What’s Prayer Got to Do With It?

My cousin Sophia was murdered on April 10th, 2007. She died almost 6 months before her 21st birthday. The last time I saw her in the flesh was during the Christmas holiday of 2006. We were gathered as immediate and extended family at Sophia’s urging in my childhood home. She asked my parents to host a gathering because it had been a long time since we were together without the rituals that accompany a funeral. 

I remember Sophia as filled with light. She was housed in beautiful brown skin and a smile that filled her entire face. When she walked through the door at our house, I knew she was an adult, but all I could see was a baby face. She looked even younger to me than she looked just a few years prior, after our grandmother died. My mind could only see her as a baby. At 14 years old, she was indeed the first baby I was allowed to care for as babysitter. To me, she was evidence of my own maturity and responsibility. While I used to babysit my younger brothers, caring for Sophia was different. To me, especially in her infancy, she symbolized that I was trusted to care and to love on my own. I took care of her right up until I left on my own journey into higher education and young adulthood. I charted out to find my own way, just as she was now doing.

By the time Sophia called us together as a family in 2006, she was the college student. It was her time to explore a new world. On her journey, it was also her who found herself longing for time with the people who loved her first. I didn’t know how much I needed it too. It is amazing how love holds memories that bind and call us back together over space and time.

I can still hear her voice as my brother and I began our departure that Christmas in 2006. She motioned to us in the car from the front door of our childhood home to lower the car door window. I was in the passenger seat closest to her and so I lowered mine. She said, “Big cousins! Don’t forget me down in Louisiana. I’ll be 21 in October, and I want to celebrate with y’all!” My brother leaned across me, and we both beamed back at her. I looked at him as if in disbelief that she was actually a young woman. He glanced at me in kind. I then turned back to her and yelled, “We won’t! We can’t wait to celebrate you, baby cousin!” We waved and blew kisses. I elevated the car door window. My brother put the car in reverse. We turned around in our driveway and began our journey back into our respective adult lives. 

Just as my brother’s rear tires spun up the last bits of gravel, I turned around for one more glance. She was still waving. I lowered the car window again, held my arm out and waved back. Love made me turn around one more time. I am so grateful it did because it would be that image, the one of her waving and smiling on a cold winter’s day that I would need to call upon after the news that would reach me less than 4 months later, on April 13th, 2007. It would be a call from my mother, and she would say, “They found Sophia.” I would need this image of Sophia and I bundled in love when I would come to know that a 13-year-old boy hoping to fish with his grandfather would first mistake Sophia’s lifeless body for a mannequin found near a levy in Port Allen, Louisiana. 

On April 13th, 2007, in a literal instant, love and lightheartedness in my body was replaced with shock and disbelief. It was then followed by an intense pain in my gut that traveled to my chest. My heart pounded. I felt fear scrape its way inside even as I could still hear my mother talking to me on the other end of the phone. Everything was swirling and I could no longer discern meaning from the words she was saying. I remember a build up of pressure and then I interrupted her. I yelled, “Was it some guy? I bet it was some man!” In another instant a deep and incendiary rage scorched me from the inside out. I was aflame. My mother’s voice again. “Yes.” She spoke. “Something really bad happened. The police are looking at young men in her life. Her name has not been released to the public. But the police seem to know who they are looking for.” 

The fire burned so ferociously I don’t remember hanging up the phone. I do remember I screamed. I wailed. I pounded the floor. I fell to my knees, and I could not pray. I could only shout, “Not Sophia! Why Sophia!” I was taught to pray in times like this and I could not think of a single prayer, not even one begging for relief.

At the time Sophia was killed, I was a relatively young, Black queer woman who had been raised in a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky. Even at 35 years of age, death was not foreign to me. My family had been through this before. Youthful Black death is part of the foundation on which the United States claims its moral and Christian high ground. It is also part of the gaping wound Black Americans try to mend, while ever knowing it can and likely will be ripped open again and again. Even before I learned to walk, I was taught to pray, especially in times like this. I think that perhaps as a child, a part of me resented this practice of prayer to some degree. Prayer had not made life easier as I experienced it. It hadn’t saved any lives or caused destruction to end. My Black family and other Black people in my life were joyous, but I could also feel tenseness and pain even in the laughter. Prayer didn’t seem to make us as free as what I noticed in my white counterparts. And certainly, we prayed for Sophia before she left for college and yet we were here, and she was dead. 

I scoured the news in Louisiana on the internet trying to find more information. Knowing her name had not been released, I was left to search “body of Black woman found in Louisiana.” From that search, I learned there were countless, nameless bodies of Black women and girls blanketing the entire country. I had only been searching for one. I was taught to pray in times like this, but I couldn’t. It is hard to locate a prayer when your blood boils and you can feel love leave your body.

