By the Rev. Drew Colby
Late Saturday night, May 30, I got texts from a couple church members making me aware of protests that were getting serious in our town [Manassas, Va.]. By Sunday morning it was clear that the night ended with some violence, vandalism, and looting.
By that afternoon I was getting texts from black colleagues asking me and others to show up for another protest. I didn’t want to go, but I felt compelled to go, just for a little bit.
I arrived to the sound of a pastor on a PA [public address system]. “Everyone take a knee, please. Take a knee and listen.” He said, “To all of you here who want a peaceful protest tonight, who want there to be meaningful dialogue here between protestors and police, if that is what you want to support, I need you all night and I need you to get us some food.”
I texted my wife, “I might be a while.”
I was there in my mask, my baseball cap, and my stole, a red one my father gave me, along with a couple other clergy. I came to pray, but it was clear, this wasn’t a place for ‘Kumbaya’ quietude. This was a protest. A real one. And I didn’t know what to do.
“We need people to stay late and stay in the middle of the protest,” said the pastor on the PA. “We need people to walk the perimeter, and keep people out of the street. We need you to disseminate, participate, and de-escalate.”
I didn’t know how to do that. I wanted to work for peace, but mostly I just felt awkward and out of place. I asked myself what am I supposed to be doing here? Turns out that was a prayer, and then the prayer was answered. I got an idea.
I remembered that on the first Sunday of ‘Coronatide,’ I jokingly placed a giant bottle of hand sanitizer on a little table at the back of the sanctuary, where other churches have a baptismal font or holy water.
I drove to church and grabbed that bottle, then I drove to the grocery store and got crackers, cookies, and chips. I stapled a church nametag to my stole, and got back to the protest.
The crowd was larger now, and louder. There was shouting along the street, and into the microphone. Protesters locked eyes with the few police officers who had come that night, assigned to lamentation duty, to receive the ire of a people on fire. It was volatile. It felt dangerous. But thank God, I had crackers. That gave me something to do.
“Hand sanitizer? Crackers? Cookies?” I started my rounds. “You need something to eat? Wanna get washed up?” I think the most disarming thing about me may have been how foolish I looked. Picture this dopey white guy tripping over his stole offering chips and free squirts to people trying to change the world.
Nonetheless, person after person, whether protesting or policing, when they saw this bottle, they paused and presented their palms and said, “Yes, please.”
Pretty soon I realized this stuff was magic. Armed with this bottle of hand sanitizer, I could go anywhere. I walked the perimeter, then the interior. I offered it to people of every age and color. Even in the very front of the protest, and person after person put down their sign and said, “Yes, please, may I have some?”
Deep down, I’m a softie, so I started to tear up. Offering crackers and hand sanitizer? Nourishment and cleansing in the name of God? It was the closest thing to baptism and communion that I’ve experienced as a pastor in months. I had missed it so much.
I set a goal to try to get to everyone there, to get them these little gifts and to repeat to them over and over, “God bless you. Be careful. We love you. Be safe.” Then I got emboldened. I realized that even the most virulent protesters would stop for hand sanitizer. I had been told to try and de-escalate, so I started to seek out the corners of the protest that seemed to be getting the most volatile. In fact, the more threatening a person or a crowd looked to me, the faster I was compelled to intercept them with the hand sanitizer. It was my way of trying to de-escalate them.
But (I should not be shocked by this but I was) repeatedly when I would intercept a person that seemed threatening, as soon as I offered these elements, they would stop and say, “Yes, please. Thank you,” and my perception of them instantly changed.
Whatever I had perceived as a threat was converted with the sound of a squirt. And then I noticed it, I was doing this as an attempt to de-escalate them, but in this little exchange, I was the one being de-escalated. Those who I had identified as a threat, when they showed me their palms, I saw them as people, even as Christ.
In Romans 12 Paul calls that kind of moment the “renewing of your mind.” My mind was renewed at the sound of a squirt. I believe what I was shown in those moments at that protest was a glimpse of what the Holy Spirit is trying to do right now. We are being invited by the Spirit of protest and pain to open ourselves to the renewing of our mind, to conversion. I pray it continues to happen to me. I’ll never look at hand sanitizer the same way again.
-The Rev. Drew Colby is senior pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, Va.