In 2015, when Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark, Rev. DeWayne Davis, who at the time served as the senior pastor at All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church, visited the MPD’s Fourth Precinct with other clergy nearly every day. Davis had moved to Minnesota from Washington, D.C., two years prior, and said he was blown away by the visible inequity in his new home.
“Minnesota has its knee on the neck of its Black and Native population,” Davis told Sojourners in late May. “Minnesota has such a practice of not addressing inequality that it’s hard to believe that they will ever do it.”
In 2016, police killed Philando Castile in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minn. In response, Plymouth Congregational Church launched a Racial Justice Initiative. The group held book studies, services, and seminars to educate members about racism. The church began debating and ultimately removed — an embroidered banner in the church that featured racist imagery of enslaved and Native people.
Four years later, in 2020, then-MPD officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. This time, however, the outrage over police killing a Black man bubbled beyond the activist community in Minneapolis. Davis, who in September was hired as the first Black pastor at the historically white Plymouth Congregational Church, said that by 2020 it seemed as if congregants had been primed to react with “compassion and courage.”
“There was a real concerted effort on how to apply the theory and knowledge [of anti-racism] to practice,” Davis said. “Everybody showed up.”
Congregants attended marches and rallies. Church leaders launched services, podcasts, and an ongoing video series that invites congregants to share their own personal stories dedicated to inspiring action and reflection on viewers’ relationship to systemic racism. Members of the church have followed and supported Davis as he attended rallies and services across the cities.
“That has really shown me that they are part of that solidarity. Their bodies are at the marches, rallies, and vigils,” Davis said. “That restored my hope that there is a critical mass of people who are not going to let this go, who are going to stay in this fight."
Across Minneapolis, leaders of churches and nonprofits said they see a similar trend.
After police killed Jamar Clark, Lyndale United Church of Christ in Minneapolis began a racial justice task force. Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, Lyndale’s justice pastor, said that like Plymouth Congregational, the Lyndale church community was prepared to engage in deeper, sustained action after Floyd’s murder.
“We’ve done a lot of work internally, but George Floyd's murder was a sort of catalyst,” she said.
Lyndale became a medic station during the 2020 uprising, and many congregation members joined the protests. The church also incorporated the events unfolding around them into the liturgy.
Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles in Acts 2, fell on the weekend after George Floyd was murdered.
“Our city was burning as we were using fire imagery at church,” Voelkel told Sojourners. “You don’t have to do a lot of exegesis to talk about the parallels.”
For Lent, the congregation held an educational series on reparations, abolition, and reform. For Advent, Voelkel worked with five other clergy colleagues to preach from significant sites in Minneapolis, like Fort Snelling, a memorial dedicated to survivors of sexual abuse, and George Floyd Square.
“On the third Sunday of Advent, we did the Magnifcat and read that Luke text as we told the story of George Floyd calling out to his mother,” Voelkel said. “That parallel with the Biblical text … It came alive. People commented on how the Biblical story came alive in a way that it hadn’t before in such a profound way.”
Organizing outside the church building
George Floyd Square serves as a living archive, an ongoing site of community activism, and, for some, an ad hoc church; the square is filled with preaching, lament, and prayer. Rev. Lawrence Richardson, lead minister at Linden Hills United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, has frequently visited the space to pray, minister to others, and stand vigil.
“There are pastors, gang leaders, every community member you could think of holding space and standing vigil,” Richardson told Sojourners in late May. “That gets tiring and cold and taxing, and yet there’s still singing and art and curation of talent and energy. There’s still hope and hopefulness even amidst the dysfunction and the pain.”
Around Minneaoplis, Brian Fullman, lead organizer of Barbershops and Black Congregation Cooperative (BBCC), is working with barbershops and Black churches to advocate for systemic change. Fullman also leads ISAIAH, a coalition of faith communities that advocates for racial and economic justice in Minnesota.
Through BBCC, Fullman has one-on-one meetings with barbershop owners, barbers, and faith leaders to ask them about their frustrations, pain, and desire for change. He then holds education sessions during which the groups knock on doors, lobby at the state capitol, hold caucuses, and host weekly “Listen and Lead Sessions” focused on the working class Black people of Minneapolis.
