Breathe on Me Lord; I Can’t Breathe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney

Breathe on me, Breathe of God, Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou dost love,

And do what Thou wouldst do.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God by Edwin Hatch (1842-1914) Composer Robert Jackson (1842-1914) Composer Lockhart (1745-1815).

I usually begin a spiritual direction session by inviting a directee to focus on his/her breath as we begin a time of silence. Focusing on one’s breath is a way to become centered in the moment, during a meditation practice, so that we can be attentive to the moving of the Holy Spirit within our lives. As we attend to each moment of inhaling a deep breath and then slowly releasing it, we can experience the easing of the tension within our physical bodies and the scattered thoughts jostling within our minds. The spiritual discipline of focusing on our breath is also a reminder of Genesis 2:7, when God breathed the breath of life into Adam and then to Eve bringing forth life.

Recently, our nation has been reminded of the importance of human breath from those whom the breath of life has been extinguished due to injustice. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, 17, was fatally shot by George Zimmermann in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon was unjustly profiled as dangerous because he was wearing a hoodie and Black in a neighborhood that Zimmerman believed Blacks did not belong.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot by a white police officer who suspected the youth of a recent robbery and of carrying a weapon. Millions watched the unbelievable actions of New York City police officers holding Eric Garner, 43, in a choke-hold on Staten Island on July 18, 2014. “I can’t breathe,” Garner gasped, as officers held him down and repeatedly banged Garner’s head on the hard pavement. Garner was arrested for resisting arrest and for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner’s body went lifeless, and he was dead on arrival (DOA) to the hospital. Eric Garner was also Black.

The most recent example of injustice was Freddie Gray Jr., 25, who was arrested for allegedly carrying an illegal switch blade. Gray died on April 21, 2015, as a result of unnecessary force used against him, resulting in a spinal cord injury. In addition, Gray was not correctly secured inside a police van while being transported to the police station. Gray also said “I can’t breathe.”

Gray’s life ended due to the actions of six police officers. It was later found that Gray did not have a switchblade. He had a knife that is lawful under Maryland law. It was the type of knife that millions of men of all races carry every day throughout our nation. Unrest, protesters, and riots broke out after each of the deaths of the Black youth and men previously mentioned. Each demonstration echoed loud and clear the same sentiment of injustice and violation of civil rights. Mothers, fathers, spouses, and children moan their loss of loved ones, and we are yelling and shouting individually, corporately, and as a nation, “I can‘t breathe;” We can’t breathe.

The violence and injustice we are facing today is far from the dream that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken of on August 28, 1963. This is not the dream we had hoped would end racism and the inequality of Blacks and others not of the dominant culture. Instead, there is a noose of injustice and racism cutting off the air of our Black youth and men, and we have been jolted out of our dream state to face a civil rights crisis and a complete reversal of what we had all hoped would bring peace and new life. Instead, the breath of some human beings is being cut off because of their color. The recent violence against our Black youth and men has ignited the racial and injustice conversation again. A pertinent conversation to get to the root of racism, which is a deep societal wound that has long been bandaged over, is essential for all of us. The worn bandages are peeling away and falling off as new forms of racism are introduced into society. These new systems are strategically being carried out through a set of laws that unfairly tips the scales of justice in support of destroying our Black youth and men.

The “Stop and Frisk” practice that allows police to stop an individual who may be suspected of carrying a weapon has been inappropriately used to restrict civil liberties rather than for the prevention of crime. It is sadly assumed that our African American men and most others outside of the dominant culture are all dangerous and are most likely to commit a crime. The media has long perpetrated the negative views about African Americans and specifically Black men and youth. This continues to cause a divide to the point that society does not distinguish between one person of color from another. Fear and suspicion is cast over all Blacks instead of seeing people as individuals. The portrayal of Blacks and others outside of the dominant culture as dangerous, as demonstrated in the cases previously cited above, consequently profiles our Black and minority youth and men in a negative light.

Michelle Alexander, social activist and author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarnation in the Age of Colorblindness, uses the analogy of Jim Crow laws to show that the old racial caste system has just been redesigned as a mass racial incarceration system for blacks and Latinos. Alexander challenges the view that, by electing President Obama, a Black President, we are living in an era of colorblindness. Instead, Alexander speaks to the caste system that keeps our Black youth and men, and all others, disenfranchised through a racial incarceration caste system that relegates them to second class citizenship. Alexander calls us all to action to bring about change.

As Christians, believing that we are each made in the image of a loving God, we cannot turn away and breathe within our own safety zone. We are all affected, especially those of us whom are Black and others outside of the dominant culture with sons, spouses, brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “…injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere.” We must all be prayerful, speak up, and advocate for justice for all.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure, Until with Thee I will Thy will,

To do and to endure.

Closing Prayer:

Lord, help us to be new; breathe on us God. Breathe courage and peace within and instill in us the willingness to breathe out the racism that has hold of our country and bring new life. Help us to be free from our own biases and to be reconciled through Jesus Christ. Move us to peaceful actions that bring about change, so that we can breathe the breath of New Life. Amen.


Rosalie Norman McNaneyRev. Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney is an ordained American Baptist minister, spiritual director, and hospice chaplain in Central Florida. She is vice manager of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Norman-McNaney is committed to sharing the transformational love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ministry with all people regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, language, age, sexual orientation, and or ability.