Wooden boards clung to the windows and doors of nearly every business along North Humboldt Avenue in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. It was just days after the death of Daunte Wright, a black 20-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop on April 11.
During the stop, officers discovered that Wright had an outstanding arrest warrant. Wright resisted when they tried to arrest him, and a veteran officer reportedly intended to use her taser but shot him with her pistol instead.
A crowd gathered outside the gated Brooklyn Center Police Department, bundled in jackets and holding handmade signs. More than a dozen National Guard troops stood by to protect the department’s perimeter, but nothing could hold back the heightened emotions spilling out from the community.
Nearly a year earlier, George Floyd was killed 15 miles south in an officer-involved incident, igniting a nationwide movement that sparked riots and shined the spotlight on race relations. Many were already on edge as they waited to hear former Officer Derek Chauvin’s verdict.
Meandering through the protests in the Minneapolis suburb, crisis-trained chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team offered emotional and spiritual care by listening to stories of grief and often praying with those who shared. While the chaplains typically respond to natural and man-made disasters, they’ve also deployed to numerous incidents of civil unrest, including officer shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“[We want] to remind people that with everything else going on, God is here,” said chaplain coordinator Freida Roulds, who ministered during the Minneapolis riots last year. “God is here in this city.”
Standing near the chaplains, Elijah White processed all that has happened in his hometown the past 11 months.
“With George Floyd, it was not as real to me, but this time it is because it’s somebody very close to my age, sort of the same place in life,” the 22-year-old said. “It could’ve totally happened to me. It’s kind of eye-opening.”
As he spoke over blaring music, people drove their cars around “Road Closed” blockades to take photos and videos of the scene on the street.
White said he prayed constantly about what happened in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.
“Seeing things not in peace and in distress really rubbed me the wrong way,” he said, referring to the looting of businesses and the burning of buildings last year. “South Minneapolis, that’s my home. I was baptized there, I grew up there, in church. Walking around all the spots I used to go to, now they’re gone, burned. Watching where I grew up go up in flames, it really bugs me.”
It’s difficult for him to deal with another incident. In fact, the unrest has affected many Minneapolis area residents deeply, and they long for a solution.
“I don’t believe an eye for an eye is the answer,” said Butchy Austin, who talked to one of the chaplains at the protest.
Austin, a father of four, explained that George Floyd took his last breaths in his neighborhood—and he had been in the exact area just hours before.
“As a black male, I can’t stand by and do nothing,” Austin said, while inviting passersby to help themselves to his cooler filled with water and soda. “I know there’s a level of healing that needs to permeate our communities.”
That desire for healing is exactly why the Billy Graham chaplains went door to door to check on community members, offered comfort to those at Wright’s memorial site and demonstrations, and prayed with a number of local residents, protesters, police officers and National Guard troops.
Because through it all, they know the One who offers both justice and peace.
An Unexpected Friendship
At a memorial site decked with tea light candles and flowers, chaplain Steven Flores saw a familiar face.
It had been nearly a year, but as soon as the two made eye contact, they picked up where they left off. James* was a man Steven had met during a George Floyd protest last spring. Their first encounter was a challenging one.
James had noticed Steven’s Billy Graham chaplain shirt and immediately put his guard up: “Nah, man. I’m not talking to you.”
It took only a few minutes of conversation to change everything.
“We’re here to serve the community, for you guys,” Steven told James. “We’re here. I’m here, for you.”
After spending time listening to James, Steven asked if he could pray for him, and as soon as he did, James’ whole countenance changed.
“The Holy Spirit broke through, and we became like buddies,” Steven said. “For him to remember that, that’s part of the impact—the impact that we leave. People don’t forget that.
“They know our purpose and what our mission is. We don’t have any agenda other than to bless them.”
Finding Peace at a Protest
While assisting a community food distribution at a local church, chaplains prayed for families who were waiting for food to be delivered to their cars. Two chaplains began talking with Rachel*, one of the volunteers directing traffic. They asked how she was holding up.
“I’m OK,” she said. “But more peace is needed in my life and this community.”
The young woman’s words didn’t surprise the chaplains. They had repeatedly heard community members calling for one thing: peace.
The chaplains told Rachel how Jesus has the power to calm any situation. They shared the story of Him on the boat in the middle of a storm.
“He spoke to the storm, ‘Peace, be still,’ and the storm ceased to exist,” they said. Then they read Scripture verses from BGEA’s “Steps to Peace With God” booklet that attest to God’s forgiveness and His power to save people from their sins.
Rachel wanted that calm and forgiveness to fill her heart. She prayed with the chaplains and they welcomed her into the family of God.
‘I Feel Their Pain’
At one demonstration, chaplain AnnMarie Flores started talking with Sarah*, a mother who shared how she was fearful of what would happen next in her community—especially in regard to her daughter.
Sarah was one of many parents who told chaplains about their what if fears following the two deadly incidents in their city. What if their child had an encounter with the police?
“I feel their pain, their concern,” said the chaplain, who’s also a mother. “So many people are hopeless in this sort of situation.”
She asked Sarah about her faith, wondering who her hope was in at such a sensitive time.
Sarah admitted that although she knew about Jesus and went to church, she had never truly surrendered her life to God.
AnnMarie took out “Steps to Peace With God” and read it alongside her. She offered to pray with Sarah, and Sarah gave her fears to the Lord. The worry that had filled her face was replaced by joy as she experienced the peace of God.
She told the chaplain, “I know that God sent you here for me.”
Chaplains Minister After Indianapolis Shooting
As the chaplains were ministering in Minnesota, others were deployed to Indianapolis after a gunman killed eight people and wounded several others on April 15 at a FedEx warehouse.
Police officers arriving at the warehouse called it “a very chaotic scene, with victims and witnesses running everywhere.” According to news reports, the 19-year-old shooter took his own life.
Chaplains parked the Rapid Response Team’s Mobile Ministry Center across from the warehouse to offer a quiet place for employees, police officers and others to come and talk.
“As we learn of another senseless act of violence that took so many lives, our hearts are broken for all of those who lost friends, family members and co-workers,” said Josh Holland, BG-RRT’s assistant director. “In the midst of their pain, we want them to know that God still loves them and cares about them.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Lizzy Long is a website writer for BillyGraham.org.
Photo: Todd Sumlin/©2021 BGEA