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Prayer Walk in D.C. Modeled Peaceful Protest for Young People

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Prayer largely replaced protest Sunday at the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. In a gathering organized by African-American clergy, thousands of mostly black worshipers marched, prayed, sang, and danced in what media reports called a hope-filled celebration.

As prayer walk participants made their way from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to Lafayette Square in the morning, they prayed blessings on the nationwide protest movement, chanted the names of black people killed in police custody, and discussed the need for social reforms. Marchers played instruments, wrote messages with sidewalk chalk, and occasionally interacted with police officers.

Group Modeled Peaceful Protests With Prayer Walk

Speakers from multiple faith backgrounds addressed the crowd that gathered outside the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, the site of President Trump’s much-debated June 1 photo op. Organizers say the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on African Americans, prevented them from gathering earlier. Most participants wore masks and attempted to practice social distancing.

The delay, organizers say, also allowed them to plan an event that represented faith and hope, not just anger, and to set an example for America’s youth. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church, tells the Washington Post, “We were waiting for a call for something not just incensed with anger, but something that integrated our faith.” He adds, “We wanted to carve out something safe for teens; I was scared to let them come downtown. We wanted to teach them about protesting peacefully. It’s not rage or anger. God is here, and that’s hopeful.”

As he spoke in Lafayette Square on Sunday, Wesley prayed that God would “poke and prick the hearts of this nation.” He asked God to show himself throughout America’s cities, adding, “Lord, I want to see my sons grow!”

Participant Joseph Young, a 64-year-old who described being put in a chokehold by police decades ago, described the turnout as inspiring. “The young people renewed my hope that America can get better,” he says.

Prayers, Demands Extend Beyond Policing Issues

Prayer walk organizers say they’re asking Congress to engage in a national conversation on racial justice and equality. They also want full implementation of the Voting Rights Act and the Eight Can’t Wait movement aimed at curbing police brutality. Another demand is the classification of the mistreatment of black people as a human-rights violation.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church said, “The government stands under God’s judgment and must therefore be held accountable for protecting the innocent, guaranteeing basic freedoms and liberties, and establishing justice and equality.”

The Rev. William J. Barber, president and senior lecturer at Repairing the Breach, gave the sermon on Sunday at the Washington National Cathedral. More than 14,000 online viewers heard him speak about America’s “unnecessary accepting of death” throughout its history. “The raw truth needs to be heard. Until we face it, we can’t repent right,” he said. “America, you’re killing yourself!”

Barber noted that many U.S. public policies have an ugly “death measurement,” negatively impacting black people and poor people. “The new nation being born in our streets must reckon with four centuries of systemic inequality,” he said. “The public murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police furnished the spark, and years of police violence caught on cell phone videos stacked up like dry tinder to fuel the fire that rages in our spirits. This is about more than policing. The question before us is whether America can be what it has promised to be.”