Breonna taylor:

reflections in search of justice and truth

Dr. Brad R. Braxton

Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, St. Luke's School, New York, NY

Curator, Living Religions in America Program, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Founding Senior Pastor, The Open Church of Maryland

September 24, 2020

Breonna Taylor. We must continue to say her name. In the spirit of tenacious love, righteous remembrance, and fierce resistance, we must continue to say her name. Breonna Taylor.

In fact, I never met this twenty-six-year-old black woman who was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and lived in Louisville, Kentucky. In truth, I am acquainted with her.

On some occasions, “facts” and “truth” dwell in the same domicile. On other occasions, truth breaks beyond the gravitational pull of facts to give us a larger view of our individual and collective experiences and the universal neighborhood in which we all live. Accordingly, in a balanced curriculum that unites head and heart, science and spirituality are allies, not enemies. They enable us to navigate the delicate tension between facts and truth.


In a way that rings true to me, I know Breonna Taylor. As the son of a black woman, the husband of a black woman, and the father of a black woman, I know her…Breonna Taylor. Consequently, I must say her name, and I invite you to do likewise.


Like all of us, Breonna Taylor was creative and complex. She had high hopes for the future even though she had experienced many low valleys. She had family and friends who loved her and made her the best version of herself. She also had proclivities and relationships that complicated, and at times compromised, her efforts to live her best life.


In a photo collage in Breonna’s scrapbook, there is a childhood picture of her holding a teddy bear, and the teddy bear is holding a heart with the words “I Love You.” Tamika Palmer, her mother, said that Breonna was: “Full of life. Easy to love.”


Concerning love, Breonna loved her work as a healthcare professional so much that she often showed up twenty minutes early to work, even though the financial compensation at her job might not have incentivized that level of passion. She also apparently loved hot sauce so much that she topped her pancakes with it.


In my estimation, it is important to recount some of the facts of her life, lest we miss invaluable truths in the ongoing struggle to ensure that Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor is not a statistic or a “problem” to be solved. She is a sister, who in life and in death, has many stories to tell us if we could be quiet and still enough to listen to—and learn from—them.


What stories is she telling us today? The “fact” that no police offer was directly charged in her death is absurd, almost to the point of being “laughable,” if the “truth” of these recent developments were not so deadly serious. Colored flesh continues to be dispensable in ways that white flesh is not.


What stories is Breonna telling us today? Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the eighty-seven-year-old, iconic, and heroic Supreme Court Justice—will be the first woman to lie in state in the United States Capitol. This marvelous “fact” shows us how much good can happen when a woman refuses to play by the rigged rules of patriarchal politics.


Even as we celebrate that fact and narrate Justice Ginsburg’s remarkable legacy, we also must connect that fact with a messy “truth.” We will never know how much good Breonna Taylor might have done if she, too, would have been afforded six more decades.


As an educator and researcher in diversity and social justice, I often invite individuals and institutions to embrace womanism as a significant resource for building a culture of inclusive belonging that prioritizes equity and social justice. According to one definition:

Womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women's and other women of color's everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces, extending to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment/nature, and reconciling human life with the spiritual dimension.

As we do our everyday work of teaching, learning, coaching, and inspiring, let us chip away today, and every day, at some form of oppression and replace it with some form of opportunity. While we work, let us say her name: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While we work, let us say her name: Breonna Taylor. In connecting their names and stories, we might gain deeper perspectives on justice and truth.

troubling the waters:

Baptism and black lives matter

Rev. Brad R. Braxton, Ph.D. writes in response to Religion and Racial Justice: The George Floyd Protests, "The Birmingham Four, the Charleston Nine, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are embodied reminders that in the fight to make black lives matter, 'we have come over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.' We must say their names, and especially the names of black female martyrs whose stories often are rendered invisible in public protests and national dialogues."

Read the entire article here.

