Here’s an actual exchange I had after a 2019 Black History Month event that I co-organized and facilitated at a seminary to engage the community in a conversation on Faith, Race and Culture:
Event Attendee: “Yeah, that was a good gathering. But, you really shouldn’t use the word ‘race.’ Choose a different word for your event. The word ‘race’ makes people uncomfortable.”
Me: “Thank you for your feedback. This gathering was not about making people comfortable. I am here to bring people together to facilitate a conversation about race and injustice, and that starts with the church. We have been silent for too long. And if anyone should be leading such a conversation and doing something about it, it should start with and within the church.”
Fifteen minutes later, the person returned to me to apologize.
Recent highly publicized acts of violence that resulted in the murders of black men and women, including Ahmaud Arbery (February 23, 2020), Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020), George Floyd (May 23, 2020) and countless others, have triggered the memory of that 2019 event, which was intended to open up a dialogue on faith, race and justice, and the church’s role in addressing those issues. They have also brought me back to my own experiences of microaggressions and other subtle, and not-so-subtle, occurrences of racial bias and racism in my spheres of work nearing 30 years, and in daily living. With every story airing in the news cycle or appearing on social media, whether it is driving while black, being a professor while black, a child opening a lemonade stand while black, being a doctor while black, returning to one’s residence while black, attending an Ivy League school while black, or being a bird watcher while black, we get a reminder that yes, in 2020, in what some would call a post-racial America, race still matters. And the most segregated day of the week is Sunday morning.
But even more, I have been reminded of that person’s comment that the word “race” makes people uncomfortable. The request that I not use the word “race” was, whether conscious or unconscious, a subtle request to place the comfort of others above my own voice and personhood. This request was counterintuitive, both as a Christ follower and minister sent on assignment to address an issue that has long been present in the church (and the world), and as a black woman who has to navigate the realities of race and racism in society with millions of others like me. What was created in the event that day was a safe space for speaking truth in love through transparent conversation, acknowledgement of the experience of race and racism, and the meaning of the imago Dei of all human beings who not only matter to God, but are equal and have value as his creation. Racism and the imago Dei cannot co-exist.
Yet, here we are: June 5, 2020, and people not just in America but in the whole world are crying out, speaking up against centuries of systemic racism and injustices perpetrated against black people.
God knew in February 2019 that we would be here in June 2020.
Before my clergy ordination, my first church-based assignment was as a justice coordinator for my local church. I was asked by my former pastor to start and lead what would be our Social Action Ministry. This ministry was included in a larger ecumenical network of 20 churches in our county called P.E.A.C.E. (Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment), a part of the DART Network, a national organization whose mission is “building the power of organized people to do justice.” There are 23 DART-affiliated congregation-based community organizations throughout Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. They have made many contributions toward justice in their communities.
Through our community organizing work in P.E.A.C.E., we identified systemic social ills in our communities by having conversations with people from all backgrounds, and unified as a body of congregations to address them, held public and elected officials accountable, and collaborated for change to benefit all. I trained teams in the biblical tenets of justice along with the P.E.A.C.E. community organizer, spoke at rallies with other clergy, sat at tables with CEOs and officials to negotiate the interests of our community, and we celebrated with the community when the positive changes happened for all people to flourish.
Preparing church leaders to understand the missional importance of these kinds of initiatives, and how the local church can support them, needs to become an important conversation in theological schools. A great way to build capacity for that conversation is to get involved yourself! (If you’re in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee or Virginia, maybe see if DART has something going on near you.)
Presently, my calling brings me into diverse spheres of influence and on different platforms. I have been having many conversations with organizational and ministry colleagues and friends on action steps to address racism and injustice. Also, I have been called to serve on a denomination’s Task Force on Anti-Racism, on a team called The Beloved Community, which works with the concepts of awareness, practice and accountability in developing learning communities that can do the work of anti-racism.
For those who are still struggling, for those who think that the church shouldn’t talk about race, for those who think addressing racism and injustice is something “they” do, here are some of my thoughts from a text I sent to a colleague earlier this week. I offer it now as a challenge in courageous love:
It’s decision time.
We cannot lead where we do not follow Jesus Christ into conversations and actions that address systems and practices that marginalize, devalue and dehumanize any human being. To do so, would be willful participation in diminishing the image of God in a person or people group. Black people have borne the brunt of this for centuries. But, I feel deep in my spirit that our nation, and the world, have reached a tipping point. Globally, people of all ethnicities, races and backgrounds are crying out against oppression. A shaking is happening in the earth as it eagerly awaits when the sons and daughters of God are revealed – those who will stand and speak truth to power.
What are the words of truth that speak to power and privilege? We can find them in scripture, both Old and New Testaments. Prophets held Israel, the people of God, accountable, as well as rulers and governing authorities. Amos stood as God’s mouthpiece when he said:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!Amos 5:21-24
Through Isaiah, God described the type of fasting he desired:
This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to you own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at one. Your righteousness will pave your way, the God of glory will secure your passage.Isaiah 58:6-8
And Jesus didn’t mince words, he served them straight up with no chaser:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!Matthew 23:23-24
The way to make it plain is to focus on the major issues, even as you take care of the other stuff. Justice and peace, demonstrated in the actions of loving one’s neighbor, were high on Jesus’s list of priorities.
