What is the role for a seminary or local church when an incident such as the Oscar Grant slaying occurs?

The slaying of Oscar Grant by a BART officer in Oakland on New Year's Eve caused an outcry in the community. What is the appropriate role for a seminary or local church congregation when an incident such as this occurs?

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Glad to see us engage these events -- even if a little late!

First, I'm glad to see that PSR is engaging with this issue. PSR set a great precedent by issuing a statement about Prop 8, so I look forward to a greater engagement with other issues in our communities. I'm grateful to the GTU Black Seminarians for issuing a statement and requesting that PSR and the GTU seminaries post it on their websites. This is an opportunity for us all to engage as religious leaders not only with the murder and its aftermath, but also the larger issues of racism, brutality, violence, protest, trauma, and grief.
I would like to hear Prof. Lynn Rhodes on the role of religious leadership in this case. Here are a few of my thoughts on the role of PSR and religious communities in relation to these events. Congregational leaders ought to address this immediately in church and help folks clarify their own ethical, theological, and social values around these issues - and speak up about them. It's also a chance for pastoral care in dealing with anger, grief, and fear on a community level. And of course it is yet another opportunity to talk about structures of oppression and systemic injustices that get played out in tragedies like this.
I'd also like to hear how people's church communities have responded. Rev. E at East Bay Church of Religious Science addressed it on the Sunday following the murder - asking the congregation to address difficult questions about issues of grief, anger, and forgiveness. It may have been a little too soon to talk about forgiveness, but to me, she was asking us about our commitment to the values of Religious Science.

Oscar Grant

The question of 'what is the appropriate role for a seminary or local congregation' is different than a more solid "what can PSR do-individually and communally-now and in the future to work towards justice for Grant and confront the systems that led to his killing?" I feel that PSR is ready and able to have a serious and deliberate conversation about the second question.
I agree with Wade that PSR and GTU are presented with an opportunity to engage in larger, longterm processes of addressing racism, protest, grief.
Grant's beating and murder in the first moments of 2009 is sure to test the spiritual mettle of our nation's faith communities, and in the greatest darkness and tragedy, there is I believe opportunities for justice, healing, redemption. With its role in activism and progressive faith, I am expectant with how PSR will move forward in this crisis.
Eric Hanson

Why the appropriate action now?

Really? PSR has to ask the question about "What is the appropriate ...when an incident such as this occurs?"

Strange, I do not recall PSR taking a pause when it came to Measure 8, and from others I have spoken with, nor did PSR ask a question around the recent Immigration debate. But when it comes to this---particularly impacting persons of African and African Descent-----the question becomes what is "appropriate" to do.

As noted on last years King Vigil invitations, "The time is always right to do what is right." ~MLK and as an institution of "Boldness" PSR should not have to ask

what happened to the dialogue?

I was excited to see the beginning of responses to the question - I'm sure there are others who read this and have some thoughts. Monica asked an important question: Why is there a conversation about what's appropriate in this case, and there was not a conversation about what's appropriate in the case of Prop 8? We have to do some soul-searching. As a white person, I am often reluctant to bring up issues of racial justice because I know I am implicated as a perpetrator in the system. At the same time, I can't ignore the damage & pain caused by this system, in order to avoid feeling a little uncomfortable myself. Avoidance only leads to further frustration of justice. PSR can be a place where we learn how to face uncomfortable issues and try to discern the prophetic and just response. That's what I expect from myself and my colleagues as religious leaders. Even though none of us will get it right all the time.

I think PSR should honor the outrage and grief expressed at PSR, in Oakland, and across the US. For those among us (or our colleagues & congregants) who see the Oscar Grant murder as an isolated incident, ColorLines magazine (Nov-Dec 2007) has a good article about police shootings of unarmed Black men. Policing is a racial justice issue, and even if we're slow to discern what to do, I hope that we don't stop talking and hearing each other - and that we don't stop acting on the conversations we have!

“At what point do we stop

“At what point do we stop shooting, maiming and killing bruthas and
acting like it doesn’t matter?”

Billie Joe Johnson 17
Lucedale, MS
= unarmed =
police say he killed himself; those nearby heard two shots; independent investigators says “impossible for him to have killed himself”

“At what point do we stop shooting, maiming and killing bruthas and
acting like it doesn’t matter?”

Oscar Grant 22
Oakland, California
= unarmed =
shot in the back, face down and hand cuffed

“At what point do we stop shooting, maiming and killing bruthas and
acting like it doesn’t matter?”

Robbie Tolson 23
Houston, TX
= unarmed =
shot in the driveway of his own home, maimed in a hospital bed

“At what point do we stop shooting, maiming and killing bruthas and
acting like it doesn’t matter?”

Dominick Washington 26
Milwaukee, WI
= unarmed =
shot dead during a police altercation

At what point?!
And, these are just the ones I know about.

Where is the conversation???

