By Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble,
In Houston, Texas, a small contingent of clergy caravanned along Highway 290 to the town of Prairie View, to the very place where Sandra Bland was stopped, pulled from her car, thrown down, and arrested — just after her acceptance of a new job at the college. We were in town for a national black church conference, and we had come to pay homage, to pour libation, and to pray.
We were stunned by how close the site of her arrest was to the vibrant metropolis of Houston — but we were reminded that this was Texas. Our hearts were heavy and tears flowed as we stood at this memorial site. The heinous abuse was made all too real. And we felt the strong presence of a cloud of witnesses.
In the wee hours of the morning, our group marveled at several ironies. First, the multi-laned and well-traveled street between the campus gates and freeway seemed an unlikely place for such injustice to occur: in broad daylight, without someone coming to her aid.
A young white clergy activist, our local ally and guide, told us that the Prairie View police had a notorious reputation among the college students and in the town. In fact, she told us, several years ago, Sandra Bland — as a student at Prairie View — had marched the many miles from campus to the Waller County jail house to protest the undue targeting and harsh treatment of black college students. And so we were also mindful of the irony of this place being where she died.
One other irony noted in our early morning vigil: the presence of small white clapboard church in close proximity, where a worn little sign said, “Hope Baptist Church.” The place where Sandra Bland’s head was slammed to the ground and held in the dirt under a tree, just a few feet away, did not convey to us the hope that that the sign proclaimed.
We briefly watched video testimonies of how students felt: imprisoned on their own campus, in fear of reprisal. As clergy weighed with righteous indignation, we expressed through collective tears that we are challenged as clergy, to assure black and brown families who have lost loved ones to police violence that all will work to the good of the Lord who strengthens us (Phil 4:13).
Here’s an irony: Standing at the memorial tree and experiencing a cloud of witnesses on this February day during Black History Month did indeed strengthen our resolve to keep fighting through the tears and the pain. We were mindful that on this particular day — Feb. 18, 2016 — the family of Sandra Bland would assemble later in the afternoon at the Houston Courthouse to hear response to their appeal for justice to be meted upon the Waller County sheriff and police. Our cacophony of voices called upon the Holiest of Holies to break the yoke of evil systems in which cronyism and political agendas thrived.
Another irony was the distance that Sandra was driven to the utter isolation of the Waller County jail — our next stop. Tears of anger welled up again as our eyes took in the dirt roads and dilapidated shacks in the vicinity of the fortress-like one story cinder block building. At the front of the jail, we also prayed, poured libation, and chanted our prophetic commitment to continue the work of righteous resistance to injustices that confront our communities and our ministries.
At first no one came forth from the building, but as we stood in prayer and song, two officers emerged to climb into an SUV and silently left. As we invoked the spirit of our ancestors and the cloud of witnesses, of all whom lost their lives to police violence, the depth of our emotion contrasted with those officers’ indifference — yet another irony evident. Trying to imagine the atrocities possibly meted out on Sandra Bland within the walls of this small cinder block fortress covered with barbed wire was gut wrenching.
Our jaws dropped further when we drove around the side of the building on our way back. There we sighted three rusty military tanks: one with bat wings on the grill. These tanks were a symbol of overt militaristic policing that has now become normative. Again, our spirits felt the presence of a large cloud of witnesses as we recalled the isolation of ancestors snatched away from their homeland and held at Elmina Castle in Ghana. If they resisted boarding the ships that would forever take them away across the Middle Passage, men and women were beaten and impounded in a dungeon below the castle to die. No one could hear their sobs and screams — just as no one could hear Sandra Bland.
The final irony was our comparison of other instances of injustice as we called out the names of those young and old who had joined the cloud of witnesses: We called out 16-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose parents never fathomed that his walk to the store for some Skittles would be his last. We called out the name of young 12-year-old Tamir Rice, especially mindful that he neither had opportunity to speak to his assailants nor explain the toy gun he played with. The only consolation was that his injustice was caught on tape. Nevertheless, a grieving mother and family still have not had a judicial verdict of police-indicted wrongful death.
Political and judicial stays continue to rub salt into wounded spirits. In Texas, as we drove back to the conference in grieving silence, I tried to imagine in my mind’s eye how baffled Tamir, a young child, or Trayvon, a slightly-older one, must have been as their spirits were carried up to join the cloud of witnesses. If they and other eternal witnesses could speak, what would they say to us?
Hebrews 12 calls to us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at right hand of the throne of God.”
We are called by Christ to keep running life’s race, despite the pain of despair and anger that we often feel — we are reminded that Christ was unjustly murdered and made a public spectacle, just as Mike Brown was as his dead body bled out for more than four hours in the heat of a Ferguson street in the summer of 2014. We are reminded that unjust systems and structures are not new phenomena, but are as ancient as the biblical atrocities meted on our Savior, the One who gathers the cloud of witnesses to an eternal and holy place.
As we come to the end of this Black History Month, we sadly do not come to the end of such injustice. Therefore, our prophetic resistance is to speak truth to power and to keep a public square witness, to mobilize and support our communities that still feel the grip of racism, classism, and state-sanctioned militarism.
Hebrew 12 urges a difficult but key action in the face of injustice: faithful perseverance. The cloud of witnesses keepd urging us to move forward, to keep fighting, and never give up.
Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble (@CantBeStill) DMin, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Ministerial Leadership & Practical Theology for the American Baptist Seminary of the West.