As his peaceful protest was met with police violence and national headlines, Derrick Sanderlin takes refuge in the Holy Spirit
“I saw a young girl get shot directly in the chest,” African American community activist Derrick Sanderlin said in an interview, recalling how police used rubber bullets against peaceful demonstrators in San José, California. “That just really tore me apart and broke my heart. I couldn’t watch that anymore... I started walking sideways over to [the police line] with my hands up, hoping to stop them from shooting more innocent people.”
Though he posed no threat to them, the San Jose Police Department (SJPD) also shot Derrick with a rubber bullet in his groin at point-blank range. After surgery, doctors are unsure if he and his wife Cayla, Servant Partners staff in San José, will be able to have children. In recent weeks, his story made national headlines.
“I think the people all over the world are feeling the way I did at that moment,” Derrick said. “We just can’t watch these violent tragedies anymore; we have to move in a new direction.”
Derrick and Cayla live and work in San José, where Derrick moved in 2015 when he joined the Servant Partners internship. Through Servant Partners, Derrick began working for local police accountability and transparency, and cultivated a passion for community-led policy development.
His team, Beloved Community, works to promote community oversight of SJPD and tackles issues of hiring, equipment, accountability, and training. Derrick himself has facilitated implicit bias training for new police cadets and returning officers. His work has always been rooted in spiritual conviction and faith in Jesus.
“Jesus was a dark-skinned man who was seen as a threat to the state,” Derrick said. “Nathaneal said, ‘What good can come from Nazareth,’ commenting on where Jesus came from. Many neighborhood leaders in San José have said that Jesus would have likely come from a neighborhood like ours. Jesus represents the poor, Black, and unarmed—and he calls on the least of us to follow in his footsteps and do even greater things.”
Just before attending the protest where he would encounter painful police violence, Derrick was reading and reflecting on the role of the Holy Spirit. Doing so, he felt compelled to mourn in the form of protest.
“When the Holy Spirit sees the suffering of people—even those considered criminals—her heart breaks and she is weighed by the tragedy,” Derrick said. “I needed to hear that. I’m a naturally hopeful person, but the stories kept coming—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Modesto Reyes—and they weighed on me. Reading that the Spirit is present with you in your sorrow felt liberating, and it allowed me to go into the streets and mourn in a real way. As I entered the protest, I knew the Spirit was present with us and calling us to feel and respond to tragedy.”
Throughout the protest, Derrick was active in deescalating violent action and ensuring the safety of protestors. When the police used excessive force against him—someone who dedicated years to improving their very department’s practices and biases—it stung in many ways.
“The incident definitely shattered my perspective, and it feels like I have to start over,” Derrick said. “But if there’s one thing I’m holding onto, it’s that the Holy Spirit is present and allows us to be sad and angry—and even do something about it.”
Though wrestling with the pain of this incident, Derrick expressed joy and awe about the national outcry against racial violence, as he perceives the Spirit calling many to respond. He encouraged fellow Christians to listen to the “splitting rocks” outside (Matthew 27:51), and show up to local protests to learn and express solidarity.
“These things do not happen in a vacuum,” Derrick said. “There are families who have lost loved ones to police brutality and misconduct, and there’s likely someone in the municipality where you live. Find those families, hear their stories, connect with them in small ways, and figure out how you can stand with them.”
To keep updated on the work of Beloved Community, follow them at www.facebook.com/PACTSJ. Through Servant Partners, Derrick and Cayla partner with Shalom Iglesia in San José. You can follow them at www.facebook.com/shalomiglesi.
A Comment from Servant Partners
Servant Partners believes the image of God is male and female (Genesis 1:27), and affirms the full inclusion of women in ministry. We generally use “he” for the Spirit, reflecting traditional biblical interpretations. At times we do not use any pronouns (he, she or it) for the Holy Spirit, reflecting the Greek for Spirit (Pneuma) which is neuter, and Greek for “he” (autos) in passages about the Spirit, which means “self” and can be translated he, she, or it, depending on context. Mr. Sanderlin requested his quote reflect his theological view that the Holy Spirit should be described with feminine pronouns.