The story of Jesus’ crucifixion was told through the lens of social justice by seven Black women ministers for “At the Cross: A Requiem in 7 Words,” a Good Friday service held at St. Simon the Cyrenian Church on Friday.
“At the Cross” was organized by shepreaches-Philadelphia and was inspired by a similar Good Friday service that was started by the Chicago branch of shepreaches. Organizers said the objective was to show the relationship of the suffering of Black women to that of Jesus’ on the cross.
“We start with the understanding that Jesus was unjustly killed because Jesus’ life and Jesus’ ministry was offensive to the people in power, to the people that had social status, to the people setting all the institution’s rules,” said Naomi Washington-Leapheart, a Faith and Justice organizer, and co-coordinator of the event. “He was crucified in an act of violence in the same way [as] Black women, who are often offensive to the people in power. Black women are dying every day behind... neglect and violence.”
Each speaker shared the story of a Black woman who died directly or indirectly from violence or some form of oppression.
Three of the subjects included in the speeches were women who had a personal connection to the organizers, through mutual friends or family. They included Akyra Murray, a Philadelphia native who at the age of 18, was the youngest victim of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre; the Rev. Depayne Middleton, a victim of the Charleston church shooting; and Patricia Wells Allen, a woman who died after being treated from a wrongful cancer diagnosis.
The “Seven Words” service began with praise and worship and transitioned into the speeches, each of which was preluded by statistics on violence and oppression of Black women.
“It is the systems that have created a normalcy of racialized violence that is acceptable in our society,” said the Rev. Richelle Hines. “Today, we are still trying to bring awareness to the masses that black lives matter.”
Hines spoke on Middleton’s death in Charleston and compared shooter Dylann Roof to Pilate in the Bible, stating that “Dylan, like Pilate, issued the death sentence.” She also pointed out that the victims’ families “may spend the rest of their lives to forgive a system” that caused the tragedy.
“[But] be encouraged,” she said. “That no matter what it feels like, God has not left us.”
The Rev. Tamika Holder shared Akyra Murray’s story and said “the despise and hate that caused her life to end, Jesus could definitely exemplify with that... preparing to lose his life because of the hatred of the people because he opposed... the systems they utilized to keep people down.”
In her speech on Patricia Wells Allen, Chaplain Shayna Watson said, “Patricia bore the cross as Jesus did and as many other Black women in the United States of America have.” Watson said like Christ, [Allen’s] living was not in vain “because Allen’s daughter, moved by the tragedy, began “research to [ensure] people of color are cared for in our healthcare institutions.”
The Rev. Calenthia Dowdy compared the death of Joyce Curnell, a 50-year-old Black woman who died in jail from “dehydration,” to Jesus’ plea for water while he was on the cross.
“Jesus was neglected by most,” said Dowdy. “Our sister Joyce was also neglected in that jail cell for 27 hours where she died due to severe thirst, pain and dehydration... My question every day, do Black lives matter? Do Black women’s lives matter?”
Elder Megan Gibson related the death of Maria Fernandes, a woman who worked three jobs, and while on a break, died in her car from asphyxiation. Gibson related Fernandez’s death to the symbolism of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, while the disciples slept. “I wonder if the disciples ever saw what Jesus was experiencing,” said Gibson. “Maria gave generously, freely of her resources. Who was present to see her?”
Minister in training Melanie Pressley-Jackson discussed the death of Delaware teenager Amy Joyner-Francis, who died of heart complications after being assaulted in her high school bathroom. Many of her peers watched without helping. Jackson related this to Jesus’ “betrayal by one of the 12 disciples.”
Amy didn’t have a chance,” said Jackson. “While we encounter betrayals on our journey and crosses along the way, the good news is that they don’t have to be unto death. So take up your cross, and live.”
Leaphart and co-coordinator Kentina Washington-Leapheart concluded the service with the story of Shelly Hilliard, a transgender woman whose body was dismembered and spread across the city of Detroit.
“Shelly was undignified in life because she was poor, Black and transgender in a country that doesn’t respect Black transgender bodies. And she was undignified in death because her body was mutilated in this way,” said Naomi. “We were holding that up against what happened to Jesus’ body... the part where the family members of Jesus ask for his body... so they can wash it to prepare it for burial. At least Jesus’ body was held up with dignity. He was dignified in death even if he was undignified in life. Our point was to say her body was a body of christ just like our bodies are bodies of Christ. What would happen if we saw everybody’s body as a body of Christ?”
On the Thursday before the Good Friday, four of the ministers gathered for a dinner and a foot washing that was organized by Washington-Leapheart.
“When Jesus washed the disciples feet, it was a way of honoring their friendship,” said Kentina. “Women in ministry are often expected to do all of the heavy lifting. All are serving inside and outside of the church context, while also trying to take care of their families. This is our way of saying ‘thank you’ and that ‘we see you.’”
Naomi said upon witnessing the service, she hoped people will be moved to action.
“We hope Black women will be encouraged and affirmed that they stand with us against the violence we face,” she said. “[And] we hope people will walk away energized to so something about the oppression.”