Dear Church Family,
As you likely know now, this week our country saw another killing of an unarmed black person, George Floyd. After a subsequent lack of swift institutional response, other responses came on social media and in the streets from people who are heartbroken, exhausted, and rightfully angered at these continued injustices year after year. When we look at the long history of our country, we know that the violent and unjust treatment of black folks is the norm, not the exception.
Our own Christian history is an illustration of this. When enslaved persons were brought to church in the earliest days of our country, that became the primary place for a reminder that, “slaves should obey their masters.” No talk of Exodus. No talk of Paul’s word that in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek. No mention of the Holy Spirits radical inclusiveness at Pentecost. Instead, historical records show that the church often became a place that co-signed on the evils of the day and was even the arbiter of selling enslaved people sometimes. Likewise, historical baptismal records show a different catechism for enslaved people and whites. Black folks were forced at their baptism to confess that God had preordained their enslavement and that becoming a Christian meant being a good slave.1
Our own Methodist history is an illustration of this injustice. When Richard Allen was ordained in St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in 1786, he and other black Methodists were pulled off their knees while praying and thrown out for violating segregation in worship.2 He eventually founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church because of persistent unequal treatment. And when Methodists decided you could not be Methodist and own people, many churches in the south decided to leave and form the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Our own church was formed in those ranks, as evidenced by our own historical documents. We did not all reunite until 1939 when black Methodists were subsequently placed in their own ‘Central Conference’ to limit voting power in General Conference matters. When we finally repented as a denomination in 2000, amidst the AME, AMEZ, and CME churches, Bishop Carr of the AMEZ church shared, “We were compelled to leave not… with what you said, but what you did. Not with symbolism, but with substance. And my hope is tonight that you would move from symbolism to substance.”3
See, our problem has not only been unequal treatment under the law, but a gross portrayal of unequal treatment under God. The church is liable here too. Racial injustice is not a problem that exists ‘out there’, it is sadly in here. It is in us. And as people who believe in the power of sin and repentance, we must have courage to see the plank in our own eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
We are heartbroken for our country and our world, but mostly for our black brothers and sisters who have been trying to speak but who have often been unheard, or who have seen a lack of concrete change. We all know already that this world is not as it should be. And often, when we look around and ask God what to do, God says to his followers, “What’s in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). In other words, God says to us, ‘Where are you right now? What do you have? Let’s use that.’
We have learned in our own community that when responses came after Trayvon Martin’s killing, people were not simply heartbroken and outraged about his death but the appearance of a system that protects unequally. People were exasperated by a long history of racial injustice that has never been fully uncovered or openly repented of. This inequality travels deeply and across time frames. Many of the families in Goldsboro had their land taken and their streets renamed when the city of Sanford revoked Goldsboro’s charter in 1911, after Goldsboro was the nation’s second black incorporated town.4 While that is simply one story, memories like that may help us better understand why some feel that our institutions have served to cause more harm than help or protect them. We know that not all police seek to do harm, in fact at some protests around the country, police have joined in. We know not all institutions are corrupt and not all stories are those of heartbreak, but when the heartbreak hasn’t been healed, wounds persist. We may not be the same people who created broken systems, but that does not negate our call in rectifying them.
What’s in our hand is the question for us today. How might we bend our ear toward God and our neighbor? How might we make an impact on this world for the sake of the gospel declared by Jesus in Luke 4, who said, “I have been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Our question is: how do we join Jesus in his work in this time and place?
Certainly, there are many folks concerned about the violence that has erupted at some protests around the country. And rightfully, there have been calls for people to organize and make long-lasting change rather than simply to be a fiery flash in the pan that leaves destruction but not much else different. At the same time, we must not forget Martin Luther King, Jr’s helpful illumination,
Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”5
In some listening we’ve done, we’ve learned that many people of color in this country feel like generations of peaceful efforts have still not fully resolved the injustices they know so intimately. Many people of color are exhausted from the decades of trauma which continue to pile up. Many marginalized people in our world are looking for a way to express their voice and to see real social change. We must ensure that such avenues fairly exist or in the words of Howard Thurman, people who “have their backs against the wall”, will continue to feel without voice or fair treatment.6
Imagine the pain of years being abused, mistreated, and fearful, and then there never being a time of public repentance for the things you’ve experienced. Readers of scripture are not unfamiliar with the need for repentance before forgiveness, with the need for the whole story to be remembered and told truthfully. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us (1 John 1:9-10).” Now certainly there is personal sin and there is corporate sin: and in our communal confession we confess both. We confess the personal and individual ways we have done harm or left undone the good which God has called us to do. That is to say that personally doing no harm against black folks does not negate our possibility of failing to do some good to work for righteousness and justice. But we also confess the corporate sin that plagues us and our world, beyond our individual consciousness and personal desires. Yes, we may not have personally used hateful terms, but have we failed to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters helping us to see injustice in our systems? Have we rolled our eyes and asked ourselves why ‘they’re still complaining about…”? Have we maintained our distance from neighbors who are racially or culturally different from us because the stories we hear are too painful?
We know that since much of this congregation has been around longer than we have, and that some of you have been working toward equality and justice for longer than we’ve been alive. This is not to say that those efforts were useless or that all of us have always been on the wrong side of history. And yet as followers of Jesus, we know that sin (like the sin of racial injustice) takes a long time, and many generations to root out. Rarely does a sinner need repenting once. Rarely does a married couple go to counseling for a single session. Sometimes when they cut out the cancer, it takes another surgery to get it all.
We are no prophets and we do not know all the good that needs doing. We are simply young preachers in our first UMC appointment, looking shockingly at the same world you are. We pray our own prayers for wisdom and discernment in these uncertain times. And yet as we celebrate Pentecost, the birth of the church when God gave new eyes and new language for each to understand one another;
When God poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh;
When God commissioned all of us to be part of God’s work in the world
…it seems appropriate that we might ask ourselves, Lord, who are we all to be in this time and place?
So how do we in Bishop Carr’s words move from symbolism to substance? We believe these may be a few things that could start or continue our journey toward justice:
As our friend and pastor at Lakeside UMC, Dan Wunderlich says, maybe we can begin by admitting, “I know there are many things I don’t know. This may be one of those things.”
- We can listen clearly and empathetically to voices of the black community. For some words from black United Methodist pastors in the Florida Conference, check out: https://spark.adobe.com/page/shT2J0McH8voc/
- We can learn the history of our city. When they are open and it safe to do so, visit all three of the museums in our community on the same day and learn the full breadth of our own history.
- We can vote for local and national policies that take seriously the current inequalities and what we need to do to remedy them.
- And we can listen to God, stirring our hearts, inviting us to see and participate in “making all things new (Revelation 21).”
We love you. We consider it a privilege, always, to be your pastors. And, we know that the Lord isn’t finished with any of us. What have you read that has changed your heart or mind? How has God shaped you, that you might share with the rest of us? Thanks be to God, the creator, sustainer, liberator and redeemer who has promised that nothing in life nor death, no angels nor demons, no powers nor principalities, nothing in this life and nothing in the life to come will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38). May God’s love propel us all forward, onward toward perfection in all we are and all we do.
Grace & Peace,
Pastors David & Meghan
For some reading that has been helpful, check out:
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Living into God’s Dream by Catherine Meeks
- Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949