“I can’t breathe!’” the crowd chanted, invoking the dying words spoken by George Floyd as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.

Kianna Ruff yelled it over and over along with hundreds of fellow protesters as they marched for hours through New York City, a kind of collective mantra that touched someplace deep inside those present.

“I just started choking and I broke down,” the 28-year-old activist and minister said. “And I do feel like that that was also a spiritual experience that I’ve never experienced before.”

The demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism that have raged in the wake of Floyd’s killing are often led by young people who find a sense of purpose, ritual and community on the streets. Many involved say the protests deepen spiritual connections and embody familiar elements of traditional faith.

The demonstrators kneel. They observe mournful moments of silence. They break into call-and-response: “What do we want?” and “Justice!” From Los Angeles to New York, Milwaukee to Minneapolis, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder and find common cause in their shared fervor.

“I can say this is liturgy in the street,” said the Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, pastor of the Middle Collegiate Church in New York’s East Village. “This is church in the street, it is song in the street, it is lament in the street. The tears are in the street.”

“When the kids say, ‘Black Lives Matter!’” Lewis continued, “that’s a prayer.”

Americans are becoming less religious in the formal, traditional sense, and the trend is more marked among young adults, according to Pew Research Center surveys from recent years. Young people, who make up a core part of the protesters, are less likely to pray daily, attend religious services or believe in God.

Still, surveys show younger Americans are just as spiritual as their older counterparts, and many have found other expressions of faith outside formal religion.

In its “How We Gather” study, Harvard Divinity School researchers documented wide-ranging spiritual communities for the young ranging from Afro Flow Yoga and dinner churches to public meditation groups.

Fears about the future have also led many to activism. Tens of thousands walked out of schools in 2018 to demand action on gun violence in one of the biggest student protests since the Vietnam era. Inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, hundreds of thousands marched worldwide in 2019 demanding urgent action on climate change.

This year that has manifested in the struggle against police brutality and racism.

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Source: Word & Way