"Jesus Can't Breathe" sign

A sign with the words "Jesus can't breathe" was displayed during a protest in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. The protest was organized by several churches. (Photo/Breanna Cooper)

When a group of several predominately white churches in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood gathered June 7 to protest the death of George Floyd and police brutality, the message was clear: You can’t preach the teachings of Jesus without discussing social justice issues. 

While some white churches are slowly starting to incorporate current events and social justice conversations into weekly worship services, many Black churches have been doing this for years. 

Sister Gail Trippett, a nun at St. Rita’s Catholic Church, said St. Rita’s, along with many Black Catholic churches throughout the United States, has been addressing these issues for years.

“The Archdiocese is taking it on as a focus to help educate the Catholic population on racism,” Trippett said. “They’re running a series every month in a Catholic newspaper on systemic racism and identifying a biblical perspective as to why [racism] is wrong.”

Trippett said African American clergy have been sharing information to help engage other communities in these conversations. While Black pastors and church leaders have been discussing social justice issues from the pulpit, some white pastors worry doing so would sound too political. 

“Political for me is if you’re discussing which political party you favor over another,” Trippett said. “We’re not called to do that. We’re called to speak up for what God desires for all people. That’s not political, that’s being a part of the family of God.”

Darren Cushman Wood, senior pastor at North United Methodist Church — a predominately white church — said you can’t teach the Bible without discussing social justice. 

“Social justice is biblical,” Wood, whose church participated in the June 7 demonstration, said. “You really have to twist scripture to avoid it. It’s there just in a plain and basic reading of the Bible, but we read the Bible through American filters of individualism, so that can make it less apparent.”

While North United Methodist Church has been discussing social and racial justice issues since the 1950s, when the first Black family joined the church, Wood said he knows of plenty white pastors with white congregations who don’t address them at all. Many times, he said pastors are afraid of the pushback they may get from their congregation if they discuss issues such as police brutality and systemic racism. 

“It’s an indictment of white pastors that they don’t see [the Bible] in a more social context,” Wood said. “They’re blinded by their own whiteness. … Also, the complexity of it all; that alone makes it difficult for pastors to want to deal with it, because there’s no ready answer, and you can’t boil it down to a 25-minute sermon.” 

Wood said while North United Methodist Church is predominately white, congregants and leadership engage and work with the greater Indianapolis community through volunteer work. Citing the prayers of confession — an acknowledgement of white privilege — as the most impactful part of the June 7 demonstration, Wood said white churches still have a lot of work to do when it comes to community outreach. 

Wood said white congregations need to look for common ground — with those of different ethnicities and social class — and try to find mutual self-interest in order to bridge gaps between Indianapolis residents.

For Trippett, a church’s role in fighting for social justice has to go beyond Sunday services. Instead, she said sermons must be translated into action.

“We are called not just to go to church and worship, but to actively be his hands, his heart, and his voice to speak up for his children,” Trippett said. “We need to stand up for how God wants us to be present in the world and to be our brother’s keeper.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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