This article has been simmering a long time because, honestly, I questioned if I had insights to contribute to the conversation about racial injustice that hadn’t already been expressed more eloquently by others. What I’ve recognized is what I can share is my own personal story and my unique perspective as a faith leader and Christian educator.
I grew up in a small, mono-chromatic town in North Alabama; people of color didn’t live there. Diversity in those days in my hometown referred to whether you were Baptist or Church of Christ! Because no black folks lived in the community, we had little opportunity to foster relationships with people of color. Much was happening in other parts of the state, however. We heard tales about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but people around me were frightened by King and his message. “He’s a trouble-maker,” I heard frequently. Not many I knew were sad when King’s life was abruptly and violently ended by hate.
In 10th grade, my family moved to a different town in North Alabama that had a small black population, all of whom lived “across the tracks.” To be honest, in those days I was oblivious to the physical separation of the races. I worked at the local hardware store where the “old guys” gave me a very negative and biased “education” about race. Church leaders sat around and “chewed the fat” and talked about racial inferiority from every angle. Though deep in my soul I knew what the older men asserted was wrong, inaccurate, and ungodly, I said nothing. Why? I had not been taught by church or culture that justice matters to God and the oppressed. The myopic focus on evangelism and individual salvation mostly ignored systemic injustice and failed to acknowledge the connection between love of neighbor—of all colors—and love of God.
Thank God for basketball! I lettered all three years on my high school basketball team. To us players, skin color made no difference. We were a team with the goal to play together and win. Our center was the only black member on the team. Readell and I became good friends, though we weren’t close enough (or brave enough?) to discuss racial inequity and white privilege (an unfamiliar concept in my insular world).
I wish my college years at the University of Alabama had nudged my understanding of racial inequity more, but, again, I had very little interaction with people of color in my accounting major classes. Governor George Wallace’s blocking African-American students from entering Foster Auditorium on June 11, 1963 to prevent their enrollment barely registered in my mind. Only near the end of my years in Tuscaloosa did I learn the former pastor of the church I attended physically stopped black folks from entering the church building! Recalling and confronting your history with racial injustice (no matter how unaware of it you were) is not easy!
I was not conscious of my blindness to racial injustice until I was in seminary. Even though Southern Seminary had a dubious history—those who founded SBTS owned slaves and defended slavery as a “righteous” institution—my professors began to remove the scales from my eyes. Learning about the evil perpetrated against people of color demanded a response from me. How could I not recognize the disconnect of faith-followers (including myself) who sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” on Sunday mornings while simultaneously be oblivious to racial inequities? To come to grips with the fact those around me and I were complicit in embracing stereotypes and failing to show compassion was painful.
One of the best learnings for me over the years has been to recognize how similar we are to our friends of color…something that is self-evident and just by saying it reveals my prejudice. We all have hopes and dreams; love our children and want the best for them; seek to serve and make a difference; care about our families, our faith, and our future. Certainly, we come from unique family circles and physically look a little different (as do all people) but our spirits, minds, and bodies are more similar than they are dissimilar. For sure, nothing shifts your thinking about race like relationship!
As a minister of faith formation, I have often contemplated race relations in society, especially in churches. God loves us equally. We are all formed in the image of Creator God. Our maturation as disciples demands we grow in our ability to see with God’s eyes, love everyone, and work for the good of all God’s creation which includes all shapes, sizes, and colors of people, of course.
Matters of race are serious. America’s inability to grapple with persistent racial inequity must deeply grieves God. How can we who profess faith in our all-loving Creator help? We can take advantage of opportunities to wake up. What I share is part of my unique journey—not a prescriptive approach. Here are some ways my shaping and forming has evolved in order to see differently. You must find what works for you!
· Cooperative Baptist Fellowship – I credit CBF with much of my ongoing
transformation. At CBF’s General Assembly in Birmingham a few years ago, I learned of
Empower West in Louisville. Eye-opener. I attended a TED-type talk by Jemar Tisby,
author of The Color of Compromise, in which he explained the difficulties of growing
up black in the United States. Wake-up call. Wise prophets across the Fellowship have
stepped up to tell the truth about racial inequity in America. Many have written
excellent articles published in Baptist News Global, Ethics Daily, and Nurturing
Faith. Continuous deeper understanding.
· Reading and educating myself – Joan and I listened to a recorded version of
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein on summer vacation one year. The ways white
people use law to slow black progress in almost all arenas of our culture are down-
right maddening. I’ll never understand why keeping blacks “in their places” became
the goal of so many Americans (many of them church-going types). More recently Joan
and I dug into the bestseller Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Caste is the hardest book
I’ve ever read. Joan left the room many times to escape hearing about the inhumanity
shown toward humans. God forgive us!
