When I left the Sojourners office Monday evening in the formerly blighted, now Disney-fied, Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., I walked a half-block and joined a multiethnic, multigenerational crowd that had gathered in front of the luxury Park Triangle apartments. In the middle of an open square shared by the entire Columbia Heights community, nearly 100 people stood in a circle braving the decidedly un-springlike arctic chill.
We listened intently as an ordinary D.C. resident stood in the middle of the circle with a bullhorn and shared from the heart. “Forgive us," the unnamed gentleman pleaded. "George Zimmerman was Latino. The horrible atrocity that has rocked our nation was committed by a Latino man. I am Latino. I ask for your forgiveness on behalf of my community.”
Then he went on to explain how there have been long-standing tensions between African-Americans and Latinos and that we must begin to deal with them.
“Forgive us,” he repeated earnestly.
The man's pleas were directed at African-Americans in particular, but also to the larger American mosaic represented in the circle. I was rocked by his words. I didn’t know this man’s name. I didn’t know his story. I might have mistaken him for African-American on the street and he could have chosen to pass for African-American in that circle, but he didn’t.
Instead, he chose to walk the path of Nehemiah.
In the Bible we are told Nehemiah received word that Jerusalem’s walls were torn down and its gates destroyed. The population left behind in the time of exile was starving and vulnerable. When Nehemiah heard the news he “sat down and wept, and mourned for days fasting and praying.” (Nehemiah 1:4)
Nehemiah grew up in exile, away from Jerusalem, in the land of Susa. Jerusalem's walls had been down for years, actually, but for some reason word was just getting to Nehemiah. And in the midst of his fasting and praying, clarity comes:
“I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.”
This is striking. Nehemiah did not commit the actual sin of his ancestors that led to the exile, nor did he have anything to do with present-day sin of the remnant that led to the broken walls of Jerusalem. And yet he still owned the sin as his and confessed it.
The man in the middle of the circle in Columbia Heights owned the sin of his community last night. It was beautiful. And it was powerful.
Last weekend churches across the nation engaged in their own creative forms of confession and repentance. Hoodie Sunday, an unofficial day of solidarity with Trayvon Martin and Black Boys EVERYwhere, had pastors and their flocks donning hoodies as lament, confession, repentance and solidarity. White, black, Asian-American, Latino, and Native American churchgoers and members of other faith traditions participated.
This symbolic act of solidarity was a form of confession — confession that our society’s deeply embedded suspicion of black boys and men has been with us for centuries.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow reveals the systemic repercussions of that suspicion. Thomas Cahill’s A Saint on Death Row pulled back the veil on the about what havoc our insidious suspicion can wreck on one human life. Prophets have preached on it, scholars have written about it, and now with hoodies on our heads and the last cries of 17-year-old Trayvon on our collective conscience, we confessed that we all own part of the responsibility for the way that 140-pound unarmed boy died — alone, in a pool of his own blood.
Nehemiah confessed, “We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.”
The commandments Nehemiah spoke of were the Ten Commandments. The people had failed to keep the Sabbath (Nehemiah 9-10). In so doing they had failed to acknowledge the image of God in workers and caused them to believe a spiritual lie about themselves. The lie went something like this: “I am not worthy of rest. I am not worthy of relationship with God through worship.”
On Hoodie Sunday we confessed the sinful suspicion in our own hearts. We confessed the ways we are complicit through our inaction. And we confessed our own failure to command the demon called “suspicion” to bow to the image of God we see before us every day — the image of God dressed in a hoodie.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the director of mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.