Philando Castile. He was a person, not a headline.
Last night I stood with hundreds, perhaps thousands of others outside the J.J. Hill Elementary School in St. Paul where Philando was an employee. One by one, individuals stepped to the microphone to bear witness to his life. They called him “Mr Phil” at the school, his co-workers said; with trembling voices and falling tears, they described him as a gentle, caring, hard-working, and loving person who had an amazing way with the children. A cousin spoke of the large family reunion Philando had just attended, returning to the Twin Cities just a day before he was killed. And then his mother spoke, and his girlfriend, their grief and anger wrenching and raw.
Philando Castile was a person, not a headline. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but I’m equally certain his life was precious. He loved and he was loved. And now his name becomes part of that gruesome litany of names that includes Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jamar Clark, and Walter Scott….
I scarcely know what to say any more. What words can really matter in the face of what feels like an endless onslaught of senseless violence and death, against a backdrop of racism in our nation from which I benefit as a person of white privilege? And now what can one say as we wake up to the news of Dallas police officers being attacked, resulting in 5 dead and several others injured?
I really don’t have words that are adequate. But the words that have haunted me ever since I watched that horrific video of the moments after Philando Castile was shot are the ones spoken in the small voice of that four-year-old girl who’d been in the backseat of the same car where it happened. As her mother dissolved into tears, crying out in shock and grief, that little girl sought to bring comfort with a courage far beyond her years. “It’s ok,” she told her mama, “I’m right here with you.”
There is deep wisdom in that tiny voice for all of us. Maybe our role now is to find every way we can to show those whose anger and grief are most palpable that we are indeed “right here” with them. Maybe we’re called to summon our own courage to be profoundly present in the middle of this colossal mess, to absorb the raw emotion and not walk away. Maybe our task is to avoid the temptation to jump too quickly from the pain to the healing, and rather to do the hard work that healing actually requires.
We claim faith in a God who became incarnate and lived among us, who shared intimately in our suffering and grief. We believe in a God who brings resurrecting power to the most desperate places. Let us witness to that faith now. Let us bring that same manner of profound presence and transforming love to this moment in time. Pray for the families and friends of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, for communities filled with anger and despair, for the families of police officers killed and injured in Dallas last night, and for law enforcement here and everywhere.
May our words and our deeds reflect the promise of that brave little girl Wednesday night: “I’m right here with you.”
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister