Immediately after seeing her name connected to a hashtag, I was confronted with the smiling face of Gynnya McMillen, the sixteen year old African American girl found dead in January at a detention center in Kentucky. We do not know what happened to McMillen during her one night stay at the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center. We do not know whether the “aikido restraint” used to detain her, as they tried to remove her sweatshirt, hastened her death. We do not know if the failure to perform mandatory routine checks on her would have saved McMillen’s life. We do not know if the 11 minutes that passed before jail staffers discovered her and the time at which they began CPR would have made any difference. There are many things that we do not know about what happened to Gynnya McMillen.
But we do know that a vibrant, healthy black teenage girl was dead less than 14 hours after being taken from her home. We do know that she neither ate during her 14 hour stay nor did she respond to multiple phone calls. We do know that the guards did not perform a visual check after she failed to respond to offers of food or calls from her mother. We do know that she died in a cell all alone, with no one to witness her final moments of life. And we do know that her story is simply one of countless other mysterious deaths of black men, women, girls, and boys detained in police custody.
Every picture I encounter of McMillen reminds me that she was still a girl, on the cusp of womanhood. I see in her face the promise of adulthood coupled with the innocence of childhood. She, at 16 years old, was just on the verge of “becoming;” those teen years are moments of uncertainty and yet, moments of hope. In a world that far too often denies black children the opportunity to simply be children, I look at her face and I see a child. I see the potential adult she would be and all the fullness of her humanity. And as I contemplate her death, alone in that jail cell, I grieve with the words: “felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”
I begin the Lenten season with a sense of unbelief. But is it not a faith crisis regarding the power of Christ – a Savior who heals, delivers, and sets free. Instead, I am sitting with my utter disbelief of living in a nation where Gynnya McMillen dies alone in a cell; my utter disbelief of the richest country in the world poisoning the water of its most vulnerable citizens and attempting to cover it up; and my utter disbelief of the cruelty and indifference shown to hurting and suffering people, to those in poverty, and to those bearing the yoke of racial injustice. There are days when one simply cannot believe, cannot conceive of, the levels of racism and oppression that are so rampant in this world.
My Lenten meditation is: “Help me to have faith, O God, when I just cannot believe the cruelties of this age.” It is an important prayer because I never want to become indifferent to hate and injustice. I never want to grow accustomed to children dying in jail cells alone. I never want food deserts and poisoned water to become the usual state of affairs. I want my disbelief to propel me to work harder, pray more, and turn over tables.
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also an Associate Professor of Religion & Literature. She blogs at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar and you can find her on Twitter @YNPierce.