Sad but Not Surprised: “A Talk to Teachers” in Times of Violence and Death

(Reflections of Dr. Brad R. Braxton, May 28, 2020)


Even as we mourn the incalculable loss of human life in the COVID-19 pandemic, we also mourn yet another onslaught of anti-black violence that highlights the long-standing sickness in America. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota, along with a white person's blatant attempt to intimidate Christian Cooper in New York City's Central Park, are all tragic events on many levels. These events claim national attention because there is video evidence in some instances to corroborate the violence, intimidation, and presumed entitlement of some white people to control, and kill, "colored people."

Am I deeply saddened by all this? Yes! Am I surprised by any of this? Absolutely not! Let me explain why I am sad but not surprised and what the implications of this are for me as an educator and as an African American man.

Sadness caused by events like these is justified. The sadness at times expresses itself in lament. In our family rooms, classrooms, cultural spaces, and private places, we must encourage personal and communal lament. Lament is a ruggedly honest declaration that something is deeply wrong and severely out of joint or that someone who is dearly loved in now significantly absent.

Lament takes many forms: guttural groans, copious tears, long stretches of silence, fits of rage, quiet questioning, bittersweet remembering, tension-riddled tossing and turning. We lament because people matter to us, because values such as dignity and the presumption of safety matter to us. We lament because there remains somewhere in us a faint hope that today's pain will not completely swallow tomorrow's possibilities. As an educator charged with cultivating the hearts and minds of emerging leaders, I lament the violence and death in these difficult times, and I encourage our students to lament.

While I have a great appreciation for lamentation, I also harbor a growing intolerance for people acting surprised by tragic events like these. It is a vexing question for me: why would anyone be surprised?

The sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark insist, "Nostalgia is the enemy of history... We frequently accept... tales that corrupt our understanding of the past and mislead us about the present." I know enough history about the United States, and I have had enough encounters with racism to never again be surprised by any form of aggression against black people.

We will slow the spread of the coronavirus by wearing masks. We will slow the spread of virulent racism by unmasking the presumption of ignorance. Some people are "surprised" by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 or aggressive policing on communities of color only because of their willful ignorance.

Deep down inside, most adults and many young people in New York City and countless other cities and towns in the United States know where the visible and invisible color and (economic) class lines are. These color and class lines either rope people into, or out of, better or worse economic and educational outcomes and personal or communal well-being. While the landscapes and skylines of our communities have changed dramatically across the centuries, these color and class lines were laid down a long time ago by "the framers" and colonial architects of the American republic. Unfortunately, these lines have proven thus far to be indelible.

In 1963, James Baldwin delivered "A Talk to Teachers" as the United States was reeling from highly publicized episodes of racial violence. With probing prose, this literary sage exploded the myth of ignorance and, along with it, the myth of American innocence. Baldwin remarked:

The point of all this is that black [people] were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy. In order to justify that [black people] were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals... What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident... It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

More than half a century later, we are still in trouble, but trouble need not last always.

Educational institutions - from colleges and elementary and secondary schools to museums - are engaging in robust discussions about equity. While equity has many components, it certainly entails intentional individual and institutional efforts to counteract the disproportionate privilege and power related to difference that are unfairly afforded to some people while denied to others. As teachers, we can create equitable places and practices by courageously dispelling ignorance - both the benign lack of knowledge that welcomes instruction and the malignant ignoring of knowledge that revels in nostalgia.

In these times of violence and death, our classrooms - whether in-person or online - can be sites for sharing meaningful information and forming moral identity. According to the theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, a moral identity "is one that is relieved of pretensions to superiority. It lets go of any myths that suggest one people is more valuable than another... A moral identity affirms the shared humanity of all human beings."

Let's create a world where everybody counts, irrespective of color, class, creed, or condition. Now that would be a most welcome surprise.


James Baldwin: Collected Essays edited by Toni Morrison

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas

The Churching of America 1776-1990 by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark


The Two-Way Street Called Love

(Letter to St. Luke's School Community, October 7, 2019)

The Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) met last Thursday evening for the first time in the 2019-2020 academic year. Sixteen parents from beautifully diverse backgrounds joined me at school for food, fellowship, and fun. Laughter, comfortable dialogue, and a hospitable energy filled the room.

