic of our ailment. It was the Petri dish, a microcosm, a snapshot. And that’s okay. One thing has remained clear to me even through explicit participation in protest activities—Oppression is so deeply rooted into our conditioning that it inhabits even the most sacred of spaces. Sometimes worship is hurtful, sometimes protest is underwhelming and triggering, and sometimes the classroom can be hostile. But, what do we expect? I have come to abandon the idea of “Safe Space”. I believe it is a worthwhile goal, and I still choose to hold people accountable. But if I got mad and took my toys home because I didn’t want to play anymore, I’d never get a chance at bat. Is the game rigged? Is it unfair? Is it toxic? Absolutely, that’s exactly why we are here. There’s work to be done. I don’t have the luxury of abandoning it. And truthfully, this is why we carve out spaces of friends and loved ones. Because someone needs to hear our cries at midnight, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like God is listening.

3.     Mindfulness takes time to craft.

In the Love Hub, we were reminded of the very names and faces of those we’ve lost to police brutality. A shrine displayed the faces of Renisha McBride and Michael Brown. Every time I walked into the room, I felt their eyes on me. Their presence, even in this way, energized us. We watched professors, students, friends, and family take the time to craft a mindfulness about the urgency of now.  I’m grateful for professors who offered gracious extensions and for administrators who bought us pizza. I am still thankful for the common language and muscle memory we have developed. Now, I feel that I can hold my peers accountable to the cause of anti-racism efforts, and I trust them to hold me accountable, too. The very presence of a headquarters created an opportunity for people to come and share things they might not have shared otherwise. What would happen if we could replicate this practice in our other communities? It was impossible for anyone at Union to pretend that everything was normal in the world, because we purposefully disrupted campus with this project. Certainly, this is what #ShutItDown is all about. We will continue to disrupt life as usual until the world understands that Black Lives Mater.

We learned a lot. The task isn’t over, either. I’m glad to see us jump in and be of use as we are able. We must be cautious of the instinct that imagines all evil outside of our homes. Hopefully we can apply what we learned in this experience to the ways we interact with people in the halls, in the classroom, in our field education assignments. I believe we all learned something valuable for our ministries through this process. As for me, I’m much more aware of the multiplicity of spiritual and vocational gifts. I want to make sure all people feel useful and empowered to build something beautiful. I’m much more aware of the treacherous nature of oppression, and I’ve learned that we will always have to fight this Beast. And more than anything, I’ve learned that living out the practice of mindfulness does not happen magically. And we won’t always get it right every time. I’m learning to have grace for myself and others.

I still don’t think anything happens by accident. I know that we are here at this time for a reason. Perhaps we are being taught something special about ministry.