A look at three multiracial churches—and how they got that way.
If, as many of the religions of the world affirm, there is a profound equality of dignity and worth between all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone, then what are we to make of a nation and its citizens who allow an entire group of people, a people once brutally enslaved and still actively oppressed, to continue to be stigmatized in ways that implicitly affirm their inferiority as a group and so allow too many of them to experience the devastating consequences of entrenched racial inequality? That nation and its citizens would stand accused of the greatest of injustices. That nation and its citizens would have a divine duty to end that injustice. The United States and we its citizens stand so accused today. Until we understand the imperative to eliminate racial inequality as an obligation grounded in ultimate reality, we will fail to understand the magnitude of our responsibility.
Whether the issue is wealth, health, incarceration, employment, or education, blacks as a group experience significantly disproportionate negative outcomes compared to whites. What accounts for this difference? Only two options are available. Significant racial inequality over time is explained either by forces external to the lives of black individuals (e.g., economic, legal, and social forces), or by the aggregate consequences of choices made by these individuals. Unless one concludes that racial inequality is entirely explained by forces external to the lives of black people, one is forced to conclude that there is something inferior about blacks as a group that causes them persistently to make more bad life choices than whites as a group.
At this point, some will object that some black people do indeed make bad choices that lead to bad outcomes. But so do some white people. The question is what accounts for the differences in the proportion of bad outcomes?
He’s been crowned the “new hip-hop king” and his newest album, “Anomaly,” topped iTunes and Amazon charts the day of its Sept. 9 release. He’s been invited to birthday parties for both Billy Graham and Michael Jordan and riffed on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with host Jimmy Fallon.
It’s the kind of mainstream success that has eluded most Christian rappers. Then again, some people are still trying to decide if hip-hop star Lecrae is a Christian rapper, or a rapper who happens to be Christian.
It depends who you ask, including Lecrae himself.
“God has also raised up lowly, kind of insignificant individuals to do miraculous and incredible things,” Lecrae, 34, said in an interview. “We’re the Gideons, we’re the Davids. Even Jesus himself made himself of no reputation. It’s when you can link it back to God doing it, I think that’s what he loves. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s deserving of glory and honor, and to use individuals that demonstrate that it was him, and him alone, it accomplishes his mission and that’s success.”
Just two days ago at this hour, I was in the midst of an 11-mile journey for John Crawford. Led by young people of color, 85 of us marched through suburban and rural Greene County, Ohio from the Beavercreak Wal-Mart, the site of John Crawford’s death at the hands of police, to Xenia, Ohio, where the special grand jury would consider an indictment of the officers. What was Crawford’s “crime?” Carrying a toy gun around Wal-Mart while talking on a cell phone.
During the march, there were moments when I felt like we had gone back in time, to days of struggle in the rural South, pushing for black lives to matter in this country, from accommodations to the ballot box. Things were different, I thought. Fifty years ago, marchers had a legitimate fear of sniper fire. Buses carrying freedom riders were attacked and firebombed with impunity. Surely times have changed.
Today the grand jury in Ohio announced there will be no indictment of the officers. (The Justice Department later announced it is launching an investigation into the shooting.) The Wal-Mart surveillance video is now public, and it reveals how quickly Crawford’s life was taken. The special prosecutor, in quotes about the case, seems to have not pushed very hard for an indictment. So another black life is lost under absurd circumstances, and the system communicates yet again that black lives don’t matter.
Dr. King said: a “riot is the language of the unheard.”
What happens when folks do not feel like their voices are being heard?
They shout louder.
Rioting is what almost happened in Ferguson, and all of us who live in fragile neighborhoods with a backdrop of deep racial injustice need to pay attention.
In Ferguson, a close-knit community was devastated by yet another injustice. They wanted to be heard. But as peaceful marches began, they were met with unprecedented force.
Tears were met with teargas.
It was as if authorities were putting their hands up over their ears. So the people shouted louder – and the world began to pay attention.
