Pastoral thoughts on racial issues in our community and our nation
Rev. Chris Caldwell, June 24, 2015
I am more head than heart. Always have been. But, as a pastor, nothing in our nation since 9-11 has so broken my heart as did the shooting of nine fine Christians in prayer by a racist in Charleston. So, before I get to some analysis of broader issues, let me share some of my heart through what I wrote the morning after the shootings, before the shooter had been arrested.
Last night at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a white man walked into a prayer meeting in a black church. Initial reports say he remained in the meeting an hour before opening fire. I’m a white pastor, but this past Sunday was a vacation day, so I went to a black church where an African American friend is the pastor. Having just made this visit, and having worshiped in many African American churches, I think I have some sense of how the young man would have been received.
Someone would have greeted him warmly with a handshake at the door. If the someone was an older woman, likely he would have received a hug. They would have helped him to find a seat. If there were any materials, such as a printed list of prayer concerns, he would have been provided with this. As he was seated, there would have been more handshakes. People who caught his eye would have smiled as a way of reassuring him that he was welcome. We are told this was a small gathering of twelve people, so if the prayer time or Bible study had already started, and the pastor was speaking to the group, the pastor would have made eye contact and given him a nod or a smile.
Of course the young man may well have appeared “troubled.” If so, the dynamics would have been a bit different. All of the above would have happened, but the people could well have been wary of this newcomer in a way people would not have been of me on Sunday. They could well have been worried about him, in the sense that he could be a threat. But, given that there was apparently prayer going on, they might also have been worried for him, in the sense of Christian concern. It is not at all hard to imagine that people in the room would have silently prayed for this young man without his knowing it as he sat among them.
People unfamiliar with churches might wonder, if in fact he was a stranger who appeared out of place and possibly troubled, why someone didn’t “do something.” Why not question him? Why not ask him to leave? These are not options for churches. We don’t do that. We can’t do that. When we gather in the name of the one who said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,” we can’t at the same time turn someone away because they seem troubled or burdened.
I know how this man would have been received last night. To the degree he allowed it, he would have been embraced by followers of Christ. And then he shot them. My God, my God.
I considered preaching about racial divisions this coming Sunday, but between the grief you and I all are feeling over the death of Drew Hilliard, and my grief over the shootings at “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church, I wasn’t sure I could do it, or that I trusted myself to speak reasonably on the issues when the heartbreak was so recent. This is why I am communicating in writing rather than through preaching.
Background: I have always been passionate about racism. When, in second grade, my family moved from San Antonio to Nashville, I heard, for the first time I can remember, the N-word. Thus began a lifelong journey of trying to figure out how people, on the basis of something as stupid as the color of a person’s skin, could assume another child of God was a lesser person.
Racism in some of its ugliest forms was all around me growing up in mostly white areas of the north side of Nashville, which is roughly equivalent to the south side of Louisville. I went to public schools with a few African Americans, but also with a great many straight-up bigots. I do not soften my appraisal of them any more than they softened their appraisals of the blacks whom they mocked and relentlessly dehumanized through blatantly racist humor. So pervasive was racism in my school that a white friend of mine once said to a black friend, “Hey, Jackson, did you hear the one about the n***** and the…” Only after he began sharing the joke of the day with his black friend did he catch himself and begin desperately trying to apologize. I know this seems impossible to many of you, but it happened in a 1980 environment where people forgot racist language was even being used. Like the air we breathed and the water we drank, it was just there. Moreover, a cross was burned in the yard of a black family who moved onto my street, and rumors were heard about classmates who had ties to The Klan.
I share all this so you will understand why I firmly believe racism is alive and well in America. I know it must be, because the many who were bigots in my youth are still all alive and well. No doubt some of them have evolved in their thinking, just as many of us have made progress overcoming some of the prejudice-without-malice we unintentionally carry with us toward African Americans because of where and when we grew up. But to pretend we have magically become a post-racism society is lunacy.
So how do we make our nation and our community places where racism is relegated to the pit of hell whence it arose? How do white people of good faith make a positive difference in God’s name?
#1. We acknowledge that we are not the “experts” on this topic. Any efforts by whites alone will fail to eradicate racism and its cancerous tentacles of poverty, poor education, and mass incarceration.
