Photo: Alice and Leah Kabira of Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Church attended the Nov. 27 protest on Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Photo provided.
“16 shots. 13 months. 16 shots. 13 months.”
When protesters shut down Michigan Avenue in Chicago on one of the biggest shopping days of the year, several Chicago-area Mennonites were among those chanting these words. On Nov. 27, a day often known as Black Friday, members of Chicago Community Mennonite Church, Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Church and Living Water Community Church joined nearly 1,000 marchers protesting the police shooting of African-American teenager Laquan McDonald (McDonald’s autopsy revealed that he had been shot 16 times), and the 13-month delay in bringing charges against the police offer who shot him.
“I just felt like I just had to have my body in that place,” says Nathaniel Grimes, a
seminary student at Northern Seminary and a member of Lombard Mennonite Church. “I realized I just needed to follow the lead of these individuals who are targets for the cops and be with them. I’m out there because that’s where I feel like I’m trying to follow Christ.”
This was not the first protest for Grimes, who traveled to Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 to be present after the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen.
“When I went down to Ferguson the first time,” Grimes says, “I think I had some ideas about what would be happening there. I thought I’d bring the presence of Christ down to Ferguson, and I got down there and realized that Christ was already there. And if that’s where Christ is, that’s where I need to be and put my body.”
Hilary Watson, pastor at Lombard Mennonite Church, blogged about her experience at the Friday protest. “If we call ourselves Christians, if we feel the force of the biblical call to protect the orphan, widow and foreigner, then we do not just condemn injustice, we interrupt it,” she wrote.
For Watson, a particularly powerful moment came when protesters, walking down Michigan Avenue, began to chant, “16 shots.” At each intersection, protesters paused and counted to 16 before crossing the street.
“You’re counting out loud and you know that each of those numbers is a bullet,” says Watson. “We hit one corner where the number just echoed all around. That moment of that much sound and that big of a number was what felt like we finally captured how wrong of a thing this is.”
Joe Klein, a member at Living Water Community Church, says he was struck by the unity that existed among diverse participants at the protest. “There were senior citizens and teenagers; white, black, Asian and Hispanic people; there were people that protest a lot and people who came out for maybe their first protest; there were radical Marxists and people from faith communities,” says Klein. “It couldn’t be characterized as one thing. A diverse group of people caught a vision for creating a real interruption on that day to say that the city needs to focus on something a lot more important than shopping.”
Spencer Foon, a member of Chicago Community Mennonite, found the protest an apt time to reflect and grieve. “As I was marching, it was also a time to mourn for Laquan and the string of other people in Chicago and other cities that have died,” he says.
The work continues
For many Chicago-area Mennonite congregations, working for racial reconciliation began long before the Black Friday protest. In 2014, in response to a call from a number of congregations in Chicago, members of Chicago Community Mennonite partnered with their sister congregation, First Church of the Brethren, to hang a large Black Lives Matter banner above the 290 Expressway that runs past their shared church building.
In December 2014, members of Living Water joined several African American congregations in Chicago in walking out of their Sunday service and into the street for a song and short liturgical reflection, all while holding Black Lives Matter placards.
Cyneatha Millsaps, pastor at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., says the Black Lives Matter movement has been a part of worship services, prayers and litanies.
On Sunday, Nov. 29, many congregations held a special time of prayer for racial justice and reconciliation in Chicago.
At Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill., pastor Charlotte Lehman used McDonald’s death as part of her sermon examining the contrasts between “the now and the not-yet quality of the kingdom of God among us—a world in which individuals can be wonderfully transformed by the power of Jesus in their lives and a world in which our system of justice regularly perpetrates injustice.” During her sermon, she shared a picture from one of the week’s protests.
Reba Place also has a racial justice group that works to educate the congregation about antiracism. Members of the group have met with local leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Chicago area.
Chicago Community Mennonite heard from people who attended the protest during their Sunday morning worship service; a service that also included prayers and a sermon that explicitly named recent incidents of police violence and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
At Living Water, Rebecca Larsen, who also attended the Friday protest, led the congregation in a time of prayer and offered a report of the event.
Larsen read from Isaiah 59:14-15, verses she says have been “haunting her” for years.
“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter,” it reads. “Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.”
“My prayer is that this would not be the case in our time or generation,” says Larsen, “that God would see no one to intervene on behalf of justice. Being at the protest on Friday was a hopeful time of seeing so many people intervening by showing up, interrupting business as usual and calling for justice. ”