At a fragile moment when emotions were running high, the people of Ferguson had to choose between rioting and nonviolent direct action in the streets. A very small group (many of them arguably out-of-state activists) resorted to some forms of property damage. And it caught the media’s attention.
Some might say it hijacked the headlines.
But that is not how I will remember Ferguson.
I walked across the school yard and through the ominous painted doors of St. Athanasius Elementary School for the first time. My mother and I had walked hand in hand the long city block from home to the school, across the school yard, through the entrance, down the hallway, heels now echoing against linoleum and lockers as the smell of chalk and mimeographed copies wafted from each classroom we passed.
We entered my second-grade classroom where I was greeted by the teacher who told me to take my seat four heads from the front. That seat was my second home for half of every day for a year.
I had high hopes for second grade. At the very least, I hoped it would be safe. It wasn’t.
The girl who sat behind me demanded 25 cents per day to be my friend — or else. But worse, the white woman charged with teaching our classroom full of African-American children ruled us as if we were in her military camp … or worse… prison.
My teacher once punched me in the back because I forgot to hand in an assignment — in second grade.
Now take that single act of aggression and magnify it: a punch in the back becomes a suspension, an expulsion, or an arrest. Then systematize it. Call it a “Zero Tolerance” policy and spread it across 90 percent of schools in the United States. Then apply the policy inequitably, such that African-American children are punished at higher rates and more severely than white children. That is what happened when the culture of severe punishment promoted by the Tough on Crime movement permeated education systems throughout the 1990s.
One month ago, the city of Ferguson, Mo., was violently shaken by the shooting death of an unarmed black man whose name is Michael Brown, Jr.
This is not the first time we’ve stood in this place. Michael Brown has been added to the roll call of unarmed black people killed by those hired to protect and to serve. His name joins the names of:
John Crawford , an unarmed Ohio man gunned down inside of a Walmart while examining a toy gun sold in the store.
Eric Garner , an unarmed New York man killed, after stating several times that he was having difficulty breathing, by an officer using an illegal choke hold.
Sean Bell , an unarmed New York man shot multiple times outside of the venue for his bachelor party the night before his wedding.
Oscar Grant , an unarmed Oakland man who was handcuffed, face down, before he was fatally shot.
And so many more black lives, both male and female, ended by the reflexes of a legal system designed to police some and protect others.
So why did the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. ignite such a firestorm of rage in a region and a nation where slain black bodies are commonplace?
This is not one of those neighborhoods that cause political analysts to pontificate over “how something so tragic could happen here.”
These are not deaths that leave communities and congregations struggling to find deeper meaning and psychological factors that might have contributed to the tragic loss of life.
As a matter of fact, since the death of Michael Brown, there have been two killings of black men with documented mental challenges, Ezell Ford of Los Angeles and Kajieme Powell, killed only a few miles from the site of Michael Brown’s death. Yet there have been no roundtable discussions of the role of mental illness in our society sparked by these deaths.
What made Michael Brown’s death different?
In Ferguson, an unarmed black teenager was killed by police. In reaction, thousands took to the streets in protest. However, rather than attempting to listen, the heavily militarized police immediately made a show of force with armored vehicles, assault rifles, riot gear, and tear gas. People tweeted photos and videos more reminiscent of scenes from Baghdad or Fallujah than of a little Midwestern suburb in America.
Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd of peaceful protestors. Multiple reporters were assaulted and arrested. One cop was caught on video screaming “Bring it, all you f---ing animals! Bring it!” Another appeared to be indiscriminately pointing his rifle in people’s faces and yelling “I will f---ing kill you!”
