On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.
This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.
But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.
The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.
“This action is symbolic,” they wrote. “More is being done and more needs to be done.”
And that’s the challenge not just for faith communities, but for all of us in a society where race is such an emotional and practical dividing line.
You know the numbers — nationally, the latest figures on household wealth show that the gap between white and black households has grown in the last few years, with white households having 13 times the median wealth of black households.
In Wisconsin and Dane County, where I live, there are huge racial gaps in incarceration, in educational achievement, in employment. You know the social isolation that exists across racial and ethnic lines all across this country.
These are large systemic issues and require great social and political will.
And then there are the life and death issues where black men and teens have been gunned down by vigilantes and police officers. Even when some of the circumstances were murky, the frequency and the fear and the stereotypes underlying these have reinforced the notion that too often, black lives seem expendable.
And so we wore black on that Sunday.
Johnny Cash, the country singer who was a giant in the music world of the second half of the last century, adopted a black wardrobe in the early 1970s as a statement of solidarity with those in prison, those living on the margins of society. His anthem, “The Man in Black,” was a striking call to identify with “ the poor and the beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town” and “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he's a victim of the times.”
Johnny Cash said he would stay in black until “we start to make a move to make a few things right.”
For those of us in the world of white, where our skin color masks all sorts of challenges others face, it’s easy to going back to wearing the regular colors of the season.
But perhaps we can keep a piece of black cloth somewhere with us as a reminder that we have work to do along with people whose skin color makes them so vulnerable in a world still so imperfect. If all lives matter, then we need to make sure that no life is expendable.
Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.