An Open Letter from Paul Leaman Following the Death of George Floyd

School Day Out at the beginning of each school year is a time to play and build relationships. Pictured: high school students with Justin King, principal, August 2019 at Highland Retreat in Bergton, Virginia.
School Day Out at the beginning of each school year is a time to play and build relationships. Pictured: high school students with Justin King, principal, August 2019 at Highland Retreat in Bergton, Virginia.

On Monday, June 1, 2020, Paul Leaman, head of school, shared the following message with EMS students (grades 9-12) and parents, following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in police custody. Our classrooms and community gatherings such as Chapel and Neighbor Groups for grades 6-12, and elementary weekly Gathering, would provide opportunity for students, teachers and administrators to talk about issues such as these in normal times.

Dear EMS Families,

I write with a broken heart because of our growing national crisis spawned by the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The unnecessary violence toward Mr.Floyd and the resulting riots again raise awareness of our country’s issues of inequality and racism. This weekend I watched the movie “Harriet,” the story of Harriet Tubman who put her faith and resolve for justice to action. How do we as a Christian community support our brothers and sisters of color who frequently face injustices in our world?

An EMS goal is to make continual steps in our commitment to grow in our understanding of institutional racism and deepen relationships between all people despite color or creed. I love the sign, “No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor.” One step further, “We are glad you are part of our family!”

As a school community that is guided by Jesus Christ and his peaceful love for all people, we grapple with current events. Ideally, we would talk, pray and learn together in chapel and in classrooms at a time like this. We will do that again in the future. Today, in a time of heightened awareness, I share some thoughts to challenge us to better our ways.

I have heard it stated, and find it usually true, that churches (and private schools) are our most racially and economically segregated places. This “invisible” undercurrent creates institutional racism prevalent in our society. EMS is not immune. As a person of privilege I want to publicly state our school’s desire and intention to help break the chains of institutional and societal barriers and racism. At EMS, our understanding of holistic education includes developing awareness about our place in the world. Our world is broken in many ways and we commit ourselves to speak and act for positive resolutions and unity.

Our 2019-20 Strategic Plan 2022 names our intention to grow in diversity. It is a small step. We will continue this work in our classrooms, and we encourage families and churches to join us. I encourage us to listen to the voices, stories, and feelings experienced by people of color and learn from the many resources that are flooding bookstores, libraries and social media about structural racism at this time in our country’s history.

Perhaps you will want to reflect on and talk about some simple questions that help you think about the role skin color plays in our society.

– Are you aware of your skin color when you go to the grocery store?
– Would you fear for your well-being if pulled over for a traffic violation?
– Would you feel safe approaching a police officer with a question?

Reflecting on questions like these are one way we can honor the life of George Floyd and the many others we have learned to know in recent years as part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. My job as a person who benefits from white systems is to educate myself.

This is hard work. It is complex. As a white person who considers myself aware and compassionate and deeply committed to equality, it is hard to learn that I, personally, have benefited from systems and structures that harm other people simply because of their skin color.

Join me in praying for calm in Minneapolis, many U.S. cities, and our own Harrisonburg and Shenandoah Valley. Pray for the first responders and civic leaders who are working with the unrest and pent up emotions. Pray for our community as we try to understand the complex realities so we can bear fruits of love, healing, and unity in the future.

We are #FlamesStrong Family!

Paul Leaman

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