What church and neighborhood do you serve in Minneapolis? How long have you served there?
I am pastor of Zion Baptist Church on the North Side of Minneapolis, what we call the Near North, but Zion serves the city as a whole along with the surrounding suburbs. God also has called me to a broader ministry beyond our city, sometimes to other states, our nation and God’s world. I became a pastor at Zion 14 years ago this year. My father pastored this church for 37 years before me. Honestly I was the most unlikely successor to him when I became pastor. God gave me something very different than the traditional Baptist church we had previously been. Over time there have been shifts and moves as God shapes and brings new purpose to each day. Our church has moved from what I would call a traditional religiosity to a real spiritual place of relationship with God and the transformation that follows.
Describe the relationship between the people of Minneapolis and the police prior to the death of Mr. George Floyd.
There has always been tension particularly in the African American community. These tensions between police and community run deep and they go far back. When I came up here as a teenager, I experienced the Minneapolis police department as one of the most brutal in the state toward African Americans. Things have somewhat improved over time, however immediately prior to the killing of Mr. George Floyd, there were still great tensions. At the same time, there also was great hope because of the new police chief. We had hope we were going to see some real change in policing and would not experience police officers just as an occupational force in the community. Instead they would be there to truly protect and serve the community and work with its residents. We believed that over time, we would dispel the “us against them” mentality the police culture seemed to have. We were looking for a cultural shift. A cultural transformation.
What is the impact of the killing of George Floyd on the city of Minneapolis? Your church community? How has it changed or shaped your ministry?
The impact has been great and it is still being felt. People are in deep trauma and grief. Others have taken to activism. We have begun to see reactive political responses rather than thoughtful policy making that would really help to bring about the kind of transformation we are looking for. On the positive side, some have mobilized and created alliances and conversations that have not taken place before. On the negative side, we have elected officials that are reactionary rather than thoughtful and, in some ways, they have exasperated the problem. The killing of Mr. George Floyd has brought the chief of police out to the community in a very meaningful and real way where he has been sitting with the community members in their pain and in his own pain. While this has been helpful, I believe there is a very deep chasm and wound that needs to be healed.
The interesting thing is we in the African American community are used to being on the outside. We also are used to being engaged, involved, and active. This situation has created conversations within our community to strengthen our faith and shore up our relationship with God to not succumb to the feelings of anger and despair but to channel this anger and allow God to use the anger and do something very positive and meaningful that can be life giving for our community. The killing of George Floyd calls upon us to ask, “Do we really believe what we believe and if we do how do we stand on the Word of God in the midst of all that is going on?”
Finally it has made me seek God more. This tragedy actually has caused me, in some respects, to withdraw from a lot of activity and really seek God to make sure I am where God wants me to be and doing what God wants me to do in the way God wants me to do it. It has impacted me personally because I have lived through much of this many times before in my life. Sometimes when I think things seem to be getting better we seem to take steps backwards. It is more important for me now to spend time with God and reading the Scriptures but mostly just praying and being still. I have learned the importance of being still and being present so I can not only hear instructions and know what to do, but I am strengthened and fortified for the battle I have been called to be engaged in.
Why do you think people are calling for the defunding of the police? Is defunding the most effective way to reform the police? If not, what other options would you suggest?
The defunding movement is not a new movement. It started some years ago. New Jersey was one of the states that tried it. In my opinion, what happened was they never ended up getting rid of their police department. Defunding the police may sound good as a political rallying cry but when you ask people exactly what it means, you don’t get much of an answer because most folks don’t know what that looks like. If you can’t describe it and if you can’t tell people what defunding looks like, it should not be something you expose or say until you understand what it means. Some may say, “Let’s take money away from the police department, put the resources into the community and help it to be better so eventually we won’t need a police department.” In my view, this is a very unrealistic approach because I believe there is a great need for a police department.
At the same time, we do need to transform policing by reevaluating and rethinking how we do policing. Granted there are calls police respond to that they shouldn’t have to address. Someone else could respond. In Minneapolis there has been a mechanism in the past called Community Crime Prevention. These are civilians who work with a police officer to organize block clubs and work on issues on each neighborhood. I myself have been trained as a crime prevention specialist. The Community Crime Prevention program dealt with a lot of the issues patrol officers didn’t need to spend their time on.
Another reason I don’t agree with defunding the police in Minneapolis is I believe we have a police chief who wants the same police reform we are asking for in the African American community. The question now is how we work with him and how we transform and change the culture so all police are an extension of our community for everyone’s safety.
What is at stake for you and your community in discussions of police reform, dismantling, or defunding the police? Our public discourse sometime positions these terms against one another. How might you offer some nuance to the difference between them?
