Rev. G. Travis Norvell
June 8, 2021
Nearly once a week I pedal or walk two miles north from my house to 38th St and Chicago Ave, the site of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, MN. The weekly pilgrimage is my personal practice for keeping my heart tender and large. Each visit reminds me of the pain of my city. Each visit inspires me for the possibility of my city. Each visit moves me from the rhetoric of resurrection to the practice of resurrection.
In 1973 the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry published the poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front.” It is a poem that dared to challenge the social mores and capitalistic wisdom of American life. The poem ends with a beautiful and ambiguous imperative: “Practice resurrection.”
Like many preachers and religion scholars I have used this line many times in sermons, prayers, essays, and presentations. But until my weekly trips to George Floyd Square I had no idea what the phrase meant—I was only in love with its sound. Every time I attempted to apply the imperative to the situation in Minneapolis, I came up empty. I cannot resurrect George Floyd. I cannot proclaim life when there is so much communal pain at George Floyd Square.
As I listened to a recording of the 1983 Lyman Beecher Preaching lectures delivered by the late Dr. Krister Stendahl, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School & Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, however, a way forward emerged. During the third lecture Dr. Stendahl asked the crowd a simple question: “Can you heal like Jesus? The crowd was silent. Dr. Stendahl broke the silence with his admission, “Neither can I! Then if we cannot heal like Jesus, why do we not do everything possible to create national healthcare in this nation?”
His logic was sound and simple: if you cannot literally heal like Jesus, then do everything you possibly can to try and imitate Jesus’ healing ministry on a national scale. Could this apply to practicing resurrection? I believe it can. I, and the Christian community of Minneapolis, cannot resurrect George Floyd, but we can do everything we can to create a community where BIPOC neighbors have lungs full of breath and where they live long, happy, fulfilling lives.
The journey from my house to George Floyd Square reveals some of the ways to practice resurrection. My walk north causes me to cross 46th St. For years 46th St. was the official segregation line in south Minneapolis. In 1927 neighbors south of 46th St. agreed to neither rent to nor allow Blacks to purchase homes in the neighborhood. In 1931, however, Arthur and Edith Lee challenged this paradigm by purchasing a house on 4600 Columbus Avenue South. Rather than throwing out the welcome mat for their new neighbors, neighbors met the Lees with verbal taunts, littered their yard with excrement, and threw rocks and bricks through their windows.
I, and the Christian community of Minneapolis, cannot resurrect George Floyd, but we can do everything we can to create a community where BIPOC neighbors have lungs full of breath and where they live long, happy, fulfilling lives.
The journey from my house to George Floyd Square reveals some of the ways to practice resurrection.
Arthur Lee was a postal employee and a World War I veteran who fought for freedom in the mud and gas saturated earth of France. But his service to his country did not grant him the right to make a home in south Minneapolis. The Lees fought against the hostility for a year with the aid of WWI veterans, postal employees, the NAACP, and family and friends, but the daily hostility was too much. After two years, they moved several blocks north of 46th St.
After leaving the pain of the Lee house, my journey takes me through the Tilsenbilt Home District, a post-World War II housing development specifically aimed at Black homeowners. In 1953 homebuilder Edward Tilsen formed a partnership with the Urban League, the FHA (the Federal Housing Administration), and several Black realtors to build 52 homes for what some call the nation’s first “open” housing development.
The Lee House and the Tilsenbilt Home District are both now historical markers that point the way toward George Floyd Square: one filled with pain, one filled with possibility. Both reveal the difficulty and creativity needed to practice resurrection.
When I arrive at George Floyd Square, I realize that to practice resurrection is much more than police reform. The conviction of former officer Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021 on all charges for the murder of George Floyd was but one step in the long journey of practicing resurrection. Practicing resurrection will involve legislative acts, scrutinizing lending practices, forming new relationships and broad coalitions, advocating for income equality & reparations, lobbying politicians to fully fund public schools and transportation, and pressuring corporations to invest in communities they have long ignored.
Every time I pilgrimage to George Floyd Square I discover a different community. Sometimes there are reporters from around the world recording news segments, sometimes there are activists planning and strategizing, sometimes there are dance parties, sometimes there are cookouts and clothing swaps and medical aid and free libraries and voter registrations all happening simultaneously, sometimes there are other pilgrims like myself present saying a prayer, marking time and sharing space. But I am never alone; there are always others present urging me and challenging me to practice resurrection.
The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.