I hope alumns are allowed to

I hope alumns are allowed to join…

Social activists of the secular variety bring resources and commitments of their own to the streets. Religious activists and communities who enter this conversation from different places should locate themselves in the story of their particular tradition in order to interpret & respond to the murder of Oscar Grant through a hermeneutic of faith. Religion (when practiced at its best) offers public witnessing, story, symbol, confession, lament, dialogue, litany (like the one Ada Renee posted here), ritual, memorializing, memory & meaning making, contemplative practice, social support, moral frameworks and pastoral care. These are the things our professional roles afford us. They are gifts and should be used responsibly and wisely. We have a power invested in us as faith leaders—for better and worse—that cannot go unchecked. Whether we will it or not, persons in our communities see clergy as spokespersons and representatives for/of G-d. (Of course there are exceptions to this “rule” and people the world over who would rather not ever see a religious leader. However…) It means something for clergy to show up at protests, court-houses, crime-scenes, jail cells, etc. It means something(s) significant. Our showing up often signifies G-d’s care for the world. It initiates G-d’s touch upon the pains of (ruptured) human flesh and the grieving of families who now face a future without their lost loved one. Our professional presence, especially when we are dressed in religious garb, testifies to the relevance of our religion’s story to the on-going perpetration of violence on racialized/sexed/gendered/etc bodies. People need to see the clerical collar, see the stole, see the preaching preacher on the footsteps of city hall. It sends the message that we care about life, that G-d cares about life and if nothing else, we are willing to be with people in their suffering. With these things in mind, what about...

--Standing, marching, writing letters and crying out with the Oakland dissenting citizens and national protestors?
--Articulating publicly (in and out of pulpit) that the sanctity of life was mocked, dismissed and interrupted in the murder of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle?
--Calling out and bringing attention to the tax-funded, institutionally implicating nature of this crime and to question retributive “justice”, “protection” and “freedom” that ideologically support the killing of civilians by armed “service” persons (past and present, domestic and abroad)?
--Contextualizing this current event by naming the history of police brutality in America in general and white-on-black violence/murder/lynching in particular?
--Again in light of this recent tragedy, looking at, learning from and confronting the social construction and lived realities of racialization(s) as they play out in individual lives, families, communities, neighborhoods, institutions, and “nations?”
-- Confessing the pained presence of G-d at Calvary and the pained presence of G-d on the BART platform on January 1st where Mr. Grant’s life was taken?
-- White people confessing the necessary conversion of our hearts still unrealized and highlighted by Mehserle & co’s actions?
--Holding up the tragedy that both Grant’s daughter and Mehserle’s daughter (among others close to the victim and perpetrator) will wrestle with for the rest of their lives?

There’s more. We have building space and educational programs to offer those mobilizing themselves for activism. We have experts (about legal issues and people’s rights for instance) sitting in our pews. We have access to technology and mass communication lists for coalition building. We have space for people to lament in song, prayer and silence. We have training in pastoral counseling to offer the bereaved. I could keep going for days, but I hope the reader gets my point. There’s so much faith communities (seminaries, local churches, denominations, etc) can do. These are just some ideas. Could we, even for a second, deny that Mr. Grant’s death and the social pain swirling through Oakland (and far far beyond) warrants these gifts/resources that we’ve earned and learned through the privilege of advanced theological education? I don’t think so.

Perhaps in response to Monica Joy’s question, it’s important to deeply search ourselves for the reasons we’re exuberantly ready and willing to employ and deploy these elements in response to some social catastrophes (like Prop 8 and the Immigration Criminalization efforts in 2006) and not so quick to use them in response to other crisis, in this case Johannes Mehserle’s murder of Oscar Grant. I suspect the answer to Monica Joy’s question will be different for each person willing enough to truly ask themselves or prod into their assumptions about what’s worthy of activist attention and what’s not. I for one, having made many mistakes both in ignorantly speaking about and not responding to issues of race, find the task of searching my own participation in racism extremely painful. And in putting my own self out for a second, I’ll admit I usually speak out of ignorance or stay silent when I should speak because I’m scared of getting “it” wrong or offending someone. It’s a people-pleasing thing, totally ego-based and it sucks. But what sucks worse is ducking out of the search & call process completely and thereby allowing the entire plague of white denial and disengagement to use me as a tool in this already hurting society. Regardless of the reasons for mistaken behavior, I point us back to Wade’s comment: “avoidance only leads to further frustration of justice.” As a religious leader, how can I call forth a racially-focused repentance from my flock/patients/colleagues, if I’m not willing to look at (hard, long, and faithfully), name, confess and ask forgiveness for my own racism? Avoiding the personal discomfort certainly blocks growth and reconciliation, but I also think there’s a danger in staying in the personal domain too long. The individual or inward search should not suffice as an appropriate response in total. Sometimes, at the heart of individual reform efforts, there’s a narcissism and myopia that forgets about the greater community. (Or as Jeffrey Kuan said to me last weekend “Sometimes all we do is talk.” Touche.)

Where is the social action? I’d like to see a PSR administrator of faculty person weigh in here. Certainly they have “invested power” of sorts that could be tapped in response to the killing of Mr. Grant. But I wonder if student mistrust of administration and faculty has so disenfranchised folks over the years that faculty and administration are reluctant to join us in activist conversations and activities. Or what about hearing from PSR alumns doing advocacy and local church ministry in the Bay Area--do you have something for us to hear/think about/pray over?

