In the interest of honesty, I’m willing to admit that I’m nervous in conversations about race and racial justice.
I was a kid in the 1990s at the height of the idea that “not seeing race” at all was the best and kindest way for me, as a White person, to relate to my brothers and sisters of color. This concept indicated that the work had already been done – that we were living in a time of equality.
It’s taken me the past ten years and a lot of listening and reading to realize that this idea, no matter how well-meaning, is flawed. When White people like me act as if race doesn’t matter, it does a disservice to the struggles against individual and systemic racism that Black people face daily. I know this now. But I also feel like I’ll never understand enough to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way. I’ve read the books, watched, the documentaries, and tried hard to listen to Black friends and creators. All of this leads me to believe that I’m finally becoming aware of the magnitude of the problem, and of the fact that it will be almost impossible for me to ever fully understand from my own shoes.
And this makes me nervous. Because I don’t ever want to say, write, or do something that will contribute to the burden. I want to do the work of antiracism. I want to be helpful in whatever way I can. But I’m often paralyzed with the fear of making things worse.
So, I was thrilled that the topic of the 2023 CBF Pastor’s School was racial reconciliation. My senior pastor and I joined about 30 other CBF pastors and church staff members at Union Presbyterian Seminary on January 26 for a conversation on racial justice led by two pastors who are walking the good, hard, long walk of what it looks like to do racial reconciliation in real time.
Pastor James Goolsby of First Baptist Church in Macon, GA and Pastor Scott Dickison of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon shared their churches’ unique histories with those of us who were gathered there. In searching through their respective historical records, the two churches came to realize that they had once been one congregation. First Baptist Church of Christ was originally a church where both slaveowners and enslaved people were members. In 1826, the church split along racial lines and formed two congregations, one historically White and one historically Black.
According to Pastors Goolsby and Dickison, the two churches didn’t really have much of anything to do with each other after the split. That ended when these two pastors met and the Lord led them to guide their churches into the beginnings of relationship. They described the process – how they started small with some combined children’s and youth events. They ate together. They entered into difficult discussions with Black and White people around the same tables. Eventually, they applied for a grant that paid for a joint trip to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL.
Over the course of all of this good work, the two pastors described how incredible the changes were in the people in their congregations. They talked of friendships forming between families that had lived in the same town their entire lives, but had never met each other. They shared about how their congregations learned to trust each other with their painful memories and moments that they were embarrassed about. Later in the day, two couples – one from each church – Zoomed into the gathering and told us how positively they’d been impacted by the relationship between the two churches. It was uplifting. And convicting. And encouraging.
As I’ve had time to reflect on the experience, I think I can put my finger on three major takeaways.
The first is the absolute importance of relationship. Both of the pastors and the church members who joined us digitally emphasized that none of this would have been possible without friendship. The first steps were small ones. Pastor Dickison talked about how eating together, playing together, and holding each other’s babies is the groundwork for trust. We can’t possibly hope to have big, meaningful, potentially difficult conversations with people that we don’t know. Without knowing each other, we can’t carry each other’s burdens.
Another thing that I’ve spent some time thinking about is Pastor Goolsby’s encouragement to resist quick solutions. That’s not an easy pill to swallow in the 21st century. In a world in which we can order something and have it appear at our doors within a day, we’re not formed for slow and patient work. We want fast fixes. We want to wrap up all the loose ends or, at the very least, pretend they don’t exist. The work of antiracism is a lifelong process, both as individuals and as communities. There is grief involved. It requires change, growth, and reflection. The only way forward is to commit for a lifetime and to trust that God will be with us as we go.
The final takeaway, and the thing that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, is the incredible hope of this story. There is no denying the absolute ugliness and sin of racism and chattel slavery in the United States. We can’t turn away from it – trying to turn away from it is what has put us in our current position. But, with the God who promises to make all things new, we can always start again. We can choose to acknowledge our past and learn from it. We can take the first steps down the road back to each other. We can trust that God is still making holy mischief and good trouble (to borrow a phrase from the late Rep. John Lewis). The Spirit is still working and moving in the people of God to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Any of us, in any situation can begin with relationship and join in.
Because I’ve only been serving my current congregation since June, this was my first time at a Pastor’s School event, and it was so encouraging. I think I’m probably not alone in knowing where to start when having meaningful conversations about racial justice. Events like this are so helpful in framing those conversations around stories of real people who are farther down the path and offering resources.
These churches in Macon started with one step. That’s something we can all do.