In my opinion, you don’t need to take money from the police department to address the disparities and things that are not moving our community forward. You just have to hold the governmental bodies who are responsible accountable. The county, city, state, and federal electives all need to come together to develop a strategy in addressing the disparities in a systematic and purposeful way.
In Minneapolis, this means sitting with the police chief and truly helping and supporting him in all of the changes he wants to make that would be transformative for policing and good for the officers, recognizing that not all police are bad. There are many officers doing their jobs right every day. Most officers have never fired their weapons. We need to speak the truth and the facts about police activity rather than what we think we know. We can speak about our experience but we also have to talk about what is true and what is not true. Many of the people who are calling for defunding really have no idea what the police do. Truth be told I personally believe everyone in our police department and the folks on the street know who the bad officers are. Now is the time to figure out how we build out and development meaningful relationships between the entire community and police so we are working together and not at odds with each other.
How would you define an honorable police officer? A dishonorable police officer? What path forward would lift up law enforcement’s honorable contributions to society while naming appropriately the dishonorable contributions?
For too long we have not made public the good things honorable officers do every day. We don’t make public how they didn’t tow a car or issue a citation because of an expired registration but gave someone a ride to work and said, “Use your next paycheck to take care of your registration.” We don’t hear stories of police officers who bought groceries for someone they encountered who was hungry. Such stories are more prevalent than people know. How do we lift up these truths about police so there is a balanced view? When all truths are not lifted up about others, there is a skewed view of people. As African Americans, we also have been viewed through a singularly false lens. Some police officers view us a certain way. As the Reverend Traci Blackmon has said, “If the color of my skin is the weapon that you see, how will I ever be unarmed?” In the same way, we in our community cannot do that to another group of people, such as the police, and conclude they all are alike.
How do we hold up the stories of police officers who do their jobs well every day? And then how do we call out and work through the actions of those officers who are misusing and abusing their power and who show a great prejudice toward certain people?
While there is not an easy answer, I believe there is a way we can start talking about the police in a positive way and demand discipline and restraint. Often police are doing what they have been trained to do. If you want them to do something differently, the training has to be different. If they are going to de- escalate a situation rather than respond to escalation with escalation, they need to be trained and the importance of such training must be emphasized.
What is the role of your church and others in North Minneapolis to help build just, equitable, and trusting neighborhoods?
It has been the role of every church and ministry of the Gospel from the beginning of time to create just, equitable and trusting communities. The social implications of the church should be to transform social systems as well as individuals and all people. Evangelism and discipleship go hand and hand. We, in the church, cannot do one without the other. You should begin to see some type of social transformation as people’s lives change. The community ought to be changing. For this change to happen, the church must open its doors and allow the community to come in. The congregation and its members need to go outside of the building and participate in the community, looking for the gaps. When God is leading you to do something that will be beneficial, it almost always will fill a void. The church holds a responsibility to trust God and move forward believing that when God ordains this work. God also will provide the provisions, people and resources to make it happen.
All of this means more than just being a good neighbor. The church needs to be a contributor to the welfare and the good of the community. One of the impacts of Jesus’ ministry was his ability to meet the needs of the people. He led with love, he cared about people and he met needs. Then it was up to each person who met Jesus what they did with the gifts he gave to them. Our job is to introduce people to this Jesus, not just through our words but our actions that demonstrate his love and care for them to inspire them to care for others.
What is the role of the churches and pastors across the entire city of Minneapolis and its many suburbs? What would you have other congregations and church leaders do?
At this time, I see congregations and church leaders attempting to come together and working with one another in a new way. I believe God is starting a new thing that could really turn into something purposeful if we stay faithful to God and to the mission. Honestly right now for me, prayer is where the shared work begins. Recently I started praying with a white pastor on a weekly basis – just the two of us. Soon after, people from our congregations came along side of us and every Monday at noon we just pray. Then a third church has joined us. Our African American church and two white churches all praying together and seeking God. Now the pastors have decided we need to come together and get to know each other. One of the most powerful ways the church can come together and have impact is by churches developing relationships with God and one another.
This is a different approach than some of my past experiences with some suburban white congregations that come in offering their resources without relationships. Their missionarial attitude becomes a power dynamic. Don’t last because of a power dynamic. It is not mutual relationship where both churches offer to one another the gifts we have. I prefer to have a relationship first and see what God is asking us to do together. If we are really serious about congregations coming together and white churches helping black churches, the first thing is building a relationship where we trust each other, where we seek God together and then we wait for God to tell us what God wants us to co-create together.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We all must be prayerful in this time and really listen for God’s direction. Then we need to ask God for the boldness to be obedient in what God is asking us to do. God always has a way if we listen first and then act together.
Brian Herron is Senior Pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.
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