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A somber hour during the Week of Action

Presbyterians mourn the loss of lives cut short by COVID-19, police violence

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterians paused during their Week of Action Thursday to take a more introspective and personal action: mourning the deaths of 183,000 Americans and more than 832,000 people around the world who have perished from COVID-19.

A ritual pouring of libation, music, prayers, stories and Scripture readings were at the heart of an hour-long COVID-19 memorial service, held online. View the service here.

Together with a few choir members, Phillip Morgan, director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, punctuated the service throughout with “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Shall Tribulation and Distress” and Thomas A. Dorsey’s “God Be with You.”

The Rev. Carlton Johnson, associate in the Office of Vital Congregations, remembered groups of people and events as he stopped frequently to pour, invoking the presence of both the Creator and ancestors: “To those who laid the nation’s economic foundation.” “To those who waged more than 200 uprisings.” “To those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and liberty.”

He also poured “for the victims of COVID-19, many who could have been saved except for an unjust government.” He poured for the 750 people killed by police since Jan. 1. “We pause to say their names,” Johnson said, and those participating in the service via Zoom did just that.

“Empower us as you always have,” Johnson prayed, “even when we might have been ignorant of your presence.”

Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), reads from the children’s book “For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World.” (Screen shot)

Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, an educator and co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), read from Michael W. Waters’ soon-to-be-published book from Westminster John Knox Press, “For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World.” Inspired by real-life events, the book is an intimate look at a family’s response to racism and gun violence.

The Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen, who teaches homiletics and New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, told God during his prayer that “we have lost so many people whose ministries have blessed this, your church … Help us to focus on the more human aspect of our time together on this Earth. May we lift up not only their names but celebrate and bring into ourselves the essence of their ministry to this church and to this world.”

the Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen

“As we mend our broken hearts, allow us the capacity for compassion,” McQueen prayed. “May we find strength in our own brokenness, courage to stand firm for fair wages, and the resolve to begin and continue the work for racial justice for all your people, especially those who are so discounted that we have to say their names so this nation will not forget their humanity.

“Be with us as your people and break into our time to help us heal this broken world,” McQueen said. “For we are a people of Chronos time, but you are a God of Kairos time, entering into brokenness and oppression to do a new thing.”

“Even in the midst of all we are going through, you have never left us,” McQueen told the Almighty. “Hold our loved ones in your arms.”

Johnson read from Lamentations 4:10-17, a devastating passage with an ending line Johnson recited three times: “We kept waiting for help from a nation that had nothing to give.”

the Rev. Jess Cook

The Rev. Jess Cook, program and communications manager of More Light Presbyterians, read Thursday’s New Testament passage, the story of the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.

Alexus Rhone

Alexus Rhone, a writer, producer and artistic theologian who founded Truth Meets Story, told a story from her childhood involving deception and reconciliation. Reconciliation includes four actions, Rhone said: Recall, React, Repent and Repair. “I knew better,” she said of the situation that occurred in her youth, “and I didn’t do better.”

When it came time to remember individual COVID-19 victims, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology & Worship, asked worshipers either to change their screen name to the name of the person they were honoring, write the person’s name in the comments section or hold up a sign bearing the person’s name.


the Rev. Irv Porter

The Rev. Irv Porter, associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support, prayed not only for those taken by the deadly virus, “but for those of us who remain, we pray for comfort, strength and encouragement to face the future unafraid … For those recently injured on the streets of our cities, we pray for your heling and for their families who worry for them and care for them.”

“We pray you will forgive the powers of sin and wrong in the world today,” Porter said. “Help us all to lift high the cross” and remember that “we serve a God who hears our prayers and grants us love, peace and joy.”

It came to the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), to offer worshipers a benediction.

the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

“The world is all messed up,” he told them. People hear gunfire in the middle of the night “and wonder if someone is no longer on this side of heaven.” Children are being sent back to school in the midst of the virus while “careless politicians go on with business as usual.”

“Amid it all, we are reminded still of the witness and call of Jesus Christ to reach others in the midst of coronavirus to proclaim a word that allows us to draw closer to the Throne of Grace,” Nelson said. “We stand in solidarity with Jesus Christ, who reminds us that even in death there is life.”

“Let us be reminded there is a redemptive God who walks with us every day,” Nelson said. “Therefore go in peace — not as the world gives, but as only the God of salvation can offer. Always be conscious that we never ever walk alone. Go in peace, my friends.”

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