All my teachings about love and the power in the Christian practice of prayer simply dissipated into the ether. I was left with imaginings of Sophia’s last moments. I was haunted by a sense of revenge. I didn’t even know who had taken her life, but I became obsessed about the idea of seeing him, whoever he was, take his last breath. Then at night, I was consumed with a fear that formed in my thoughts and rang in my ears, “What if I am next? What about my nieces? My mother?” I was taught to pray in times like this, but instead, I spun into anxiety and clung tightly to what I could feel. In my rage, I forgot about Sophia’s light. I forgot about the most important part of her last request, “Big cousins! Don’t forget about me…”

The night before I drove home for Sophia’s funeral I could not sleep. I had been days without real sleep. When I did fall asleep, nightmares joined me. I could feel that my rage was beginning to hurt my physical body. I could feel its flames. The flames were turning unbearable and my skin to ash. I needed it to stop. And so, as I had been taught, I prayed. I asked God to relieve me of my pain and my fear. I asked for help not to incite my family. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my supplication was a plea to be returned to love. After I prayed, I tearfully drifted off to a light sleep. Sophia appeared to me that night. She laughed with me and said, “Big cousin, I need you to bring my story forward.” I began to see her death was not only about devastating pain and loss, but also about the potential for repair and for growth. I recognized how we chose to move forward as individuals and as a family would speak volumes about how we would honor the years we had with her.

The day of the funeral, I stood above Sophia’s casket and looked out onto the crowd of people who loved her. I told them, “Sophia doesn’t want this to happen to another single one of us. Sophia doesn’t want to be our reminder of the darkness in the world.” I told them, “Sophia wants us to care for one another and to continue to love in her name. She doesn’t want the kind of pain and rage that took her life to be her legacy. And so, we must pray just as our people have done every day before this moment. We get down on bended knees and we pray in times like this.  We remember Sophia for who she was and we carry that memory forward. We ask God to help us go forward in love.”

 It has been over 14 years since I stood over my baby cousin’s casket. As I write about my experience I think about what I couldn’t know when prayer was offered to me as a solution when I was a child. I didn’t know then how deeply connected to love, to my survival, and to the survival of others, my practice of prayer would be. All these years later, I now work as a member of criminal defense teams. This work sits me right beside people charged and facing capital punishment for murder.  I sit in defense of the lives of people who have been accused of the same actions that have devastated families just like mine. I sit with them and support them even as I also know what it feels like to witness youth entombed and planted in the ground with no warning. It is only because my life and my work is so deeply centered in love and built on a foundation of prayer, I can show up in this way. I can be present and stay aligned with Sophia’s legacy.

It is only through contemplation, prayer, and a commitment to love that I can see the collateral damage that results when anyone is believed to be or  believes themselves to be too distant and outside of love’s reach. As a society, especially in these times, we are quick to label someone as other. Once labeled, we are even quicker to condemn. Once condemned, we place them at death’s door and then become shocked and dismayed when they take so many others with them.  

Recently, I heard Ahmaud Arbery’s mother speaking to the press after her son’s killers were found guilty of his brutal murder in 2020. She was asked how she was able to make it through this ordeal. I heard her say, “I prayed.” I also heard her talk about the sadness and pain not just in the loss of her son for her family, but also the sadness and pain that now exists in the lives of the families of the ones who killed him. To me, she summed up the reasons I pray and why I rejoice in the knowledge that I come from generations of Black people who pray unceasingly in times like this. Through joy, pain, justice, and injustice. We pray and we are still here.

The man who killed my cousin offered no regard for her life. It doesn’t even appear he saw her as a person who was connected to others who loved her. He made her into an object; an “other” and then discarded her as such. But I believe my practice of prayer has the power to remove barriers and allow for the reality of humanity to take full view.

It allowed me to move from the space of seeing him as “other” to him as “another.” I prayed for him. In doing so, I was freed from rage and his actions lost personal power over me. I no longer need revenge nor do I need to rejoice in the fact that he is serving a life sentence without parole. I have charted a way forward. The movement and willingness to practice prayer grounded my commitment to love. 

Fourteen years later, I can feel that Sophia is free. Even though he is imprisoned by the state of Louisiana, my prayers have allowed me to free him from what may have been his worst deed. As I share this story, I continue to be free to love. We are all members of a spiritual citizenry based in and bound by the fact there is no victory in dehumanization.  Such recognition allows me to remember my cousin as only light. I get to bring her story forward again and again. I also get to keep my promise. I have not forgotten Sophia and offer her memory to others in love and in prayer.