Sunday Sermon by the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, Founding Pastor, New Roots AME Church in Dorchester, and newly-appointed Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space for the City of Boston, April 25, 2021. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
By the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond
Founding Pastor, New Roots AME Church in Dorchester
Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space for the City of Boston
On Tuesday morning, the verdict in the Chauvin case came down and the police officer who murdered George Floyd in broad daylight was actually held accountable. We had braced for riots and instead there were celebrations. Not because the work of justice is complete, but because on that day, we could feel the arc of the universe bend ever so slightly towards justice. The bending was tempered by the fact that 20 minutes before the verdict, Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by the police in Columbus, Ohio, and only hours after the verdict on Wednesday morning, Andrew Brown was shot dead by officers in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
The quick juxtaposition of celebration and new sorrow made it hard to know how to feel. So on Thursday morning, I welcomed the opportunity to celebrate Earth Day, to pull back and reflect on the bigger picture of this amazingly complex, beautiful and messy world that we live in, to give thanks for this planet and to recommit myself to living in right relationship with all the species that inhabit this home. So this morning, I hope you will reflect with me the topic Just Breathe.
Our scripture is in Genesis 1 where it says, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Spirit, the Ruach, the Holy Ghost, the living moving Spirit of God was hovering over the waters and God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness.
And in verse six, God spoke and there was separation between sky and water. Verse nine, God spoke and dry land appeared. Verse 11, God spoke and plants grew out of the land. Verse 14, God spoke and the sun and moon were hung in the sky. Verse 20, God spoke and fish swam the seas and birds flew through the air. Verse 24, God spoke and animals of many kinds began to walk the land. Verse 26, God spoke and humans were formed in the likeness of God.
When God speaks, things happen. When God exhales, worlds are formed, and in the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered, and then it began to move and the creation came to be. Who is the Spirit of God? We talk a lot about God as Father and Jesus as Son, but the Spirit often comes in a very distant third in our thoughts, in our songs, and in our theology.
The scripture tells us that she was there in the very beginning and that she was putting in work on behalf of creation. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Holy Spirit is called Ruach. In this first chapter of Genesis, she is described as the Ruach Elohim, the breath of God. The Ruach appears throughout the Hebrew scriptures as breath, wind, Spirit.
The gender of the Holy Spirit was often acknowledged as feminine in the ancient church tradition, until she wasn't. There is not enough time to go fully into those politics, but in my divine imagination, I ask the Spirit, "What happened? Why was your gender changed? Why have you been overlooked and underappreciated as a member of the Godhead?" And she simply said, "#MeToo, girl, me too."
Even though she is often forgotten, in the Jewish mystical tradition, the Ruach Ha-Kodesh is the divine word. The embodiment of God's speech in the world. It is the Ruach Ha-Kodesh that is present at the beginning of time, that brings the world into existence. She's the omnipresent God force in our lives and the Ruach is literally the air that we breathe. The wind that moves throughout the world.
Most of us take it an average of 16 breaths per minute. That's 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 breath in your average life expectancy of 78 years. That would be 655,948,800 breaths in your life. Every day we depend on the air to be there and most of us don't even think about it until something makes us pay attention. We all get winded sometimes, but then there are those of us whose breathing capacity is constrained by asthma.
Science says that asthma is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There are debates about which of these factors is most important, but what science does know is that as environmental factors and particularly pollution increases in our world, the rates of asthma are also rising. Scientists also agree that one of the most important contributors to asthma is the exposure of young lungs to toxins.
While adults breathe at a rate of 12 to 20 breaths a minute, an infant breathe at a rate of 30 to 60 breaths a minute, meaning our babies are taking in the air and getting a triple dose of pollution at the time when their lungs are in a fragile stage of formation.
In 2015, black people were 20% more likely to have asthma than their white counterparts. Latino children were twice as likely to die from asthma as their white counterparts. And in China, asthma is the leading cause of hospitals for children. A recent study found that exposure to pollution was one of the key reasons that black and Latino communities were so disproportionately affected by COVID. Environmental racism is a deadly, preexisting condition.
Last year the death of George Floyd reignited the phrase, "I can't breath." Only a few weeks after Mr. Ford's death, we marked six years from the day when Eric Garner was standing on Bay Street in Staten Island. A father of six, he spent most of his time trying to earn money to support his children. Folks said that he wasn't the best dressed man because he rarely spent money on himself, electing instead to give all of his money to his kids.
On the day in question, he had just broken up a fight between two guys. The intervention left him out of breath when he was approached by the NYPD. He kept insisting that he wasn't doing anything wrong. Nonetheless, the officers decided to arrest him and use the choke hold that was against official police policy. With their knees in his back, they applied pressure to Mr. Garner's lungs. His last words were, "I can't breath."
These words became a rallying cry around the world about the injustice of police brutality. Eric Garner would not have died without the unjustified force by the NYPD, but he also might have survived if he did not suffer from asthma. If he had not grown up in a low-income community of color, the kind of community where companies and municipalities around the world continually contract the most polluting facilities. We make decisions that these communities don't matter, and it's thus so many people like Eric Garner find themselves literally unable to breathe.
In the aftermath of his death, his daughter, Erica raised her voice, demanding justice. For more than three years, she waited for the federal government to intervene, to no avail. In mid-2017, she gave birth to a baby boy and named him Eric, after his grandfather. Due to the complications of her pregnancy and her own battle with asthma, Erica suffered a heart attack. Then at the end of 2017, just as Christmas approached, Erica had another asthma attack and a subsequent heart attack that put her in a coma. During the day Christmas season with baby Eric only four-months-old, the Garner family said goodbye to Erica, yet another family member just couldn't breathe.
In January, 2016 Erica Garner wrote an op-ed titled Black Lives Like My Father's Should Matter. And then she said, "If our lives really mattered, we'd have equal access to decent jobs, good schools, and affordable housing. If our lives mattered in this country, we'd have equal access to clean air, clean water, and real investment in black neighborhoods. If black lives mattered in America, those who routinely brutalized us wouldn't be the ones paid with our tax dollars to keep us safe."
Even with my own heartbreak when I demand justice, it's never just for Eric Garner. It's for my daughter. It's for the next generation of African-Americans. When I think about this presidential election, I'm not thinking about the next four years, I'm thinking about the next 40.
As climate change exacerbates the effects of pollution and as COVID has been most virulent in those communities where people's lungs were already compromised, we are at a crucial time in human history. We are talking about being on the other side of this pandemic, getting back to a new normal, and the decisions we make in this time will determine whether or not our children will be able to breathe into the future.
If we want to honor God's creation, if we want to save our species, we must change. It is time to change in our energy policy away from polluting energy sources and towards creation powered sources, like wind and solar. It is time to stop thinking of healthcare as a privilege and ensure that all God's children have access. Less pollution and better health would have let the Garner's breathe a little longer, and they will help us to ensure that our children can breathe for centuries to come.
I look at what is happening in our world and I think we need a rushing wind to come in and disrupt things, to blow some things over and whisk away the covers to expose some injustice. Take a moment to just thank God for the fact that you can breathe. Imagine the Spirit is filling you so that you can work with God, to be used by God to give life to something new, to create a world where we value every life.
Imagine you are about to give birth to a society that lives in harmony with the rest of the planet. Imagine that we create a world together where baby Eric's life is radically different than his grandfather's. Imagine that as you breathe in the power of the sacred Ruach, the Holy Spirit, that Eric and Erica Garner, that George Floyd and his mother Larcenia, that Adam and Eve, that Jesus is looking down, saying, "Breathe, just breathe."