(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. This is what is on my heart and mind today about pastoral ministry in America.)
I live in fear for all of my black friends. I fear for their physical safety and for their emotional and mental well-being as they experience an endless stream of threats and the daily additions to the 300 year record of slavery, Jim Crow, the human trafficking we call mass incarceration, violence and lynchings, and cultural insensitivity of a dominant white culture that insists black people behave like white people in order to be accepted.
I live in fear because the lives of my black friends don’t seem to matter to my dominant white culture. We have been taught to fear black people, so we do. We white people tend to feel threatened by their existence, their appearance, by the mere experience of black people’s presence in white spaces. And our tendency is to act violently towards what we fear.
And act violently, we have.
My first trip to the North Carolina Museum of history here in Raleigh was a shocking and eye-opening experience for me seven years ago.
I knew slavery existed; I knew it was an ugly part of our history. I did not know or understand that slavery built the States. I did not know that slavery existed in the States for hundreds of years. I did not know that after emancipation, whole communities of prosperous black businesses and prosperous black families would be burned down and murdered by the jealous, greedy, white population in their towns and cities.
I had heard about Jim Crow but did not have friends who lived through desegregation. Friends who have living memories of being yelled at as children for attending a public school with white students. I had never lived in a place where friends were afraid to stop for gas in certain communities because to stop and get out of their car meant risking their personal safety. I didn’t know that some of my black friends and their parents had to rely on the Green Book to find safe accommodations when they traveled by car through the South.
We hadn’t lived here for very long when my daughter, then in her late teens and who was born and raised in Canada, came home from seeing the movie, Selma. She walked through the front door visibly upset and she asked for my wife and I to reassure that the movie was a work of fiction and not of historical accuracy. It may have been the earliest seeds that were planted that would eventually result in her moving north. Growing up with a cleft lip and palate, my daughter knew what being persecuted for your appearance felt like. She knew what being an outsider to the dominant culture was because she wasn’t born looking like everyone else did to her soul and she wanted none of it.
At the end of February, several people from our church and a few friends from outside of our church went on Sankofa. A journey of looking back, of remembering, of reaching back into our collective past to bring forward something beautiful and meaningful and important. We started at the Edmund Pettus bridge (named after a Senator and Klan leader) and walked across that span where the blood of black men and women had stained the pavement from the blows of clubs and fists and rifle butts of white men on Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965 when I was 1 and half years old. They were punished for wanting the right to exercise their freedom to vote.
We walked together, black, Latino and white, through the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. We saw the pictures and read the stories of injustices against black people and upheld by the white governing powers up to and including recent times. I was struck by the faces of black men and women, heroes, leaders, history makers who I did not know, could not name, had no knowledge of and whose pictures filled a room from top to bottom but had had no place in the history books from which I had been taught.
The rest of Sankofa reinforced a painful truth. The struggle for the civil rights, the basic human rights, for some of my dearest friends was just a footnote in my own story, the story of white people settling and making something of this continent. And my own story as a white person in America was a fabrication – a lie – an edited version of reality that covered up the truth that the prosperity of America was built on the bloody backs of black men and women, slaves. First we made them slaves by commerce and then we maintained them in subservience by rules, laws, economic disadvantages, ghettos and mass incarceration.
The myth of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is that not only do some people not have boots, but I stole them, my people stole them from them so we could have boots for our children.
And what do you suppose this does to a human being? 300 years of slavery. And then ongoing oppression. Being reviled for the color of their skin, being lynched because the white lady thought the young black man looked at her the “wrong way?” What soul damage is done to a people group when your family can be taken from you or you from them at any moment? What soul damage is done when a man takes his family into a restaurant and is told they can’t be served in that restaurant because they are black or can’t set there on the bus because they are black.
And I can assure you, living here at the edge of the South – this still goes on today – overtly and covertly. I’ve been with black friends, I’ve felt the vibe, I’ve seen the preferential treatment of white people by white people and the ignoring of black people by white people who were in line before me. We all want to excuse these as one off events or mistakes. If that is so, the South I live in is a miracle of one off events and racially motivated mistakes.
I live in fear for all of my black friends. I am sick and tired of watching this unfold and I am in admiration of the black women and men who are my friends who have lived this story their whole lives and still keep going. I believe there are better days ahead but I want to help those days get here more quickly by doing all I can to nurture a community that is a beach head of the incoming kingdom of God. I want to continue the journey of Sankofa. I want to oppose the injustice of racism and all the evil it brings into the world. I want my black friends to feel that my wife and I are a safe place. I want our church to be a place where people of all cultures and ethnicities can feel safe, feel seen, feel empowered and feel loved.
I’m 56. I’m white. I’ve been a pastor for about 35 years. And I feel like I’m just learning, day by day, how to pastor the WHOLE body of Christ and not just the white body of Christ that people of color are welcome to attend. I lament today over Ahmaud Arbery but not because his lynching was a shocking exception to our otherwise peaceful life together. I lament because Ahmaud represents the 4400 documented lynchings that occurred in the U.S. from 1877 to 1950. I lament because it feels like black lives still don’t matter. I lament because my sisters and brothers of color are exhausted in every way by this ongoing evil. I lament because I have been complicit through fear and participation in systems of racisms and countless sins of omission. I lament today because I fear for my black friends who are still not safe and I love them.