This raises the question: Is what we saw night after night in Ferguson simply a matter of a few “bad apple” cops, a local isolated problem? Or is it indicative of a wider attitude of the police in relation to the use of violence and force? Is it an anomaly, or is this what police in fact consider normal and right? In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, a 17-year veteran of the LAPD gives us what he believes to be good advice from the perspective of a cop:
“If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me ... and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. ”
In one sense he is of course right. If a guy has a gun at your head you should definitely not argue, and just do what he says. But one is led to ask how this reasoning is substantially different from saying to a child, “Honey, when dad is drunk and gets mad, don’t talk back, just be real quiet.” That’s probably sound advice, too, but it begs the question: Is this the world we want to live in? Is that as good as we can do?
ST. LOUIS — Justice was a recurring theme as thousands of mourners packed the mammoth Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Monday for the funeral of Michael Brown, a black teen whose fatal shooting following a confrontation with a white police officer set off weeks of sometimes violent protests.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, among the speakers, called for a “fair and impartial investigation” into the shooting.
“We are not anti-police, we respect police,” Sharpton said. “But those police that are wrong need to be dealt with just like those in our community who are wrong need to be dealt with.”
Benjamin Crump, a lawyer representing Brown’s family, alluded to the “three-fifths” clause in the Constitution for counting slaves (which actually was an anti-slavery clause) and demanded that Brown get “full justice, not three-fifths justice.”
Brown’s body was being laid to rest, but the controversy surrounding the Aug. 9 shooting was far from over. Prosecutors have not determined whether the Ferguson police officer, 28-year-old Darren Wilson, will face charges in Brown’s death.
Like many of you, I’ve been overwhelmed and deeply saddened by the events that have transpired in Ferguson, Mo. And at times I’ve felt helpless, 350 miles away in Cincinnati, as friends of mine are in Ferguson praying, marching, organizing, and working for peace and justice.
In my conversations with friends of color, I have witnessed their pain and frustration and deep angst over the events of Ferguson. The past two weeks have hit very close to home for them.
With white friends, the response has been mixed, but the overwhelming sentiment is one I’ve already identified: helplessness. I am not satisfied with this response. I believe there are ways we can respond, bear witness, be in solidarity and work for justice in this moment. Our love for God and neighbor demands we engage. If you are like me, you are praying without ceasing for the Shalom, peace, and justice of God to reign in the hearts and minds and streets of Ferguson and throughout this nation and world. So how can we pair our prayers with constructive action?
Here are ten ways white Christians can respond to Ferguson.
"Then the LORD said, 'I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…Indeed, I know their sufferings…’ - Exodus 3:7
For the last few weeks, the eyes of America have been riveted on the town of Ferguson, Missouri, a formerly little-known suburb of St. Louis. It was there on Aug. 9 that an unarmed African-American teenager named Mike Brown was shot six times by police, sparking ongoing protests and demonstrations by grief-stricken and outraged citizens. Clashes between demonstrators and heavily armed local police, highway patrol, and the Missouri National Guard have been the subject of extensive coverage and all manner of commentary across broadcast and social media.
These demonstrations in Ferguson represent something more than just lament for the tragic death of Mike Brown. They are an outcry at the demonization of black men, racial profiling, institutional racism, intergenerational poverty, the militarization of law enforcement, and a culture of incarceration in America. Over the last three weeks, Ferguson has become a flash point for urgent issues facing minority communities, issues which have been largely unnoticed or ignored by the majority white culture. The #Ferguson hashtag no longer just refers to the events happening in Ferguson but has come to represent a national conversation about the toll that institutional racism and its many diabolical expressions have taken on our fellow Americans.
In the days following Mike Brown’s death, columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. described the protests as “an act of outcry, a scream of inchoate rage. That’s what happened this week in Ferguson, Mo. The people screamed.” These screams echo of the cries that God heard from the Hebrews enslaved in ancient Egypt.
As the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner collected signatures for a statement by leaders of African-American church groups about the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting of Michael Brown, she found more people wanted to join in.
The general secretary of the National Council of Churches wanted to add his name; an Asian-American evangelical leader, too.
What started out as a “Joint Statement of Heads of Historic African American Church Denominations” has become an interracial cry for justice.
