Office for Spiritual Engagement

Dear Faculty and Staff of Hobart and William Smith Colleges:
I share the following with you in lament and hope over recent events.

Eight minutes – eight minutes of suffocation, eight minutes of watching your life flash before you, eight minutes of calling for your mother’s arms, eight minutes to say I can’t breathe - until the God given gift of life’s breath is snatched from the body mind and spirit of George Floyd. As the Chaplain of the Colleges I center my life around Christian values, which is why I must acknowledge that the events leading to and causing George Floyd’s death are deeply embedded in a spiritual sickness in our world called racism. Most notably, I must be honest about the Church’s complicity in promulgating the plague of racism.

George Floyd joined the countless souls whose tears flood the streets of the heavens as the knee of injustice has crushed the necks of Africa’s children for over 600 years. These tears were shed as our ancestors were kidnapped from their land, mutilated in body and spirit, stripped of their identity, and silenced in their ability to narrate their own suffering, just as George Floyd’s voice was silenced while he cried out for his mother on May 25, 2020. The final moments of George Floyd’s life brought voices longing to be heard over the centuries into our present moment as time folded in on itself thorough global networks imploding with the cries of mothers everywhere. These cries lamented with mothers separated on the auction block from their children, mothers retrieving the bodies of their children hanging at the end of ropes as strange fruit across America, and the unnamed African mothers that stood on the auction block as Prince Henry the Navigator offered a tithe of black bodies – two young boys who also longed for their mothers – to the Church in Portugal in the 8th day of the eight month, 1444. The events that transpired in Portugal on August 8, 1444, would place the western world and Christian theology on a trajectory to support the subjugation of black bodies well into the 21st century.

Thanks to my theology professor, Dr. Willie Jennings, I learned of Gomez de Azurara known as Zurara, the chronicler writing for Prince Henry the Navigator, who set the contextual stage for these events through a lens acceptable to the 15th century western Christian church. Zurara must resolve a tension between the suffering he observes when these stolen Africans disembark and the belief, he holds that Portugal is a world power of unprecedented greatness. Zurara proceeds to develop a narrative that describes the lighter bodies as “fair to look upon” and the black bodies as “ugly both in features and in body.” The expansionist events that would ensue coincided with a Doctrine of Discovery purported by the Church, giving Portugal agency to bring these bodies of blackness into the realm of Portugal’s light. This narration, and others like it, spiritualized skin color and necessitated the perpetual subjugation of black bodies by unimaginable violence in order to maintain the purity of whiteness in a hegemony that would uproot entire continents through time and space. We must acknowledge that we continue to reside in this falsified matrix of deception. We continue to acquiesce to the rules written centuries ago. We continue to remain reticent when our voices must break the silence. We continue to steal the breath away from black bodies who cannot breathe in a world where African Americans die at twice the rate of the African American population from COVID-19. We continue to steal the breath of those protesting who are met with chemical agents in our nation’s capital and across the nation. We continue to hide behind the presumption that practices of domination are ordained by God. However, our spiritual practices are hollow when we are called into account, and the blood of our brothers and sisters cries from the ground. We continue to bow down to the idols of whiteness as normative models of acceptability, so that we have nowhere else to turn when the institutions that are created to stabilize society are whitewashed tombs suffering from an inner decay of racism. Now is the time to look to each other and pull back the veil of deception over these tombs so that a breath of fresh air may revive us once more and give us the time to grieve the world we have inherited. Now is time to look to each other, name what has kept us in bondage and write a narrative that will give us the courage to face our past with integrity so that we may go forward with a clarity of vision and be able to finally breathe once more in peace. This is the justice that will bring us peace. I pray that we have the grace to receive it.

The Rev. Nita C. Johnson Byrd (she, her, hers)
Dean of Spiritual Engagement and Chaplain


Office for Spiritual Engagement
St. John's Chapel, Room 22
Geneva, NY 14456

Phone: (315) 781-3671
Fax: (315) 781-3348

Abbe Center for Jewish Life
Phone: (315) 679-6924





Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.