July 14, 2016

The Philando Castile Protest: Why I Went, and What I Learned

Editor’s note: A Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Dustin Hall, of the Southview SDA Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, organized a small group of church members to attend an event remembering Philando Castile, an African-American driver killed last week by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Hall’s personal essay about his experience offers important insights for church members trying to understand how to minister to and serve their communities in times of social pain, confusion, and divisiveness.

I will be the first to admit that when news reports flash daily across my TV screen or mobile device I often look at nothing more than a headline, and jump to any number of conclusions. 

If I do take time to read the article that is pretty much all the engaging I do with whatever bit of news I have just ingested. Like most of us, I never actually meet with the real people in these real life situations and it is so tempting to make snap judgments about them. Then last week one of these events that flood news reports happened in my back yard.

Another young man named Philando Castile had been shot and killed. This time in his car with his fiancé and little daughter sitting next to him. It is really easy to forget about something that happens half way across the country, reading a passing headline and perhaps feeling a tinge of dread and sorrow as I read the account and I move on. After what I was about to experience in my own community, God taught me that I needed to repent of the sin of just swiping past news reports of bloodshed and the loss of life without much of a second thought.

When I saw the news report and the hurting people in the Twin Cities gathering to protest I knew that I needed to do something. I knew that our church needed to respond but honestly fear held me back. I was afraid because I had never waded into a situation like this. I was afraid because even though equality and justice are common themes in my sermons, I had never really done anything in my community to address it other than talking. This time I knew in my heart that it was time for more than just words.

When I went to church on Sabbath morning I was still afraid. In fact, I woke up early that morning restless. I was tossing and turning not knowing what we should do, or what I could do. I tried to reason myself into complacency — that simply talking to my church would be enough. As the church service started I was trying to put that nagging fear out of my mind, then suddenly something happened that overcame it all. During children’s story, a 5 year old blonde haired Caucasian little boy sat down right next to a dark skinned adorable chubby cheeked boy whose parents came here directly from Africa.

No sooner had they sat down together than both of them picked up their adjoined arms and placed them around the shoulders of the other in an embrace. That was it. I lost it. I stood up to address the issues with my congregation and I could not hold back the emotion. The sorrow and grief I was trying to bury deep inside me because admitting it would evoke action came to the surface and I cried right there in front of 400 people. As I spoke I was convinced that I could not just talk about it anymore; our human family is hurting, its bleeding and that’s what matters. Mothers are losing their sons. Children are losing their fathers. Their grief is far more important than my fear.

Adventist Dustin Hall 2

In the childlike love of those two boys God rebuked my anxiety. In that act of love, God spoke right to the source of my fear and it had become clear that it wasn’t my safety that I was worried about. I was afraid because right now in this nation if you support one thing it seems like you are against something else. I was afraid what someone might think. God, please forgive me. I was more concerned for my image than for hurting people. That moment of innocent love from little children convinced me of something. Who cares what anyone thinks? This is about doing what I am called by God to do as a Christian, as a leader, as a pastor. When people are hurting it is not my job to decide whether their feelings are right or wrong. I have been called to respond.

I could hide behind statistics and make personal judgments about whether or not I believe racism is a problem in America. If I had done that I can tell you that because of my fear and inaction I would have kept searching until I found the right statistics to make me feel justified about my doing nothing, or stalled long enough to quiet God’s conviction. This isn’t a time for statistics. This is a time for action. I could have come up with any number of excuses why it would be a good idea not to go try to help, but now all that really mattered in my mind was that people are dying and I have done nothing.

Growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church I learned that often people believe that we are the church that is against things, but they seldom know what we really stand for. I cannot tell you what a blessing it was to go into a protest like this in my city and finally show people what we believe. I believe in life, and lives are being lost. I believe in love, and hatred is everywhere. I believe in listening when people are hurting and afraid, and people were ready to talk. I believe in prayer, and I was able to pray with hundreds. I believe that Jesus is the only answer to our problems, and I was able to tell people that. I believe in supporting people in their time of grief and fear, and I did this for strangers.

