An open letter to my co-laboring pastors
At the Great Lakes Conference 2015 Annual Meeting, Superintendent Garth McGrath invited me to participate in a panel of African American and Latino pastors sharing personal experiences of racial injustice.
One by one each person on the on the panel opened an internal vault of private pain. We brought out fragile and scarred pieces of ourselves and shared them with a room full of mostly white clergy and laity. The courage it took to do this cannot be understated. A year later some of these stories still sting with the humiliation of the moment: sitting on the curb while the police search your car. Some revisited heartache: hearing that one’s children were treated as suspects by police while their white friends at the same event were left unquestioned and unscathed. And other stories unraveled the insidious nature of racism: the officer-the teacher-the employer who revealed their bias by identifying some of us as exceptional, special, better than the others who shared our skin color.
We exposed personal, painful, soul-shaking moments to our regional colleagues during this discussion. We needed to share these things, we wanted someone to know our pain. Some of us are indeed dying in the street because of racial bias. And some of us are dying a slower but no less painful deaths — one humiliation at a time.
The panel prompted good, hard and impactful conversation afterward. But not for everyone.
“I really want to do something to help address these issues in my city,” said one colleague who took the time to thank me for my participation and honesty. This pastor and friend contemplated aloud the possibility of building a relationship with a local African American pastor as a starting point. “But there’s so much work to do. I just don’t have the time,” was the conclusion of our conversation.
At dinner that evening, church members attending the panel discussion shared their enthusiasm for its eye-opening impact. When these church members asked their pastor, who sat with us, for a reaction, “I didn’t go” was the response. The explanation continued, “I used that time to write my sermon for the weekend.”
It was an awkward moment, certainly for the church members at the table but also for me. Twice in the same day I was confronted with indifference and inaction from ministry colleagues. And twice in the same day, I offered my colleagues relief from the tension with an “I understand” and “I know what it’s like to be pressed for time” pathway out of the discomfort of the moment. But I didn’t really understand.
The recent deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, five police officers in Dallas, and three more officer in Baton Rouge reconnected me with the memory of my disappointment after that 2015 panel discussion. I was disappointed in my colleagues’ inability to see that racial injustice is a life-and-death matter in the black community. I was even more disappointed in my willingness to create a false peace. I pretended to understand why someone would choose to opt out of engaging a situation where the lives of those I love are threatened. In a moment that required courage I settled for the absence of tension rather than true and honest dialogue. In his letter from a Birmingham jail Martin Luther King referred to this as pursuing a “negative peace”.
The horrors of Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas have again highlighted our country’s need to pursue what Dr. King termed “positive peace.” Positive peace requires justice. This isn’t new to any Covenant pastor. We’re well-trained theologians and teachers. Living out the shalom of God is our call. It’s the heartbeat of life in the new community that Jesus created; We know that “I didn’t have time” will never be an acceptable answer to the God who has charged us to lead our people into a practice of this new life.
An hour before last year’s panel discussion started, one of the participants pushed for an answer from all involved to the questions, “What happens after this? What will we do after we have this conversation together?” A lot of well-intentioned thoughts were shared about the desire to inspire participants to engage the issues but ultimately the question was never answered.
Today I’m inspired to ask the question again. What happens after this, friends? What’s to be done now that #philandocastile, #altonsterling, #dallaspolice, and #BatonRougeShooting have joined #sandrabland, #walterscott, #tamirrice ,#trevonmartin and so many others as victims in this insidiously evil war?
The call to live into the reality of God’s shalom with respect to racial justice went out a long time ago. It’s inconvenient. It’s complicated. And it’s time, actually past time, to get to work.
If you don’t know where to start, here are a few ideas:
1. Start a real relationship with a colleague who is a person of color. No one wants to be thought of as a “project” so consider making YOURSELF the project. Approach a colleague of color in humility and honesty. Place yourself in a learning posture. Ask them to help you ‘see’ what they see-and then listen and believe them, even if you still don’t understand.
2. Expose yourself to the truth that is available to you. The individual stories of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many others are accessible to you online. Read the stories, and watch the videos. And then understand that these individual moments of death connect to a meta-narrative supported by research. It’s not just a personal feeling that deadly force is disproportionately used on black Americans: It’s a statistical reality.
3. Get serious with God about your own bias. Are you afraid of people of color in your city? Are there people of color in prominent positions in your life that aren’t related to stardom or news-reported crime? Did you grow up in a neighborhood devoid of racial or cultural difference? I’m not judging you. Years of friendships across racial and socioeconomic boundaries have forced me to face my own bias. Take the realities of your life to God. Eventually confess them to a safe friend. Speak what you know about your own limitations. Eventually you’ll find that clearing out the assumptions you hold about others in that old, hidden closet makes room for new, paradigm shifting, God-glorifying, justice-manifesting experiences.
4. Open your learning process to the community you’ve been called to lead. Don’t let your congregants follow you to the sidelines. Admit to them what you don’t know or understand and then seek wisdom together. It’s the healing community of Jesus that should be leading the way out of this darkness. We can’t expect our parishioners to be passionate and bold witnesses for the grace and mercy required to bring justice to our streets if we aren’t honest about our own journey (and struggle) toward faithfulness.
Topics: church and race