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Protests and prayer

As we struggle with deep divisions, we can look to Nehemiah’s prayer

A protest in Los Angeles AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Protests and prayer
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The weekend that my city, Los Angeles, roiled in anguish, anger, and chaos, my husband and I were in the mountains, about a two-hour drive away. Our plans to detox from technology and society disintegrated into ashes like the wood in our campfire.

We had gotten married during the pandemic, so we hadn’t been able to enjoy a honeymoon. Someone had gifted us a weekend trip to a Getaway cabin in the woods, and since my husband’s birthday was that Sunday, we decided to turn the trip into a double-celebration of our non-honeymoon and his birthday. The whole philosophy behind Getaway is to put your cell phones away (there’s even a lockbox for your phones) and simply enjoy the company of nature and your partner.

Our cell phones never made it to that lockbox: Our social media feeds blew up with pictures of exploding police cruisers, burning buildings, broken stores, and thousands of people marching the familiar neighborhoods of our city, demanding justice and accountability.

After burning our dinner on the campfire, we ate our first meal of charred salmon and crisp-black sweet potatoes in the quiet woods, scrolling on our phones and sharing new images and news from across the country. All our conversations started with “Wow … ” and “Did you see this?” We talked endlessly about the broken systems and hearts in our nation, constantly asking, “What is happening? What to do?” We tried several times to put our phones away, but the knowledge that our country was currently going through a painful, historic moment kept pulling us back into the news feed.

It felt surreal. We were surrounded by chirping birds, fragrant pine and oak trees, and a stunning coral-and-violet sunset. Less than 100 miles away, our city boomed and shook with police officers shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, protesters screaming and cussing, glass windows shattering, and looters ripping stores clean of merchandise. We were so close, yet a world away. We never felt so distant from the city we call home, the people we call neighbors.

On Saturday night, as we watched a peaceful afternoon protest in LA erupt into violence in the evening, we also watched the campfire in front of us crackle red, orange, and blue, dancing in the gentle mountain winds and providing much-needed warmth to us in the freezing night. In other areas, the same kind of fire was burning buildings and cars—different places, different uses, different effects.

A fire here—contained within the safe perimeters of a metallic bowl—symbolized coziness and comfort and warmth. A fire there—stoked from generations of hurt, neglect, injustice—symbolized something very different: People who felt invisible and ignored all their lives were unleashing their once-muffled cries in a way that society can no longer ignore, however nihilistic and anarchistic that may seem. It’s no wonder these protesters were strategically targeting wealthier, gentrified neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and downtown, while lower-income, minority-heavy neighborhoods such as South Central remained mostly calm. Americans live in vastly different realities and have different perspectives—disrupting the peace of more-sheltered neighborhoods caused some folks to recognize that.

Had it not been for technology, my husband, David, and I would have had a blissfully ignorant weekend. We would have talked about many things other than systematic injustice and racial reconciliation. Our lives would have been more comfortable, but out of touch with what’s happening at street-level.

But that’s impossible in the age of social media. And as a journalist, I felt a duty to be there to observe and report what’s happening, so I messaged one of my editors, asking what I could do. He asked if I was able to do any reporting on the protests.

“Should we go back home?” I asked David.

“I don’t want to, but I feel like we need to,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right to be here with everything happening at home.”

“I’m sorry this happened on your birthday weekend,” I said.

David shrugged: “That’s OK. I knew I wasn’t really going to be able to celebrate much this year. Man, what a year: 2020, man.” Then he asked, “What do you think God is doing through this?”

I thought about it for a long time, staring at the fire twirling in front of me. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “But I have to believe He’s still sovereign over this. I have to believe He’s trying to tell us something through this. I have to believe that He works all things for good to those who love Him.”

The silence in the woods echoed back to us. My heart felt so heavy: I later realized I was holding my fists tight to my chest, as if to support my heart. I turned to David and saw his facial muscles contracting with anxiety and sadness. There wasn’t much we could do that night except pray, so we did.

In the quiet of the still darkness, we prayed out loud, begging God for mercy and peace and justice. We also repented. I thought of Nehemiah, when he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” for several days, heartbroken over the state of his people, confessing the sins not just of his people but “myself and my father’s family” (Nehemiah 1:4-7). Even as a Korean immigrant, under the flashlight of honest self-examination, I knew I shared the sins of hate, division, pride, and idolatry that are at the heart of racism.

We made a decision together that night to leave early the next morning: David’s birthday. That afternoon, I attended a protest in downtown LA to report on it, while David trailed along on the sidelines so he could observe and learn.

If he hoped for clarity or answers by being at the protest, he didn’t get them, at least not just by being there. The diverse group’s noises were loud yet confusing, unfocused, emotionally high-strung, and in some instances incredibly vengeful and bitter. I saw divisions within the protesters themselves—most people worked hard to keep things peaceful and had specific demands for the city and police department. Some people threatened to burn the city down so they can rebuild their version of a just society.

I attended three protests during the week. I walked 9 miles in one day, observing and listening to these protesters through interviews and eavesdropping. As I write this I am emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. Listening to all these passionate cries and wails at the protests, then going home to listen to the confusion, division, and finger-wagging on social media, my mind and spirit are split apart—my mind gorged with noise and information, but my spirit feeling empty, restless, and lost.

My soul longs for the quiet mountains again. But this time, it’s not to get away from these tumultuous times. It’s to go before God and pray: Oh Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night for Your servants, the people of God.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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