“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26)
So have no fear? That’s a tall order, Jesus. ‘Cause I’m scared, and it’s time I ‘fessed up to it. I’m scared of black folks.
No, I’m not afraid of people who are just as human as I am. I’m afraid of my own stupidity. I’m afraid, when I meet a person of color, that I can’t be myself because I know that terrible things have been done to people who look like the one I’ve just met by people who look like me. I am ashamed by the fact that I have enjoyed tremendous privilege which has been denied others just because of the color of their skin. I’m embarrassed my own ignorance—the truth that I can’t possibly understand this society the way an African American or African Caribbean does because my eyes don’t see what they see. I’m nervous about walking through the sacred space of their shared pain in the dirty feet of my preconceptions and hypocrisy.
So I avoid the subject. I don’t talk about race. It’s rather like avoiding the recently bereaved because you don’t know what to say to them, and their sorrow just makes you too uncomfortable.
But then George Floyd is murdered, and we watch his senseless execution on national television. We see it repeated night after night and we can’t avoid the reality that there’s one hell of a problem here in America. Just as Jesus told us in the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 3, Year A (Matthew 10:24-39), that which was whispered is now being shouted. The truth will always come out.
We can’t hide the brokenness of our society any longer, so we might as well confess it. As Christians we have a sacred obligation to love our neighbor and seek healing for all. We are to cast out the demons that make our society so sick. The trouble is, we probably don’t know how to perform such and exorcism.
For a small, mostly white congregation in mostly white Northeast Philly, there may not be much we can do as individuals. Nevertheless, what we can do, we should do. We need to gain knowledge even when it puts us out of our comfort zone. We need to seek healing through our democracy, asking our elected leaders to support fair housing, education, and healthcare reforms as well as reforms in criminal justice and policing. And we need to be able to talk about this as advocates to people whose minds may be closed. No minds can be changed if they are never challenged.
We need to refuse to allow the whispered denigration to pass without correction. We must speak the word of dignity aloud. As a child, I often heard the “N Word” spoken by the parents I loved. As much as I cherish their memory for the good things they taught me, I must now denounce their racism. I will no longer allow that hateful word, that which came so freely to their lips, to be spoken in my presence. I regret I did not have the courage to take such a stand when my folks were living. Jesus warns that those who love father or mother—or just keeping peace in the household—more than they love Jesus and righteousness are not worthy. It’s a stinging rebuke.
Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do in our local context is learn to listen to our African American brothers and sisters and educate ourselves in the world as they see it. I think we at Faith Lutheran have an opportunity to do this because of our relationship with the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventists who share our worship space. We have been together for over three years now, and their generosity contributes over $10,000 annually to our budget. However, we have never gotten to know them. When the quarantine is over, it might be time to break bread with our friends and listen to their experiences. It’s time to know them as people and fellow Christians, not merely as “those people” who use “our” building.
Let’s face it: as Lutherans, because of our German and Scandinavian heritage, we remain the whitest denomination in the United States.[i] I recall a member of my home congregation in California looking at me in incredulity when, during a Christmas break form the Philadelphia seminary, I remarked that Emanuel Lutheran, my field education site, was 90% African American. He was shocked that there actually were African American Lutherans!
Our estrangement from people of backgrounds different from our own needs to end. We need to be educated and learn to love and understand those whom we have misunderstood for too long. To that end, I will recommend to the Worship Committee that we give priority to hiring a person of color when we hire our new Music Director. It’s a small thing, but it’s a start.
God be with you all.
[i] I’ve heard, however, that more Lutherans will worship Jesus Christ this Sunday in Namibia or Tanzania than will worship in Finland or other European countries where Lutheranism was once the state religion.