After church we mobilized a group of young adults and went down to the Governor’s Home where the protest was taking place. I had no idea what to expect. Amazingly, God had every appointment already scheduled for us. As we walked to the protest we could hear the noise from the crowd but the first people we encountered were law enforcement. Waves of them. We stopped with every one, prayed with them and gave them words of encouragement and support. We ended up praying with at least 15 law enforcement officers, including the assistant chief of police, and Head Negotiator for St. Paul.

Adventist Dustin Hall 3

As our group got closer to the protest the group of nine or ten of us walked as a group down the middle of the street. Several African Americans, three Kenyan young men, a South Korean, a Mexican and me. As I look at the pictures now I see that the diverse group God put together was a witness all by itself. When we arrived at the protest proper the first thing that hit me was that I had never been around this many people with such raw emotion before. I could hear anger and fear being shouted through the megaphone as people screamed, sang, and yelled their support for what was being said. I am so thankful for the crisis response training I received from ACS (Adventist Community Services) a few years back because it was obvious that there were people there for all kinds of different reasons (all you had to do was read their signs). It became clear that the prevailing feeling was fear and it was almost palpable; and fear sometimes looks like anger. It took a few minutes to adjust. Because of that ACS training I knew that this was a time for listening, and support for people in crisis. People here wanted to be heard. That’s why they were there protesting. Our group visited with a few people which we found to be really open to talking with strangers.

No sooner had we started engaging people than a young man walked up to us. He was familiar because we recognized him as the man organizing the line of speakers who took the megaphone. He introduced himself and asked who I was and who our group was. I told him that we were from the Southview Seventh-day Adventist church and that we were there to pray with them and support them. Then he said something that I was not prepared for, he said, “Right after this guy speaks I’m going to gather everyone together for prayer.”

After direction from the leader nearly 300 people joined hands in a huge circle; people that had been holding signs in support of gay rights, friends and family of Castile, three Buddhist monks, bystanders and onlookers, Black Lives Matter leaders, other protestors, and us. Then to my surprise the leader said through the megaphone, “This is Pastor Hall from the Southview church, and this brother is here to lead us in prayer.”

I have never been so nervous in prayer in my life. I prayed for healing, a childlike love and unity, better understanding of one another, justice and truth, and most of all the love of God that we know in Jesus. I handed the megaphone back and began to shake hands with people around the circle. Never in my life have I been around so many people in one place who were ready to talk about spiritual things and pray with a stranger. The very fact that I was a pastor there to support and pray with them gave me instant credibility. I didn’t have to shout and scream, and I didn’t really pray in support of everything that I had been hearing so far, but for those minutes after that prayer I had a captive audience. People were shaking my hand, looking me in the eye, and we were connecting. For a few moments, people saw hope through fear.

Soon the shouting started up again, and we stayed to listen a bit and visit with others. We learned that many protestors are not local, when something like this happens they travel to the city. One local, very vocal protestor made it clear that he appreciated the attention these people bring, but that it leaves people like him with the huge challenge of trying to bring real change here when they leave. I couldn’t help but think that somehow the church could help address this. One of the biggest eye openers for me was that what we see on the news about protests like this is only about one percent of what actually takes place. The media drives the perception. The media played a part in the fear that was trying to keep me away. In fact, the police told us that the previous day’s news headlines will determine what kind of attitude the crowd will have the next day.

Adventist Dustin Hall 4

After debriefing with our group a few blocks away, we left for home. I felt utterly emotionally spent. I had been through the Refiner’s Fire a bit that day. I got home to my wife and I cried in her arms. I was ashamed of how I had tried to excuse myself from what I woke up knowing I had to do. God had so many appointments set up for me, and I almost missed them. I was also overwhelmed by the grief, the emotion and the widespread fear I sensed at my church and in my community. Suddenly the last days came to my doorstep, and I wasn’t ready for them. How can I as a pastor speak hope into the lives of so many people who are afraid? If this was the case with 300 think of how much fear exists in my city?

I felt the overwhelming weight of ministry. And most of all, I felt sorry for my quick judgments, and all the fast swipes of my news feed. Every headline is about a person, with a story, who needs hope. And when these events happen in my backyard there are no excuses that are more important than that calling. Lord, help me. When violence, and injustice happen in or community we cannot, we must not stay behind the walls of our safe little churches. Fear is everywhere, and we have the one message that the world needs. “Fear not, for I am with thee” (Isaiah 41:10).