09/02/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Procession or Riot

I come from processing people. My mother's family church holds the mother of all processions. Seriously. It is for the birth (tricky date to verify but very popular for celebration) of the Ever Blessed and Glorious Mother of our Lord Jesus, Mary. If you think you know of a better procession. Check this out.

Days of it. Hundreds of thousands of people come to St. Mary's in Manarcad for the festival. Like most processions we end where we begin, just a little sweatier and tired having created an interruption of holiness in the ordinary world. We have paraded through the streets; waved at our friends; sung our hearts out; and probably danced a little to the drums. Maybe we felt foolish at times and probably drew a few stragglers.

I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. We like to form a line and walk to nowhere as well. We do it on Sundays and other special celebrations -- literally, ending up back in the small room we had so ceremoniously left about an hour or so ago. Sometimes we go outside or have a flash mob in our neighbor's churches, but always we come back to where we started, and we and the places we have been are changed.

Saturday, August 23, I went to Staten Island with members of our church St. Mark's in the Bowery to march for justice for Eric Garner who was killed in a choke hold by a police officer.

Manhattan to Staten Island is sort of epic. You have to take a boat. The boat doesn't come that often. The boat slowly pass the Statue of Liberty, which is like being immersed in the American struggle with the idea of freedom for everyone, and then you land on an island that is known or its insularity and racism, as well as awesome Italian food and botanical gardens. When we got off the boat, there was a guy with a piece of cardboard on which he had written with a black marker "Thank you for coming to Staten Island. We need you."

I was late, two ferries late, one full hour, after I was supposed to meet everyone. I had made a poorly timed pit stop to the hospital to welcome a brand new baby to our community.

The meet-up spot was packed, and I got in the wrong mix with press and was pushed away by the police. I asked where I should go and was ignored. I must have had baby grace on the brain, because I just kept walking assuming there would be a way in somewhere to meet our folks who were by the Domino's Pizza.

I squeezed in through some barricades. I squeezed through a lovely and considerate crowd of mostly black, English speaking people, but I heard some Spanish and saw some white and Asian folks as well. As I kept squeezing through to the front, which is very rude in the crowd culture of NYC, I was struck, as I always am at things like this, by the civility and camaraderie of those gathered.

There were loud helicopters circling overhead, and you could see police on rooftops, which people on the ground speculated were snipers.

I finally got to my folks by Domino's, and we watched the march get started before we joined. When we did enter the barricades to march, there were thousands of people around us. The signs said they were: nurses, social workers, and teachers. The labor unions were out in force, and all the usual fringe movements.

We walked through neighborhoods with shops closed down for fear of violence. We made way for wheelchairs and strollers. We watched as frustrated customers tried the doors of the diner or grocery and then walked away. We walked right back around to the Staten Island Ferry and stood for an hour while speechmakers made speeches. We heard from the family of Eric Garner. We heard from the families of other black men killed by the police. Our former governor David Patterson reminded us of their names, and his father Basil Patterson's, the consummate New York politician, beating at the hands of the police as a teenager.

All the while, people milled about and cheered for the families. We left early to take the ferry back to where we had come from. I went to Western Beef to buy hundreds of hot dogs for the barbecue after church the next day.

When I stopped by the church to drop off the hot dogs and buns, I walked in on a reception for a memorial service. When I told people that I had been to Staten Island that morning, everyone one asked how it had been, clearly worried and asking if it had been violent, a riot.

These are all people who would have marched with us if it had not been for this memorial service. They are not people who assume a gathering of people of color outside would necessarily be a riot, but they do know how things like this can go. We've all been watching the news about Ferguson, MO, and if you've ever been in a march, you know the police can provoke people whether they mean to or not, and some, sometimes planted in marches and movements, provoke intentionally. On the news that evening I watched anchors noting with surprise how peaceful the march had been, what with police snipers poised and helicopters circling. Could it be that we bore witness to our humanity despite the state assuming we are by definition violent criminals?

A riot, I wondered? It was more like a procession. When the church organizes itself in a line and parades around, we believe we are bearing witness to the action of God in the community. We are illustrating a just world. One in which we hear the voice of God easily. You could say, we are calling up blessing, or we are blessing or pursuing blessing. We emerge from amongst the community as bearers of the holy to approach the holy. We are bearing witness to the great acts of God in history and opening our eyes wide to witness and maybe even invoke God's justice in the world today.

I guess when a bunch of people who aren't white make a line and walk around outside, this has the potential to be a riot.

At Manarcad Church, the sound of the chanting in preparation for the processions for Mary and the great feast of her birth were so disturbing to the British Anglican missionaries in the early 20th century, that one writes in his journal about finally going down the hill to the church and preaching the "truth to them; that they should stop their infernal chants for Mary." He notes that they seem to have chanted even louder in response to his preaching.

I bet he thought it was riotous. A bunch of brown folks, thousands of them, gathered to honor a woman whose claim to fame is a son killed at the hands of the state. I hear that son was unarmed as well and considered to be no angel by the press of the time.

We marched to remember Michael, Eric, Ramarley, Sean, Amadou, and their blessed mothers and loved ones. May those to soon departed rest in peace and rise in glory. Angels, they are now, to us. I hope you will get in the line the next time you have an opportunity to be a witness to where God's ways, not the ways of this broken world, need to be at work in the world, and I hope your path will be made safe to come back home.