Racism is ‘toxic poison that is harming us all,’ ELCA bishop declares at Kenosha prayer vigil

Paul D. Erickson
Rev. Paul D. Erickson, bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. |

Just over a week after civil unrest erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the controversial police shooting of Jacob S. Blake, a Lutheran bishop said the nation needs to repent of its racism, which is a “toxic poison that is harming us all.”

“We can choose to regard the events of recent days as an aberration and as an exception to the rule and we can work hard to restore things to how they used to be and get back to ‘normal.’ Or we can choose to recognize that what we used to call normal was not only killing our siblings who are black and brown it was hurting all of us,” Rev. Paul D. Erickson, bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said at a prayer vigil held at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha Wednesday.

“What we need is a time of radical change and transformation. But before that can happen we need an honest assessment of how we got to where we are. So in our tradition, in the Lutheran confessional tradition we often begin our worship services with a time of confession in which we are invited to be honest with ourselves, with our neighbors and with God about the ways we have contributed to and benefited from the way things are.”

Erickson argued that while Christians are often “tempted to view sin as being like the bad apple on the tree that we just need to pluck down and toss aside or perhaps incarcerate so that the rest of the tree isn’t damaged,” it’s much deeper than that.

Jacob Blake
A prayer vigil at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. |

“We need to recognize that the challenges facing us are not about simply casting aside the bad apples or even cutting off the branch or even burning down the tree from which that fruit stems. We need to recognize that the very soil in which we all are planted is toxic. And that toxic poison that is harming us all is racism,” he said.

In the shooting incident, which left Blake, a 29-year-old African-American father paralyzed, police officer Rusten Sheskey shot at his back seven times. The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is investigating the shooting, released a statement, describing how Blake scuffled with officers and was tasered unsuccessfully. He was shot as he opened the driver’s door to an SUV where three of his sons were reportedly inside at the time.

Video of the shooting subsequently sparked ongoing rallies, marches and deadly confrontations with armed civilians and visits to the city from both President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Mary Zorn of the ELCA Outreach Center in Kenosha prayed about the fear people were experiencing in the city in her opening prayer at the vigil.

“God of grace and mercy, look down on your children in Kenosha. We are afraid. We are afraid to go into our homes and sleep at night. I have seen your children, Lord and they are scared that their children are going to get shot in their windows. God, please bring your peace to that. Send your loving arms and your angels to watch over us in Kenosha. Help those people that have been displaced by these things that have happened here,” Zorn prayed.

She also prayed that the nation’s leaders would come up with a solution to create peaceful justice.

Jonathan Barker, Grace Lutheran Church
Pastor Jonathan Barker welcomes the crowd and guest speakers at Grace Lutheran Church Kenosha, Wis. |

“Lord, help our leaders that they might find a way towards justice. Help us that we might be able to find that way peacefully and that your children won’t be afraid anymore and my friends that I see will not be scared to be in the streets at all, that their children can go to playgrounds again,” she said.  

“Lord, we see that things are not good sometimes right now and we do lose hope but we know you have everything to give us. And we just need to share it and remember that we are one in Your name."

Rev. Jonathan Barker, an activist pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, thanked God that Blake survived the shooting and prayed for his continued recovery.

“As a church, we must gather to seek justice and pray for justice. We must gather to confess our complicity in the institutional racism that has led to this horrible event. We must come together to lament that black lives are oftentimes violently opposed in our country still and that too often, black lives do not matter in our country. We need justice and we need things to change,” he told intercessors at the vigil.

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