No justice, no breath

Just Worship documentary challenges churches to actively seek justice or risk losing their breath

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer preaches during the 2019 Just Worship conference held at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE —  “Can you breathe?” asked Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer of worshipers at the Just Worship conference at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  She reminded people of Eric Garner, the black man who died in 2014 face-down on the asphalt while being held in a chokehold by a New York City police officer. In a sermon on the book of James preached at the Just Worship conference, Aymer proclaimed:

“Even if discrimination and ignoring the needs of others is the natural course of things in the world, the church should not look like the world. For the church that resembles the world out of which it is called — rather than the God who called it forth — it starts gasping for breath. The moment the church starts justifying any violation of the commandment to love its neighbor, it is lying on the ground with its dying breath.”

 “‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

When the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long, project director for Just Worship, witnessed the horrific video of the death of George Floyd, she was reminded of Aymer’s words.

According to Long, Aymer’s call for the church to be about the work of justice making is what makes the Just Worship message so timely.

“If the church is not able to breathe, it is not alive,” Long said, “unless it is actively seeking the justice that God intends for all people.”

Long hopes to draw attention to the documentary on the Just Worship conference, which was held in October. She hopes churches will use the film and discussion guide as an entry point to have difficult conversations about racism and racial justice.

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, is also featured in the documentary. A pastor and president of the church’s only historically black theological seminary, Roberts urged people to stop talking long enough to listen to the voices other than their own.

Thinking about Roberts’ message — then and now — Long hears echoes from the Brief Statement of Faith, written in 1983, when the PC(USA) became one of the last mainline denominations to reunite after the Civil War.

Included in the Book of Confessions, the statement affirms trust in the Spirit who “gives us courage … to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”

Reflecting on the horror of the video of George Floyd’s death played out in front of the nation and world, Long said, “It’s not surprising that there’s been this outcry in our cities and towns. It’s long overdue. And it’s time for our churches to step up and do the work of confronting racism in ourselves and our complicity in systemic racism. Part of that work is through our worship, in and out of the sanctuary. If we do not, we will indeed be gasping for breath.”

The free downloadable Just Worship documentary and discussion guide can be found on the PC(USA)’s Racial Justice Resources page under worship resources, or by clicking here.

Long, who also edits the PC(USA)’s liturgical journal “Call to Worship,” said a copy of Aymer’s “I Can’t Breathe” sermon will be available soon on the Just Worship web page.

 Support for the making of the Just Worship documentary and discussion guide was provided by the Presbyterian Mission Agency and New Castle Presbytery.

Just Worship is a cooperative effort among Austin and Johnson C. Smith seminaries, the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship and the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.

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