As we introduced ourselves, I asked parents to respond to several questions including these: 1) What tangible dish would you bring to the "Welcome Table"? and 2) What intangible "gifts" do you bring to the "Welcome Table"?

In response to the first question, parents described the most delectable dishes that they and their families enjoy. The parents at St. Luke's School could outdo any award-winning chef when it comes to cuisine and creativity. As we imagined the Welcome Table, it became abundantly clear that the effort to build a care-full community involves tangible activities such as eating together and crossing culinary boundaries with curiosity and appreciation.

In response to the second question, parents described the most heart-warming personal characteristics and values that they gladly bring to our community to make us better and brighter. Words such as joy, optimism, hugs, wisdom, passion, and gratitude lept from the lips of one parent into the hearts of other parents.

Several parents said that a precious gift that they bring to St. Luke's School is love! My soul needed to hear that. Our world needs to hear that.

Love - truth-telling love, justice-seeking love, heart-mending love - must undergird our efforts to build care-full communities - both inside and outside the walls of St. Luke's School.

James Baldwin, the 20th century literary genius and prophetic seer, once reflected on love - not the syrupy love of Hallmark cards - but rather the serious, strong love upon which a better today and a brighter tomorrow can be established. Baldwin remarked:

If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see. Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don't see. And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me...

The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love.

Many streets in New York City are woefully congested. The traffic, however, on the two-way street called love can flow easily if we let it.

With Love,


Brad R. Braxton, Ph.D.

Interim Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

and Church-School Initiatives

St. Luke's School

A coeducational Episcopal school welcoming children of all faiths.


Open Means Open: Pastoral Reflections on an Audacious Vision

Dr. Brad R. Braxton
Founding Senior Pastor

As I wrote the initial vision for The Open Church in 2011, I wanted to form an intercultural community held together by three core theological commitments: 1) progressive ministry; 2) prophetic ministry; and 3) pluralistic ministry.

  1. Progressive Ministry: Progressive ministry believes that sacred texts and authoritative traditions must be critically engaged and continually reinterpreted in light of contemporary circumstances, or religion becomes a relic. 

  2. Prophetic Ministry: Prophetic ministry insists that God desires to save us not only from our personal sins, but also from the systemic sins that oppress neighborhoods and nations.

  3. Pluralistic Ministry: Pluralistic ministry is a liberating call to “uncertainty, to a sense of human and religious limitedness. It is an affirmation that what we think we know certainly and absolutely is, in fact, neither certain nor absolute.”1 Truth held in a vise grip often leads to the vice of arrogance. On the contrary, by opening our hands and hearts, we make it possible to grasp, and be grasped by, larger truths.

Like sturdy beams supporting a floor, these three core commitments undergirded every aspect of The Open Church’s founding meeting in October 2011 and continue to inform the congregation’s approach to ministry. Thus, in the very foundation of the congregation is an explicit commitment to radical openness.

In the founding meeting, and subsequent meetings across these eight years, we envisioned and have striven to be  The Open Church, not just the The Open Door Church. Many churches have referred to themselves as “open door” churches. I do not disparage congregations with “open doors.” However, The Open Church has loftier ambitions in its pursuit of openness. In some churches, the “doors” may be open, but the “windows” are nailed shut through denominational dogma, burdensome bureaucracy, and an obsession with outdated orthodoxies (to name a few nails). Consequently, the free-flowing “wind” cannot circulate properly, and the air becomes stagnant.

We purposed to create a church whose entire existence—and not just its “doors”—was open. We envisioned and are striving to be: A church open to any persons and perspectives that are truthful, just, and compassionate. A church open to theistic and non-theistic religions and to humanist and atheistic moral philosophies. A church open to sexual diversity so that LGBT persons can emerge from the closets they often inhabit in religious spaces for fear of “assault and battery” by the Bible. A church open to the courageous re-imagining and embracing of the feminine dimensions of God as an act of resistance to sexism. A church open to class diversity that will enable white-collar salary workers and blue collar shift workers to learn with and from one another. 

In other words, when we say The Open Church, open really means open!


1 Joseph M. Webb, Preaching and the Challenge of Pluralism (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998), 108.