Editor’s note: Read CT’s coverage of Floyd’s funeral here.
The rest of the country knows George Floyd from several minutes of cell phone footage captured during his final hours. But in Houston’s Third Ward, they know Floyd for how he lived for decades—a mentor to a generation of young men and a “person of peace” ushering ministries into the area.
Before moving to Minneapolis for a job opportunity through a Christian work program, the 46-year-old spent almost his entire life in the historically black Third Ward, where he was called “Big Floyd” and regarded as an “OG,” a de-facto community leader and elder statesmen, his ministry partners say.
Floyd spoke of breaking the cycle of violence he saw among young people and used his influence to bring outside ministries to the area to do discipleship and outreach, particularly in the Cuney Homes housing project, locally known as “the Bricks.”
“George Floyd was a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward in a place that I never lived in,” said Patrick PT Ngwolo, pastor of Resurrection Houston, which held services at Cuney.
“The platform for us to reach that neighborhood and the hundreds of people we reached through that time and up to now was built on the backs of people like Floyd,” he told Christianity Today.
Ngwolo and fellow leaders met Floyd in 2010. He was a towering 6-foot-6 guest who showed up at a benefit concert they put on for the Third Ward. From the start, Big Floyd made his priorities clear.
“He said, ‘I love what you’re doing. The neighborhood need it, the community need it, and if y’all about God’s business, then that’s my business,’” said Corey Paul Davis, a Christian hip-hop artist who attended Resurrection Houston. “He said, ‘Whatever y’all need, wherever y’all need to go, tell ’em Floyd said y’all good. I got y’all.’”
The church expanded its involvement in the area, holding Bible studies and helping out with groceries and rides to doctor’s appointments. Floyd didn’t just provide access and protection; he lent a helping hand as the church put on services, three-on-three basketball tournaments, barbecues, and community baptisms.
“He helped push the baptism tub over, understanding that people were going to make a decision of faith and get baptized right there in the middle of the projects. He thought that was amazing,” said Ronnie Lillard, who performs under the name Reconcile. “The things that he would say to young men always referenced that God trumps street culture. I think he wanted to see young men put guns down and have Jesus instead of the streets.”
More than 50 people have been killed over the past several years in what authorities describe as a gang war spreading from the Third Ward and southeast Houston.
It can be hard for outsiders to gain trust, or even ensure safety, coming in on their own. The “stamp of approval” granted from a figure like Floyd is crucial for urban discipleship, which requires access, direction, and context to be effective.
“His faith was a heart for the Third Ward that was radically changed by the gospel, and his mission was empowering other believers to be able to come in and push that gospel forth,” said Nijalon Dunn, who was baptized at Cuney. “There are things that Floyd did for us that we’ll never know until the other side of eternity. There were times where we’d have Church at the Bricks until 3 p.m., and by 4:30, they’re firing shots right at the basketball courts.”
Dunn shared pictures of Floyd at his baptism and basketball games. Floyd’s handle included the name “BigFloyd4God.”
Tributes and prayers of lament from fellow Christians rolled in over social media as the news of Floyd’s death spread this week. On Twitter, Davis described Floyd as “the definition of ‘Be the change you want to see’” and shared a video tribute that has been viewed 1.1 million times. Popular Christian hip-hop artist Propaganda reposted the reflections from fellow artists who knew Floyd saying, “He was a friend of my friends.”
Floyd moved to Minnesota around 2018, his family told the Houston Chronicle. He was there for a discipleship program including a job placement, according to pastor Ngwolo. “A ‘Bricks boy’ doesn’t just leave the Third Ward and go to Minnesota!” he said. Floyd told Dunn he had plans to return this summer.
Though he never made it home, he’ll be “immortalized in the Third Ward community forever,” Lillard said. “His mural will be on the walls. Every youth and young man growing up will know George Floyd. The people who knew him personally will remember him as a positive light. Guys from the streets look to him like, ‘Man, if he can change his life, I can change mine.’”
Ministry leaders have heard from community members in the Third Ward who called Floyd their brother, uncle, or even their dad because they lacked older male figures to serve as a positive influence.
Mourners gathered Tuesday night for a prayer vigil in Emancipation Park, a historic Third Ward site that was once the only park open to African Americans in Houston during Jim Crow segregation. Ngwolo is meeting this week with area pastors to lament together.
The viral video of Floyd pinned to the pavement by a Minnesota police officer joins a devastating canon of cell phone footage depicting police using force against black men. His friends in ministry said that when it turned up on the news they weren’t ready to watch another clip so soon after the recording of Ahmaud Arbery being shot while jogging in Georgia and the video of a woman calling 911 on a black man watching birds in New York’s Central Park. But then Lillard texted: It was Big Floyd.
There’s only so much disbelief they can muster from this kind of killing. They’re black men too. Despite their innocence, their faith, their good deeds, they have their own stories of being suspected, humiliated, and threatened by authorities, Lillard told CT.
And now they’re put in the position of rightly remembering a man they knew as a gentle giant, an inspiration to his neighborhood, and a positive force for change. But they also say that shouldn’t matter. He was a fellow image-bearer, and that should have been enough to keep him from the aggressive treatment they saw in the viral clip. Floyd’s family and supporters say the officers involved—who were fired from the department—should face murder charges.
Pastor Ngwolo is still trying to process the news, but one theme he keeps coming back to is the shedding of innocent blood. After Cain’s superiority and animosity drove him to kill Abel, Scripture tells us, “The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10).
“If you fast-forward 2,000 years, there’s another innocent sufferer whose blood spoke of better things than Abel’s. … Jesus’ blood says he can redeem us through these dark and perilous times,” Ngwolo said. “I have hope because just like Abel is a Christ figure, I see my brother [Floyd] as a Christ figure as well, pointing us to a greater reality. God does hear us. He hears his cry even from the ground now. Vengeance will either happen on the cross or will happen on Judgment Day.”