· Charlottesville – No doubt the white supremacist rally in August 2017 in
Charlottesville was a wake-up call across America. Anti-black and antisemitic
language and violence moved racism to center stage. When CBFVA held its first Winter
Youth Summit over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2020, students were given
opportunity to learn about and reflect upon injustice—including meaningful
conversations about race. Because racist events in Charlottesville were still vivid
in our collective memory, the summit became a powerful experience for teens and
· Being challenged by peers – I participate in a racially mixed clergy peer-
learning group. On occasion we educators engage in meaningful discussion about race
in America. One time someone innocently asked our friends of color to help us
understand the hostility between black and white humans. The response nailed me,
“Black people are tired of white people asking us how to fix racism. Whites invented
artificial racial categories and it’s up to them to fix the problems created by
judging some humans more worthy than others.” Ouch!
· Watching movies – As riots took place across America in response to the deaths
of far too many black people at the hands of police officers, Joan and I made a point
to watch movies about abuse of black people in America. Many movies thoroughly and
honestly examine “America’s original sin.” More waking up!
How much do you really know about America’s history of racial discrimination? We allowed a tradition of racial and religious privilege and supremacy—especially white and Christian privilege and supremacy—to develop. We must acknowledge the pain and evil engaged in by those who enslaved, abused, and killed in the name of Christ for the “conversion of the world” and for profit. Because the truth is so difficult to fathom, many refuse to recognize it, let alone do the work to learn a better way.
A few summers ago, Joan and I attended a spiritual growth conference in Wisconsin. Participants studied, shared, and worshiped together. One day I got into an intense conversation with a fellow participant who described spending years hopping from church to church looking for a group that would confirm his beliefs and understandings. One thing he said stuck with me, “I can’t listen to any talk about America’s history that counters my understanding of exceptionalism.” He refused to listen to stories about how European whites mistreated indigenous peoples and slaves. Conversation over.
Christianity’s unholy role in racial injustice is heartbreaking. Yolanda Pierce, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, told the bitter truth in a 2015 article in Religion & Politics:
We often fail to deconstruct how proslavery theology still influences American Christianity. But simply put: Theological arguments upheld the institution of slavery long after other arguments failed. American Christian theology was born in a cauldron of proslavery ideology, and one of the spectacular failures of the Christian church today is its inability to name, interrogate, confront, repent, and dismantle the cauldron which has shaped much of its theology. We are daily living with the remnants of a theological white supremacy, coupled with social and political power, which continues to uphold racist ideologies…Can this nation afford to keep ignoring the truth that black people in America live under a threat of racial violence, never quite feeling that we are equal citizens in the nation that our enslaved ancestors built?
Hearing stories from black friends about the constant fear they live with, seeing the rise of white “Christian Nationalism,” and reading today’s headlines remind us how true Yolanda’s words are.
Discipleship is not about a set of propositions or beliefs we hold but a never-ending process of dying to an old self and being reborn as a new one. Opening and examining ourselves to see as God sees is painful, so we usually try to avoid it. Substituting a belief system for authentic transformation distorts our faith understanding. Faith must be continually converted to the Jesus’ Way—with concrete spiritual practices and actions that lead to love and justice in the world. Faith cut off from discipleship leads to social cancers like racism, sexism, materialism, environmental destruction, and economic injustice. Creating faith understanding “in your own image” is not faith at all. It is idolatry.
Would that we could recover our childlike innocence regarding skin pigmentation! I know we cannot help how culture shapes our experiences and assigns meaning to them. We learn and share beliefs, values, and a way of life with others around us and become enculturated. Unfortunately, many families and churches have been part of a false narrative when it comes to race. Journeying in the Way of Jesus demands we reject old ways of seeing and embrace a new cultural perspective driven by love and acceptance for all people with no regard for gender, race, color, or creed.
My personal waking up about racial injustice didn’t happen overnight—it evolved because of ongoing education, reflecting on my experience in light of new information, nurturing relationships/friendships with people not like me, welcoming people of color into my family, and opening myself to see differently. I still have a long way to go in overcoming my own enculturation process, but I’m on the journey.
My hope is local congregations embrace Truth and help faith followers wake up to ways the culture (both church and societal) has deformed our faith understanding and blocked our capacity to see through the lens of God’s all-inclusive love. God calls us to repentance for how we wound and hurt. The challenge is to see with a “God-focused prescription,” adopt new understandings, and act on our new awareness. Our faith can, if we open ourselves to growth and godliness, authentically transform us and our culture and begin the journey toward racial harmony.
We are at a crucial point in this country when the church must be at the forefront of confronting injustice in all its forms. Surely this must include seeing the image of God in all, resisting any efforts to assign value to people based on color of skin, and rejecting all versions of white Christian nationalism.