Driving While Black and White

by | Aug 6, 2015

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

We use the phrase going viral to describe what happens when a story on social media spreads quickly, like a virus, due to the number of people who share it. That is how a spreading story becomes as newsworthy as the original incident, because it resonates with so many.

That’s what happened last week when two of the finest priests from our diocese, the Reverends Peter Schell and Rondesia Jarrett, described on Facebook an incident of police harassment that they experienced while driving through North Carolina with their young son, Joshua, and Rondesia’s brother, Ron.

Peter’s description has been shared more than 2000 times and picked up by other online media. Here’s the story in the Daily Kos. Both on Facebook and Daily Kos, many people have shared similar incidents. “Welcome to the club,” Rondesia told Peter when they could talk to one another about what happened. “Then I realized,” Peter wrote, “Not one of these things were unusual. Not even a little bit.”

Peter and Rondesia’s story has gone viral for another reason: as Michelle Alexander details in her book, The New Jim Crow, as a nation, we are at last facing the consequences of legislation passed during our so-called War on Drugs that greatly expanded police authority. The racial bias in the way that power is wielded is indisputable. Until recently, however, with the string of incidents we refer to by the names of black Americans who have died in police custody–Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and countless others–the cost to human life and dignity had not disturbed our nation’s social conscience. Thank God that’s changing, and we as the church are a part of that change.

When I asked Peter and Rondesia what they would like to have happen as a result of the attention their story has received, they said, “We’d like to shed light on one particular aspect of the enormous problem of police harassment–pretext stops.” This is the authority police officers have to stop a vehicle on a minor traffic violation (Peter was stopped for not using his turn signal when changing lanes) and then use the opportunity to interrogate those inside and search for drugs or stolen items.

This experience has reminded us of the strength and goodness of the Episcopal Church. The bishops and staff of our sister diocese in North Carolina responded immediately to the news of this incident. They are working with the clergy and congregations of Nash County, where Peter and Rondesia were stopped, to stage a public protest. We’ve also received great support from Charles Wynder, missioner for social justice and advocacy engagement of The Episcopal Church.

Peter and Rondesia will have more to say about their experience, and they will resume their strong leadership in the work for racial justice after spending needed time with their family. Please continue to pray for them, and for Rondesia’s father who is near death. Pray for all who have suffered because of racial injustice, and for all who serve in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, upon whom our collective safety depends.

Goodness can go viral, too, which is another way of describing how the Holy Spirit working in us can accomplish more than we could ask for or imagine. If what happened to our friends Peter and Rondesia motivates you join in the good and holy work of racial justice, please contact us.