Making Racial Justice Personal

As I reflect on the Oscar Grant murder I am reminded that the incident is symptomatic of a deeper stubbornly slow struggle for the hearts and minds of people, yes people. As religious leaders we must engage the hearts of the people one by one because the greatest work is done through prayer, and engagement through a process of dialog, protest and education with each person. We must engage the person not the ideology or theology thereby making justice a personal calling of all people and not just those people of color. The issue of racial justice must be embedded in the heart and mind and soul of the people just as racism and even homophobia have been embedded in the people for generations. I call for racial justice to be a personal call of all people regardless of the color of a person’s skin.
The Graduate Theological Union (GTU) and other institutions of faith must stand up or be complicit with the murder of Oscar Grant and therefore just as guilty as the man who committed the murder. As religious leaders the GTU must be counted with those who seek and fight for racial justice at all costs. The GTU must make racial justice personal and serious. While it is good and responsible for the Graduate Theological Black Seminarians (GTUBS) to make a bold statement it is the GTU that should have voiced its opinion about the murder. I pray and hope that the GTU will take more leadership on the issues of racial justice.

Oscar Grant execution

I think it is commendable that the Black Seminarians of GTU wrote such an eloquent statement condemning Oscar Grant's murder and I think other groups, schools, churches and other who are against this injustice need to speak out loudly.

I want to share the following from Revolution newspaper (revcom.us) on the epidemic of police murders nationwide.

Stop Police Brutality and Murder:
Thousands of Stolen Lives!


If you’re Black and a mother, you worry if
your son grows too big or talks too loud.

If you’re Black and young, you learn to check
your back when you go to play, to school,
to see your grandma. You learn:

Don’t stand around too long...
Don’t hang with a lot of friends...
Don’t gesture too wildly...
Don’t laugh too loud...
Don’t have an attitude or get pissed off... and
Don’t drive while Black.

If you’re Black, anything you do can get you
stopped by cops, popped by cops, shot by cops,
DEAD by cops.
Your life stolen.

One in nine young Black men in jail.


It happens everywhere
…a mistake?
…a mistaken identity?
... a mistaken weapon?

A constant state of potential terror:
Just walking down the street, just going
to the store, just driving late at night
(or in the middle of the afternoon).

If you’re Black or Latino did it matter:
that you had a job, went to school,
took responsibility for your kids,
looked forward to the future,
loved your wife, your wife-to-be?

Did it matter that you took the train home on New Year’s Eve,
to do the “responsible thing,” like Oscar Grant in Oakland?

One moment, celebrating the new year,
coming home with friends.
The next moment, hit upside the head, shoved
to the ground, a knee pressed into your back.
Then bang! Oscar Grant’s life OVER in a split second...

An aberration? An isolated incident? A few rotten apples?
Not when it’s year after year, city after city,
Hundreds and hundreds...and thousands.

Police murder and brutality. Systemic and systematic.
Official enforcers of lynch mob terror,
free to stop, search, shoot, kill...
All in the name of the law,
To serve and protect... THIS SYSTEM.
To keep the people downpressed.
To try and crush the people’s resistance and spirit,

So what are we gonna do?


This system has criminalized generations of Black and Latino youth, offering them nothing but unemployment or chump-change jobs, prison, the army, an early grave.

This system sees millions of youth as nothing but a “social problem” – to be constantly dissed, degraded, disrespected.

This system offers the youth
no future, no meaningful life, nothing to live for.

But the revolution does.

Oscar Grant
Oakland, CA. Barely two hours into the first day of 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was murdered in cold blood. Cops punched and shoved him to the ground. Grant was laying face down on the BART train platform when he was shot in the back by officer Johannes Mehserle.

Adolph Grimes
New Orleans, LA. 22-year-old Adolph Grimes moved to Houston after Katrina and was visiting his family for the holidays. Early New Year’s Day 2009, he was sitting in a car outside his grandmother’s house when plain-clothes police murdered him with a barrage of 48 shots that hit Grimes 14 times, 12 in the back.

Julian Alexander
Anaheim, CA. 20-year-old Julian Alexander, who had just gotten married, was shot and killed by police after he stepped outside his home to confront suspected burglars.

New York City, NY. On the night before his wedding, 23-year-old Sean Bell was murdered and two of his friends were wounded when New York cops fired more than 50 shots into their van. After months of protests, the cops who shot Sean Bell were acquitted in court of any crime. When people again took to the streets to fight for justice for Sean Bell, Barack Obama warned against violence and urged “respect” for “the verdict.”

Jonathan Pinkerton
Chicago, IL. Between June 11 and July 5 of 2008, Chicago police shot 12 people (all Black and Latino), killing 6. At least 6 of the victims were shot in the back. 17-year-old Jonathan Pinkerton was paralyzed by a police bullet in the back. 39-year-old sanitation worker Shappell Terrell, shot 14 times in the back and killed by police, left 7 kids behind. Witnesses say 17-year-old Luis Colon was trying to surrender when he was killed by cops, shot 6 times in the back.

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