Jesus walked many miles in the margins. Jesus walked among, walked alongside and sat with people whom society discarded, devalued and marginalized. Like the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, you could find Jesus inviting himself as an unexpected guest to the home of an unscrupulous tax collector. Or you could find Jesus in the red light district talking with wine bibbers, prostitutes and other unsavory folk. You could find Jesus reclining in a chair while a woman of ill repute washes his feet with her hair, as religious leaders and his disciples looked upon the act with skepticism and disdain. In the biblical text, we see baby Jesus sweetly in the manger. We see him as a young scholar filled with wisdom, teaching in the temple. We see the Son of God on a boat commanding the elements to quiet the storm. As well, there are other sides to the one from Nazareth. Jesus was a table flipper, and a heart and mind paradigm shifter. He invited people in, he didn’t block them out. Jesus was countercultural. He announced the kingdom of God was at hand and its way into it: repentance.
It’s decision time.
Risk is involved for those who choose to be faithful to the call and way of Jesus Christ, which involves peace and justice. But, the reward for faithfulness and obedience from the king of kings far outweighs our discomfort.
Risk, even unto harm or death, has always been involved for black people and all those in previous generations who amplified their voices and worked against systemic racial oppression. For our white brothers and sisters this risk may feel especially weighty because whiteness is central to power and privilege in our culture. In my observation and conversation, I am finding that some people are silent and passive because of fear and what they may risk speaking up. Some are watching and waiting to see what their peers will say and do before they make a choice. Others are paralyzed with fear, not knowing what to say or how to say it. There are those who question if racism and systemic racism really exists. And there are others who know the racial bias residing in their hearts and are struggling internally in its tight grip: “Do I continue in this way or do I break its chains through prayer and repentance to become free?”
Risk may negatively impact relationships of power and influence, involve being called derogatory names and racial epithets, or being labeled a radical or some other ideological term. Risk may involve losing church members, friendships, family, neighbors, business relationships, donors, etc. Risk may involve being trolled on social media, losing “likes,” “friends” and “followers.” Stoking fear in the heart about what others will say or think if I speak up and act is how the enemy keeps the church silent and passive on systemic racism and injustice. “Don’t talk about it, it makes people uncomfortable.” This discomfort really comes from within.
But the risk of faithfulness and obedience, and its reward from the king of kings far outweighs any discomfort. We know the power of the church when she speaks up, when she amplifies her prophetic voice. The word of God shoots light into the darkness and speaks order into chaos. How can we say that we love God whom we have not seen, and not love our neighbor who we see every day? “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So, we will not be afraid on the day of judgement, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world” (1 John 4:16-17). Moving in the power of the Spirit, our love in action breaks chains, chokeholds and strongholds. It lifts the knee of oppression off of God’s human creation.
It is a cross to bear and it is not comfortable. Jesus never said it would be:
Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?”Matthew 16:24-26
It’s decision time.
God spoke to me last week about several things, but one thing he said is: “It’s decision time. A line has been drawn. I’m asking: ‘Who’s side are you on? Are you wheat or tare? A goat or sheep? Are you for the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of darkness, or kingdoms of this world?’” This has been a season of choice, a season of repentance. God has been speaking to the house of God about where we have been unfaithful and out of order, where our love for idols has replaced our love for him and people. He is asking all of us: “What is occupying the throne of your heart?”
Knowing the correct password – saying “Master, Master,” for instance – isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience – doing what my Father wills. I can see it now – at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, “Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.” And do you know what I am going to say? “You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.”Matthew 7: 21-23
We will be known by our fruits. The fruit will be in the work. The work flows from the heart. We will also be known as a church by our unity.
In John 17, Jesus prays fervently for all believers. It is one of the most impassioned passages of scripture, and when I read it, I am moved to my core by thought that thousands of years ago, Jesus prayed for me. Just as the Father sent Jesus into the world, he has sent us, his church, into the world as a tangible witness of him through our unity:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be as one as we are one-I in them and you in me-so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.John 17:20-23
A house divided cannot stand.
You know when your daddy or your mama said, “Okay now, here we are again. You have one more time to do what I say!”? Well, throughout the history of this country, and the world, we have had many “You’ve got one more time”s. What we are experiencing is a gut and heart check to call certain things to our attention and into personal and spiritual accountability. It is preparation for the move of God that is to come. Before revival comes repentance. The world is ripe and ready. Have hope and faith! The decision to speak and act in your sphere of influence, no matter how big or small, in order to turn the tide on the old and bring life to the new, cannot be underestimated. Let it be today, as Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
Church, God has already shown us what to do: Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). A pebble thrown in the water creates ripple effects. Choose the pebble of love, peace and justice. It’s decision time.