“We need to stop only talking to each other about our frustrations. Because that creates an echo chamber where nothing actually gets done,” Fullman told Sojourners in an email. “We encourage them to start facilitating their own meetings … They start building their own bases and their own interested community. It’s real community leadership, real grassroots organizing.”
The work included door knocking, facilitating neighbors assemblies for people to caucus for rent stabilization and safe communities, and organizing Minneapolitans to change “the city’s charters on community safety and violence prevention as well as rent stabilization, using our power of the collective voice,” Fullman wrote.
The group’s advocacy yielded multiple successes: statutes banning chokeholds and warrior-style training, mandating officers intercede and report fellow officer’s use of force, the creation of a new unit to investigate officer-involved deaths, an increase in community involvement and oversight as well as data collection by the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, changes to ‘use of force’ language, raising the bar for when deadly force can be used (had this statute been previously in place, the killer of Philando Castile could have been convicted), and mandating consequences for officers who violate public assembly response policies.
“We are continuing the statewide work now, pushing the legislature to ban police from being in known white supremacist groups, ending no-knock warrants, limiting traffic stops, qualified immunity and more,” Fullman wrote. “All of this will be done in community, with community.”
Facilitating local organizers
Rev. Ingrid Rasmussen, pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, said after George Floyd was murdered, she noticed congregants and community members on the church’s front lawn talking with each other about their frustrations with and dreams for their neighborhood.
From that front-lawn gathering blossomed Longfellow Rising, a group Rasmussen described as a “sacred solidarity among neighbors,” in which “the church has suddenly become more closely connected with the bookstore owner, the liquor store owner, the restaurant folks, the other stakeholders in our immediate area that lived through the uprising of 2020.”
Longfellow Rising has met once a week for the past year to discuss advocacy and legislative proposals. They’re creating a community visioning plan using inclusive design principles and focusing on BIPOC wealth creation.
“This solidarity has the potential and the power to propel us into a new future as a community,” Rasmussen told Sojourners.
In February 2021, Rev. Tyler Sit, pastor at New City Church, announced the congregation would be joining the Circle app, a community-based messaging platform that allows people to create profiles, post events and videos, and organize their discussions internally. Circle provided a space where congregants could plan to attend protests together and check up on each other afterward. The app is a community based messaging platform that allows people to create profiles, post events and videos, and organize their discussions internally.
The church used Circle to move into action after Daunte Wright was killed in April 2021. According to Sit, the use of the app marks a move away from the church’s view of itself as the primary creator of content that people engage with.
Instead “we shifted towards creating a way for people to engage with each other in curated and intentional ways,” Sit said. “That’s what Circle allows for. That shifted how people relate to each other and belong to each other at New City Church.”
Ecumenism in advocacy
In some cases, churches have begun relating to and belonging to other churches in new ways.
Plymouth Congregational Church and Lyndale United Church of Christ joined Multifaith, Anti-Racism, Change and Healing Sacred Solidarity Network to study a white privilege curriculum and a white supremacy culture audit.
Rev. Jia Starr Brown, associate pastor at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, started A Commitment to Inclusion in Our Neighborhoods, a yearlong racial and social justice journey that involves commitment, listening, reflection, and action among multiple congregations. One of the participating congregations is Linden Hills UCC.
“There’s a truth and reconciliation aspect of having these conversations, and it needs to not be a dialogue. It needs to be an open forum,” Richardson told Sojourners. “We have to step away from looking for a savior or a person to whip us into shape. Instead, we all have to step in. It’s a collective effort.”
For Davis, he’s hopeful after the trajectory that the past year has taken. “Especially in two-to-three months after George Floyd died, there wasn’t a march or a rally that wasn’t well attended,” he notes.
And, while demonstrations are important, Davis is now watching for what he says must come next: getting “beyond the perennial conversation” with political action.
“You can only read so many books. You can only attend so many discussion groups. At some point, white people are going to have to use their political power to demand the kind of change that we need,” he said. “That’s when skin in the game is really going to have true meaning, when it becomes the thing you lead with in your commitments.”