“It’s touching hearts of people who have sons and who know that their sons would not be treated this way,” said Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African-American Clergy Network, on Thursday. “They know it’s wrong. They know it’s wrong before God. And they are responding on a human level.”
I’ve been calling it the Summer of Helplessness.
From the conflict in Gaza that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead, to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the skies of Ukraine, to the Ebola breakout getting worse by the day, to the shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager here in the U.S., the news of late is enough to make a person feel paralyzed with helplessness and despair. My prayers these days are of the tired, desperate sort: How long, O Lord? Will you hide your face from us forever?
But when it comes to violence and oppression, we are rarely as helpless as we think, and this is especially true as the events unfolding in Ferguson force Americans to take a long, hard look at the ongoing, systemic racism that inspired so many citizens to protest in cities across the country this week.
I’ve heard from many of my white friends and readers who say they aren’t sure how to respond to the anger and grief they are watching on TV or hearing from their black friends. They want to be part of the solution but don’t know where start. They may even feel a little defensive when they hear people talking about white privilege or inaction on the part of white Christian leaders. I’m in the process of learning too, but as I’ve listened to people of color whose opinions I trust, I’ve heard them issue several calls to action we can all heed.
In recent years, my family has navigated some rough patches: death, cancer treatments, open heart surgeries, chronic disease, etc. Now, I’m certain this isn’t everyone’s experience, but mine has been that in these times of trauma or tragedy, family comes together to stand with one another as we wrestle through life’s crap. We aren’t picking fights, we are crying on each other’s shoulders.
In recent months, our human family has been enduring an especially rough patch.
Whether in remote villages or urban centers, few have been untouched (in some way) by the realities unfolding.
As I observe our corporate response to tragedy as a human family, and evaluate my own response in the midst of it, I have noticed something disturbing unfold. Rather than rally together as a family navigating a season of trauma, we have used this moment to divide, stir hatred and misunderstanding, point fingers, and more than anything, view those on the opposite side of an issue as less than human.
It was July 19, 2013, and we were leaving New York City for a spiritual retreat, six days after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman “not guilty” in the death of Trayvon Martin. The sadness, anger, and weariness was well worn on the liturgies, prayers, and preaching of many of the churches in our Harlem neighborhood.
We found ourselves joining local church leaders and a few pastors in a conversation about justice that would eventually make its way toward a broad range of matters: the gay rights of questioning teens, clean water for children in Africa, and many of the frequent places conversations go with folks who are concerned with “loving our neighbor.” And so we sat, we listened, and were genuinely moved to openly share about the challenges and opportunities that have come with cultivating safe spaces for GBLT folks in our church community. TOGETHER we also inspired one another as we offered our collective experiences with integrating the arts in fundraising for international relief efforts.
And as Jose and I sat, listened, and shared TOGETHER, we found ourselves with heavy hearts waiting …“Would the conversation broach the tragedy of Trayvon Martin?” It didn’t.
And as we sat TOGETHER in sacred solidarity with compassionate, justice-minded pastors, who happened to be white, somehow we found ourselves feeling quite alone. So we mustered the courage to ask, “How have your churches responded to the Trayvon Martin verdict?” My question was met with silence. The silence that met us did not betray aloof or timid spirits, but rather uncertainty about whether their one voice could really make a difference, or that somehow they did not have the right to “speak on behalf” of brown and black realities.
Christians often talk about actively changing the world, but too often, we just sit still and passively watch the struggles of others without participating, leading, or caring. We don’t love.
Why? Because many Christians have an inability to use their imaginations.
People who can’t imagine are susceptible to bigotry, racism, hatred, and violence toward others. Why? Because they can’t imagine any other scenario, perspective, or opinion other than their own. They have an inability to see themselves in someone else’s shoes. They can’t see beyond their own narrow reality.
When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive.
Whether our differences are gender-related, age-related, race-related, culturally related, politically related, economically related, socially related, theologically related, value-related, or related to any countless number of factors, overcoming them requires imagination.
