It seems as though two social issues I identified in my application to the Hendrix Social Engagement Clergy Fellowship as being especially pertinent to my context and experience have erupted today–one receiving positive acclaim in the Pope’s Encyclical on the human causes of climate change, and one receiving yet another tragic account of violence perpetrated because of an ignorant understanding of race in Charleston, South Carolina.
On the positive front, it is a hopeful sign that the leader of 1.2 billion Christians would make such a declaration as Pope Francis did today. His words are an authoritative teaching for at least that many who identify as Roman Catholic and are obligated to pay attention. They are persuasive enough to the other 1 billion Christians in the world who claim the same theological underpinning that he claimed to vouch for the intentional prioritized care for the earth by putting a check on our consumerist worldly tendencies for us to do something about it. His words are captivating enough to the other 4.8 billion human beings on the planet to perhaps budge the stalwart politicians whose interests are firmly fixed with the industry that benefits from the status quo. I am glad that someone with the global authority and persuasive presence is also gifted with a rational, scientific mind as well as a poetic voice and inspiring personal conduct.
I had identified race relations as a major component of my contextual social concerns in the application for the fellowship I received last month. Though it didn’t take much sensitivity to identify this as a key component of any pastoral concern in this day and age, it also seems clear that it is something I can most realistically do something about. One person can’t combat climate change alone. It is quite possible that 7 billion persons can’t combat climate change, and we’re now just needing to figure out how to humanely deal with its disastrous effects. But, one person CAN combat racism. One person’s voice, outlook, intentional relationship, and support could be the enlightenment that such thick-headed pitiful specimens of ignorant humanity as the misguided young man in Charleston need to hear to convict them of their backwards way of thinking. It is said that in the midst of his violent outburst of ignorance, he said something to the effect of “taking back his country.” Well, no doubt if he had his way, our country would be taken back– taken backwards that is: back in time to the days of Jim Crow or the Cotton Kings–and what he might find an uncomfortable truth is that his lot in life would have no better standing.
From McKinney, Texas to Rachel Dolezal, it seems the complexities of race and racism have been brought to the forefront in the past few years. A country that seemed “over it” enough to elect a black president in 2008 now seems poised for racially motivated violence. We need to be clear and strident in our voice as Christians: we deplore it. We reject it. As our baptismal vows state, (and thank God we have an opportunity to hear those vows affirmed once again this Sunday)
We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of our sin. We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
The pastor at the church right down the street from Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is a friend I met through the University Church Network (his church, Trinity UMC, borders the College of Charleston.) I reached out in sympathy this morning, knowing the proximity of their churches and his likely friendship with the pastor there. He was indeed friends with Rev. Clementa Pinckney and added this personal lamentation: “The hardest part was explaining it to my 8 year old…felt like I was handing down evil to the next generation. Shooting happened four blocks from our church and one block from where he and his sister were going to camp, which was cancelled. We will remind them that God wins and uses people to help.” God wins and uses people to help. In order for God to do that, we’ve got to be willing to live into our baptismal vows. We’ve got to be critical in our thinking and self-examination.
Along those lines, one way I plan to live into my vows in the months to come is to participate in a program called Groundwork for the next year. Here’s how my friend Rev. Shelly Daigle explains and invites her colleagues to participate:
Yet again we are reminded that racism is alive and well. And while I am praying for justice and healing in response to the Charleston shooting, I am also aware that I want/need to be a part of prayerful action as well. I believe that the church can play a powerful role in reconciliation but we often feel ill-equipped to start the conversations. We are afraid to use the wrong words or tone. We are unsure of the history. We don’t know where to begin.
And so, I want to invite my colleagues to join me on the journey to understanding racial identity, privilege and bias so that we can begin the hard work of reconciliation in our communities.
Last year I was able to participate in a group called Groundwork offered by the YWCA. Groundwork is a “10-session program designed to engage white anti-racist advocates in critically examining racism, exploring what it means to be an antiracist white ally, developing tools needed for the elimination of racism.” This course transformed my life as I began to see the world in a whole new way and began to gain some tools to work on racial reconciliation. I felt empowered to invite you to participate in a cohort comprised solely of our Tulsa-area colleagues.
I truly believe that we, as church leaders, have the ability to make an impact on the issues of race in our communities but we often just feel ill equipped.
In consultation with our District Superintendent, Dan Peil, I have begun organizing a group of colleagues interested in participating in this course to start in August and meet monthly for 10 months at the cost of $100 per person. The group meets for 1.5 hours once a month. The time and dates will be determined by the group that emerges.
So, there it is–what happened last night in Charleston could have as easily happened here. We’ve got to be forces of love and goodness that keep the darkness at bay. And we can.