by Chaplain Maryam Ashraf
Witnessing someone take their final breaths in life is not a normal, everyday event. It is scary. It is emotional. It is spiritual. In my work in chaplaincy, sometimes, I have been witness to death and dying, and family members saying good-bye to their loved ones. It feels like an honor, to be present in some of the most painful times in people’s lives, for support, for a blessing, for prayer, for moments of comfort. I was called to chaplaincy work after I witnessed my own mother’s death after years of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and ultimately an infection she could not survive.
I have called out to my dead mother more times than I can count. In my pain, my agony, my suffering, my joys, and my sadnesses. I yearn and call out for her. Sometimes silently, often out loud.
A few weeks ago, our nation, and the globe, was witness to George Floyd taking his final few breaths, calling out for his mother as his life was stolen away from him. This horrifying event, that just happened to be caught on camera, has ignited a movement of rage and reflection from people around America. How do we as Americans grapple with being a nation that watches people being killed in the street? What does it do to our collective soul to watch the soul of another human being ripped away from their body? It is time to act for change.
Witnessing George Floyd taking his last breaths was worse than watching my mother die. George Floyd did not die, he was killed. It was not peaceful, it was violent. It pushed an adult man to call for his mama, his dead mama, in pain. His call pierced my soul. It broke me. I cried out for this man and the mama he yearned for. I cried out for his pain and for the pain of the countless others who have been killed, harmed, and crushed by our nation’s state sanctioned violence. I cried for my complicit role in allowing it to happen for so long without being outraged into action. What do we, who are living, owe to the ones who are no longer here? It is time to act for change.
George Floyd’s killing was a gruesome and visual reminder to me that I live in a country built on violence. I myself can pretend to stand for peace and justice, but how can I build a façade of peace on a foundation of violence and injustice? Have I grappled with who lost their freedom for me, a descendant of immigrants, to gain mine? Have I considered from whom wealth has been stolen for me to “earn” my American wealth?
George Floyd: May you rest in peace, next to your mother. May your memory, and the memories of all those who have been killed unjustly, not be forgotten. May your eternal slumber awake our nation from our complicit slumber, to rise up in solidarity against the injustices done in America to the countless indigenous, black, and brown bodies on our soil and around the world. America, may we redeem ourselves, by seeking forgiveness and making the changes needed to do better.
I see healing taking place when we pause to ask about one another, and we pause long enough to listen to those answers. Can we pause our busy lives for long enough to show, with or without words, that we care. Now is the time to care. I want to turn off the screens and forget the screams of those being gassed in the streets, but it’s too far beyond that point now. We can’t look away. In the last protest I attended, I saw two people hug. I pondered, how, despite the risk of coronavirus lurking everywhere, people in pain gain healing and love from one another. Let us all use this time to show that love is a verb, and act for change.
In the final moments of the protest, the people gathered in the streets, looking to one another for support, comfort, and healing, sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song ends with a beautiful prayer to God:
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land