One of the things people found themselves asking during the uprising in May 2020 was, “What can I do?” Many brought food to distribute from makeshift food shelves. Others brought masks and hand sanitizer to protect against COVID-19. Some, like Hiawatha resident Shari Seifert, would still be at 38th and Chicago fighting for Black liberation three and a half years on.
In her book, “Ashes to Action: Finding Myself at the Intersection of the Minneapolis Uprising,” Seifert shares how Calvary Lutheran Church, of which she is a member, met – and continues to meet - this moment. It serves as both a reminder of events that unfolded in the first days and weeks of the uprising, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what rolling up your sleeves looked like in real time.
Proximity placed Calvary at the back door of a revolution. Located at 39th and Chicago, the church is one block from where Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. They had already been running a food shelf serving about 25 families weekly, which quickly shot up to as many as 177 during the uprising. People volunteered to help nourish their neighbors. Calvary also set up a community table outdoors, providing water and oranges to visitors who numbered in the thousands. The first march began from their parking lot.
For the book, Seifert interviewed several neighbors about their experiences with Calvary. Three of them – Susan Heineman, Marcia Howard and Katie Dillon, each of whom lives within a block of 38th and Chicago – joined Seifert at a book launch event at church on Nov. 5, 2023. They spoke of what those early days were like and the lasting bond that has formed between Calvary and the community at George Floyd Square.
The conversation began with the banners. On the north side of the Calvary building hangs a banner that reads, “In this City for Good!” which signaled intent in two ways – to do good and to stay forever.
Heineman’s first thought when the banner went up was that she didn’t know any kind of spiritual group that doesn’t want to do good in the world. But the staying part?
“That was like, okay… Now I have the flavor of this congregation, and I really, really like it,” she said. Heineman added, “What’s touched me most is that it’s still up.”
Draped high on the bell tower facing west is a huge black and white banner of George Floyd (designed by young congregant Ella Endo) with a halo above his head. The image is inscribed with words that had been spoken by people close to Floyd. For Dillon, these were an essential counter to the defamation of Floyd that was already underway.
“The words were so personal, and the artist had just captured so much of people who loved George Floyd and put them up there for anybody to see for years and years now,” she said. “I’m just so grateful for that.”
Dillon spoke of a friend whose neighborhood closer to the Third Precinct was covered in ash, and who came to 38th and Chicago with Dillon for some grounding; the Square did not smell toxic. The streets were so full, and when they made their way to Calvary at the end of the block Dillon noticed a family with a little kid who needed to use a bathroom and was helped into the building.
“There was a presence that had just popped out of nowhere and was taking care of people at this very basic level of our bodies. I just loved that,” she said.
For Heineman, this was much larger than a simple gesture. In setting up tables with provisions outdoors, the church had already come out to meet the needs of the community. But here, they were letting people in. Calvary also remained steadfast about not allowing the police to use their parking lot, itself a bold statement.
“Saying no to the police was like a mark,” said Heineman. “We are not neutral.”
Calvary made it clear through their actions that they were there for the community. They lent out chairs and equipment, provided meeting space and charging stations, and even brought in kiddie pools that demonstrators could stand in, in the event they were tear gassed by police and needed to quickly wash off. They allowed neighbors to use their kitchen to prepare meals for the community.
All the while the food shelf remained in operation. Howard, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School and self-described “child of poverty,” shared her experience when she used the resource.
“Calvary’s Food Shelf felt like being at a grocery store. It was the most dignified experience I’ve ever had going hat-in-hand for something that was free,” she said. “Never underestimate how important allowing people to have dignity in [their time of] need is. Which is why a block and a half away in the Square, we attempt to make sure that we greet all our neighbors, our comrades, our wayfarers, with that same amount of dignity.”
A Sacred Space
Hectic as it was at the Square, the sanctity of the space could not be denied. Dillon remembers early on seeing a handmade banner painted on cloth that read, “This is a sacred space.”
“It sort of sunk in at that moment. That’s what this is. This is a sacred space. As a physical location, it is hallowed ground,” she said. “From I think the beginning… Calvary was able to live into that.”
It was the antidote to the very real threat of White supremacists setting things on fire and getting teargassed or shot at as the National Guard marched in. Howard reiterated that at the very beginning they wanted to keep the place safe, sanitary and sacred. Interfaith vigils were arranged with pastors, rabbis and Buddhist monks so people could come together in grief.
“In true reflection, it put paid to this idea [that] George Floyd Square is a memorial for stolen lives. That this is what we’re focused on,” said Howard. “And we will say their names.”
In the book, Seifert describes a vigil she was called on to lead. Not knowing what she should say in this time and place as a White-bodied woman, she chose to renounce White supremacy and the systems that uphold it. She learned that afterwards, Howard, who at the time was in the Square about 20 hours a day, was finally able to get a full night’s sleep.
Eventually the lines blurred between the church and community, becoming one larger entity moving together during the most unlikely of times – a global pandemic.
“When many people were isolated during COVID, I was connected like nobody’s business,” said Seifert.
Going forward, Calvary hopes to nurture and be in relationship with fellow building tenants (see “Calvary church makes room for deeply affordable housing at 39th and Chicago,” Messenger October 2022); the people of the Calvary Food Shelf (see sidebar); and the community at the Square.
Humility is key
Originally from a small town in Texas, Seifert is not new to working for racial justice. Asked what this work might look like for the everyday church looking to dismantle racism without being in proximity to the very public, very external circumstances of a global reckoning, Seifert offered Micah 6:8 – which asks what the Lord requires of us – to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly.
“Most of the time, I feel like people ignore the walk humbly part,” she said, chuckling that this doesn’t come naturally for Texans.
“What I have learned is that humility as a White person wading into the waters of doing anti-racism work is really, really important, because there’s much more that we don’t understand than we do understand,” she said. “White supremacy is so pervasive, it’s baked into us. It’s the air we breathe, from when we’re itty bitty. It lives in us in ways that we don’t realize.”
Humility is key to recognizing that we operate in ways that are racist and harmful without knowing it, explained Seifert. It helps to be curious and aware of one’s own physical and emotional responses when in multiracial spaces. Likewise, if people aren’t in multiracial spaces, wondering about that, too. In her book she offers suggestions for those who want to do the work: going in the spirit of accompaniment; being prepared to listen to feedback; and letting go of perfectionism – a tool of White supremacy that can freeze someone from acting or cause them to retreat into comfort.
The point is to do the work – even and especially when it’s hard. Her hope with the book is that it helps more White people engage. As Seifert writes, “Everyone has a role to play, and everyone has to play a role.”
Ashes to Action is available at Moon Palace Books, on Kindle and from the publisher, Augsburg Fortress. Seifert is giving all of her royalty payments to the George Floyd Global Memorial.