#2. Given premise #1, it follows that white leaders must have meaningful, honest conversations about race with African American leaders, and then be willing to speak about what they have learned. My good friend Joe Phelps and I have been having such conversations with Dr. Kevin Cosby over the past few months. Joe is the pastor of Highland Baptist Church, and Kevin is the pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church, the largest African American church in our city and I believe the second or third largest overall. Out of these conversations came an invitation I accepted to teach an ethics course this fall at Simmons College, a small Louisville historically black college also led by Dr. Cosby.
Kevin, Joe, and I had intended quietly to continue these conversations and to broaden the circle to include other pastors. Then came Charleston. In light of the national sense that our great national cancer must be addressed anew, a decision was made to move our private conversation and our nascent alliance out into the open. Out of this came the op ed piece that appeared in Thursday’s Courier-Journal. Bruce Williams, pastor of Bates Memorial Baptist Church, also signed on to the piece. (All four of us, by the way, attended Southern Seminary in the 1980’s.) This moves us to the third point.
#3. If white leaders are going to work with constructive African American leaders in the community, then the white leaders must be willing to see issues addressed in ways that might not always be easily palatable to the white members of their churches. This can be tricky, for all the leaders involved. As they say, “If it were easy, everybody would do it.” Working together across racial lines requires faith and trust among all those involved. I have confidence in the three men who signed this op ed with me, and I’m confident we will find additional pastors who are serious about speaking truth and finding solutions. I do not know exactly where this road will lead. But I am wholly committed to God’s destination: a community and a nation where racism is dead and its destructive legacy of poverty and devastated families and neighborhoods is gone.
Damning racism is a prerequisite to moving toward this destination. But simply damning racism will not get us there. What then are positive first steps? I believe Kevin Cosby would point to strengthening African Americans as individuals, and also strengthening their devastated institutions and businesses. Much of the west end, as well as other parts of our city, is made up of deserts of despair with none of the businesses or institutions necessary to sustain long-term development and jobs. The broad answer is not charity or well-intentioned programs initiated mostly by whites. The wonderful West End School, for example, which our church enthusiastically and wisely supports, was never intended to address broad issues, but rather is there to make a huge difference among a small percentage of west end students. Real, broad, sustainable progress will come only when African American leaders, students, business owners, and potential employees have meaningful ways to grow and to improve the economy and health of their communities from the inside out.
Rev. Cosby has long preached the importance of personal responsibility in the black community, but he and others need allies in the white community who can bring resources and people to the table to help in this rebuilding process. For example, Broadway members could make a difference by helping to tutor or mentor students at Simmons College. Mentors in the area of business and entrepreneurship are especially needed.
What’s next? For the four leaders behind the op ed piece, we will continue doing all we can to help lead our churches and our community in the direction God would have us to go. For Broadway, a next step will be the series of Sunday School lessons I am already scheduled to teach starting next Sunday, titled “Voices from the African American Church.” I will be speaking frankly during this study, but it will also be a venue that allows for conversation and voicing a variety of perspectives.
All this does not mean our church needs to neglect other important ministries and efforts in our city. But clearly I am investing in this specific area. Why? I feel strongly that a part of my personal calling as a pastor and Christian is to make a difference in the fight against racism. I have much to learn from black leaders, but in another sense, I’m in this fight because this is “the devil I know.” I also feel that in our community and our nation there is a rare moment of opportunity to make real progress on this generations-long challenge.
But the challenges are long term, because the problems are tall and wide. Whites’ share of the nation’s wealth is 31 percent greater than their share of the nation’s population. Blacks’ share of the nation’s wealth is 80 percent less than their share of the population. Black males age 16-32 are only 3% of the population but over 50% of those in prison, jail, awaiting sentencing, or on parole. To passively stand by and believe this kind of injustice will resolve itself is utter foolishness. These problems will not be fully overcome in my lifetime, but I will spend the rest of my life doing all I can to move my community and my country in a more just direction.
Please pray that God will grant other community leaders and me wisdom and courage. Pray that all of us in Louisville and our nation can take a tragic moment in our nation’s history, and allow God to use it for a lasting good. Pray that Dr. King’s dream of a land where people are judged by “the content of their character” will be realized. We have made important strides toward that destination, but we have a long, long way to go.