F aith leaders, government officials, and activists advocated for prayer, social justice, and community empowerment in response to the national outcry over the death of George Floyd by law enforcement through a “virtual freedom ride.” From June 14 to 21,, “Miles to Minneapolis” took viewers on Facebook and YouTube on the virtual journey from the east coast to the mid-west. The “stops” included Columbia, Maryland; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; and Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the ride ended — and where Floyd was killed.
Leaders from the Potomac Conference, Allegheny East Conference, Allegheny West Conference, Lake Region Conference, Central States Conference, Minnesota Conference, Mid-America and Lake union conferences, and the North American Division Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department collaborated to find speakers for the campaign. Every stop featured representatives of different faiths, including Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. Ministers of various protestant denominations also participated along with Adventist church leaders.
“Miles to Minneapolis is more than an event. It’s a movement to effect positive change in our communities. Experiencing the enthusiasm of inter-faith leaders coming together, united in purpose to work toward creating a society that embraces each person's God-given right to enjoy an existence where they feel safe and valued, was truly wonderful,” said Debra Anderson, communication director for the Potomac Conference, who also served as the communication director for Miles to Minneapolis.
While Miles to Minneapolis was centered on prayer and faith, another instrumental component was encouraging community engagement. This led to the creation of a pledge that leaders at every location where encouraged to share with their viewers. Participants pledged five actions: engage in public service; vote and get counted (through the U.S. Census 2020); become culturally informed; learn a new trade and/or support black businesses; and take charge of one’s health.
On the Road
Miles to Minneapolis began in Columbia, Maryland, where the headquarters of the North American Division is located.
“There is a problem in this land, and that problem is systemic racism. There is no intellectual construct that’ll help us understand how that happened,” said Daniel R. Jackson, NAD president, speaking of Floyd’s death during the first night of Miles to Minneapolis. “I’m a strong believer that in order to make lasting change, communities must pull together, regardless of race and faith.”
Zainab Chaudry, director of Maryland outreach for the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), acknowledged the timing of the uprising as it relates to the novel coronavirus.
“We’re recovering from a coronavirus pandemic that’s about four months old, but the pandemic of racial violence plaguing our country is over four centuries old. It’s claimed countless lives and it’s been more persistent, pervasive, and deadly than any other pandemic in the history of our country,” said Chaudry. “We will find a vaccine for the coronavirus pandemic, and we also pray to God that we will not rest until we’ve eradicated the diseases of bigotry and hatred from our midst.”
Rabbi Susan Grossman of the Beth Shalom Congregation, which is also located in Columbia, spoke on the full definition of “Shalom,” which goes far deeper than peace for the sake of peace. Grossman said it also refers to a societal completeness and balance.
“Peace cannot exist when justice does not exist. Peace is a possibility God has created for us, only if we’re worthy of being able to create it here. Only together can that peace be achieved,” said Grossman.
William T. Cox, president of the Allegheny West Conference, welcomed viewers at the virtual stop in Columbus. During his remarks, he lamented on the long history of injustice toward Black Americans.
“Who would’ve thought we would still be having this type of experience in America in 2020?” asked Cox. “The evidence is indisputable, loss of life undeniable, [and] the list of names is long and heartbreaking. It's time to speak up and stand up, that’s why we are here.”
Vince Monden, pastor and founder of The Faith Clinic Community Church in Columbus, spoke on the need for courage on the quest for change. He spoke about the 17-year-old young woman who filmed George Floyd’s death.
“Even though she was afraid and felt somewhat intimidated by the law enforcement officers, it took courage for her to take out her cellphone to record Floyd’s life being taken away right in front of her eyes,” said Monden. “We envision a nation, city, world, community where we are free from oppression and ill treatment. However, there is something that lies within all of us that should respond when we see injustice and inequality taking place right in front of us.”
During the final stop in Minneapolis, Leslie Redmond, president of the NAACP Minneapolis Chapter, shared what has helped her stay motivated during times of racial turmoil in her city. She repeated her mantra, “Don’t complain, activate.”
“God gave me three words to guide me —communication, collaboration and compassion. At first, I thought it was for how we operate within the NAACP, but then I realized God intended for me to use them in the community as well,” said Redmond.
Yoki, Rocky, and Bill
Miles to Minneapolis first began as a prompting of the Holy Spirit between three Adventist friends — Yolanda “Yoki” Banfield, Rockefeller “Rocky” Twyman, and Bill Ellis.
“God woke me at five in the morning, and I knew I needed to call Yoki,” said Twyman after reflecting on George Floyd’s death the day prior. “We have a history of activism. We went to Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed. We were both part of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta in the 1960s. As soon as Yoki answered the phone she said, ‘You’re calling about George Floyd, aren’t you?’”
Banfield says the lessons she learned from marches she participated in during the 60s — even one march where she was spat upon by a five-year-old girl — have helped guide her in her activism today.
“The march did so much for us. We fought against hatred, but it also taught us humility and forgiveness. I want younger people to understand that now. It’s great to have a cause, but it’s important to keep your heart clean, pure, and forgiving. If you don’t, you’ll get caught up in the hatred and madness of society,” said Banfield. “We have to stay connected to the God of love and peace. We have to remember we are created in the image of [God], so we have to walk and act in love, and forgiveness. We have to be bold, but humbled in our boldness.”
Banfield and Twyman looped into their discussions their long-time friend Ellis, who is also passionate about community activism. Ellis was already starting to brainstorm ways of assisting protesters within social distancing guidelines required due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the three of them spoke, they knew whatever they did needed to center on prayer.
“We give credit to the Holy Spirit for this idea. Once our conversation started it just flowed. It was clear this was what we needed it do,” said Ellis.
He wrote up a proposal for what was, at the time, called a “prayer pilgrimage” to send to the senior pastor of his church, Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ashton, Maryland. From there, a team of organizers, communication and media professionals, and Adventist leaders assembled to bring the vision into a reality only seven days after hearing the proposal.
“We [Ellis, Banfield, Twyman] participated in the planning meetings, but told the team this event belongs to the Holy Spirit, and to do whatever they felt led to do to make this work,” said Ellis.
Each of the Miles to Minneapolis originators expressed how the enthusiasm, sincerity, and participation of the faith and community leaders from every location of all ages inspired them and gave hope for the future.
“What excited me about each stop was the willingness of the inter-faith leaders to collectively lend a voice to the current movement led by young people,” said Banfield. “This is truly the Joshua generation. This time is bringing out the youth. They are taking the lead and asking questions. To hear and see the support and engagement of this inter-racial, multi-generational, and inter-faith movement makes me so excited.”