When you can’t imagine, you can’t celebrate, appreciate, admire, and joyfully love others. You disconnect yourself from humanity.
I have so much emotions and thoughts in my mind, heart, and body – in light of the oh-so-much that is going on all around the world – including the utterly tragic, brutal, and unnecessary “death” of Michael Brown.
But I thought it would be helpful to share a few thoughts how churches, Christians, and leaders can be engaging the events of the past 11 days in their respective churches – now and in the future. I’m not suggesting that pastors have to completely alter their sermons or Bible studies, but to altogether ignore the injustice of Michael Brown’s death would be altogether foolish.
To be blunt and I say this respectfully,
The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me — it’s a Gospel issue. It’s a Kingdom issue. We shouldn’t even let isolated issues in themselves hijack the purpose of the church. The Gospel of Christ is so extraordinary that it begins to inform (and we pray, transform) all aspects of our lives. So, in other words, we talk about race and racism because we believe in the Gospel.
So, here are five suggestions for Christians, leaders, and churches.
Our nation has a problem. It is not a “black” problem or a “white” problem, but a “human” problem that we all succumb to — and have the power to change. Our beloved nation was NOT “conceived in liberty” OR “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” despite President Lincoln’s well-intentioned words. That was the hope, but it has never been the reality.
Many of my African-American sisters and brothers are furious. Yet another child has been felled. The challenge is this — if a tree falls in the forest and white folks don’t hear it, does it make a noise? Many of us who are white do not have the contextual experience or the “ears to hear” to understand the fear and the fury.
More than a decade ago, I pastored in a community that was predominately African American. It grew from 72 percent to 98 percent black in just seven years as a result of “white flight.” In the course of this time, the police force struggled because it didn’t listen to the people. Most of the officers were white and could legally live up to 30 miles away; as a result many (including the chief) lived in another state.
At one heated meeting, the police chief informed us what we “could” and “could not” do as we discussed community initiatives that included the older white and adolescent black residents in conversation and collaboration. Finally, as the pastor of one of the larger churches in town, I stood up and said, “Chief, please understand that we are not asking for your permission. We are telling you what we, as citizens of this town, are going to do. Now we need to know — are you with us? Or not?” The African-American residents stood and clapped loudly. I felt their pain and the reason for what some perceived as “paranoia,” but what I knew to be legitimate fury.
A study came out recently saying that millennials (a category that I apparently fit into) consider ourselves the “post-racial” generation. By and large, young adults think they are the ones who have moved past racism.
Except, that’s not true. Racism is alive and well.
Here at Sojourners I’m privileged to be a part of enlightening conversations about diversity, racism, sexism, and a whole host of other injustices. This makes it all the more frustrating when I try and continue those conversations outside the Sojourners community, and I’m met with resistance. Most of my friends are extremely uncomfortable discussing race. And not just because it’s a taboo subject; this is D.C., after all, and politics are always fair game in friendly discussion. Instead, I’ve found that my friends are so unsettled by the subject that they either try and change it, or they tell me it’s not about race, it’s about income inequality. Those arguments, which I follow up with “where do you think the income inequality came from?,” are still met with resistance, and arguments that if we could just bring people out of poverty, the racial disparities would vanish.
Except they wouldn’t.
Over the past three weeks there have been four separate incidents that have led to the deaths of four unarmed black men at the hands of police. For many black people, myself included, the moments following these tragic events are filled with despair, sorrow, anger, and frustration. Each incident serves as a reminder that as a black man in America, my life holds little to no value in the eyes of the general public. To be young and black in the United States means to live under constant pressure, something most non-black American citizens know nothing about.
For the majority of black people, the police do not represent protection or safety, rather they are a menacing force that terrorize those they are supposed to serve. I have never felt safe in the presence of law enforcement. In fact, whenever police are in close proximity to me, I feel in danger. Whenever a cop drives behind me or beside me I feel anxious, not protected.
Is my paranoia justified?