Quick to Listen

Quick to Listen

The first major decision I made was racist.

A young white man in his twenties, I was going to change the world. The new director of an urban early childhood program dedicated to providing services within a multiracial, multicultural, mixed-economic setting, I was passionate about the mission. Giving my confession of faith in a storefront church with a strong emphasis on inclusiveness and educated in the St. Louis city and Ferguson-Florissant school districts, I was not a novice to racial tensions.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

When you’re white you journey through life assumed by our culture to be a worthy human being. My experiences with racial conflict in the late sixties and seventies, while upsetting and confusing for me, were still experienced through the lens of a white child. In my church I was blessed to have an African-American man, whose weekday ministry was about healing racial strife,  mentor and help me to process and understand race during that turbulent era. Looking back more than four decades later, I see the divine breath moving in our weekly conversations.

The pie is big enough for all peoples. It is time for those of us who are white to  respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security. Photo by Tim Graves
The pie is big enough for all peoples. It is time for those of us who are white to respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security. Photo by Tim Graves

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

Part of the problem is that I still understood racism in personal terms. I made a racist decision, not because I intended to favor a white employee at the expense of black employees, but because my white lens filtered out the experience of my African-American staff. Personal prejudice did not cause me to make a racist decision. Not understanding the systemic and institutional nature of racism, caused me to make a bigoted decision. The inability to perceive the whole picture particularly the role of power and privilege within which I was operating, caused me to make a racist decision.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

I’d like to be able to report that I was able to effectively and quickly fix my mistake. I cannot. The damage was done. I had stepped in the proverbial doo doo and early in my tenure I lost some credibility.

I was fortunate, however, to have a United Way representative — who herself was African American — help me to understand the significance of the mistake I made. I also was able to seek out an African American colleague, the director of a sibling early childhood program, a former professor specializing in racism, and several of my staff members. All were extremely patient with me. I am grateful for their help; they were under no obligation to teach me.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

As a result of that decision and other experiences I grew in my understanding and awareness of racism. I learned to accept the racist thoughts and impulses within me that are a part of growing up white in America. (Awareness of my shadow feelings, helps me to guard against acting upon them.) I made better, though imperfect, decisions after that day. I continue to learn about the insidious character of racism.

***

More than four decades later, I am no longer an active early childhood educator. I am the pastor of a small church in a tiny frontier town in eastern Oregon. By my count, we have no people of color within the membership of the church and less than a handful of African Americans among the 650 souls who live in our town.

During my nineteen months serving this progressive church, I have preached only twice about the injustice of racism. (This is a luxury that white pastors in white settings have which pastors of color do not.)  The first time followed the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the second was in response to the shooting of Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer.

Two weeks ago when I preached about the sin of racism, a couple of individuals pushed back against my words with examples of individual African Americans acting in prejudicial ways. This is not an unusual response among whites. It reflects a personalizing of racism (which is really about power and systems) and a failure to hear the voices of our oppressed sisters and brothers.

A recent tweet that crossed my feed implied that Progressive Christians are all talk and no action regarding racism. Sadly, I think there is too much truth in this perspective. In my case, I’ve talked about racism only twice in nineteen months. No actions have been forthcoming from my community of Christians.

It is time for substantive action to end the institutional racism that results in the shooting of young black men. Those in the African American community cannot be expected to wait one moment longer for change.

Nonetheless, as a white pastor in a white community, I know that until whites admit that racism is real, they will not be a part of a solution. In ignorance, we will continue to make racist decisions until we listen and believe the lived experiences of our sisters and brothers. We must pay attention to the teachings and modeled life of Jesus: we must hear the cries of the marginalized and oppressed! Then, we must confess our past sins, personal and collective. When that happens, I am convinced that we will respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security.

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…
James 1:19 CEB

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One Way or Another

One Way or Another

I’ve seen images this week of my old teenage stomping grounds under siege. I’ve seen the area where I began raising my own children torn apart when a young man was shot dead by a police officer.

michael_brown_portrait_brother600

I graduated from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri. My best friend in high school, who was later the best man at my wedding, lived in Ferguson.

After college and a brief stint in another city, Maggie and I began to raise our family in St. Louis. We bought a house that is only 4-1/2 miles from the QuikTrip that was burned Sunday night.

My Dad passed that very convenience store twice last Sunday as he gave someone a ride to church and back home.

My dad lives 2-1/2 miles from where some of the looting took place. When our kids were small, my folks, my sister and brother and their families, and Maggie and I with our own kids would gather at a restaurant in that shopping plaza.

When I talked to my Dad on the phone this week, the man who is rarely rattled, seemed unnerved by the events in his own backyard. He told me stories of my nephew Jacob and his friends (all young men of color) being harassed by police.

And, so, this is personal.

My emotions are invested in this national story because people I love are a part of it.  I have heard on-the-ground reports from my former church youth group leader, a former employee, and my other nephew Bryan. 

But even if this weren’t personal, as a Christian I should be appalled: an unarmed 18-year-old boy was shot dead on the street.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief of that mother and father? Can you? I’ve tried but somehow I can’t quite put myself in their place. Maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe that’s because the mental picture is too horrifying and my psyche is protecting me.

When I was in my teen years, my friends and I did some stupid things in that area of St. Louis. Once, for example, I was stopped by the cops for a, um, questionable driving maneuver. My biggest fear was getting a ticket and having to tell my parents. I got off with a stern warning and I didn’t tell my parents.

It never even occurred to me that my life might be at risk. It never occurred to me that I should put my hands on the outside of the car door as actor Levar Burton does to assure he’s not shot by a nervous police officer because of the color of his skin.

It is within this context that Michael Brown was shot. I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting anymore than any one of you does. What I do know is that we have a race problem in this country and we refuse to talk about it in a productive way.

Those of us who have light skin, may not be actively racist but we all have racist imperfections having been raised within our culture. We may not be actively or verbally racist but we still benefit from the color of our skin because of systemic racism that views us as the norm. We benefit from things within our institutions and culture simply because of the color of our skin.

Talking about race is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It can be painful!

It’s also easy to ignore when you’re white.

But avoidance doesn’t work. When we fail to talk about racism the problems don’t go away. They just come out in unhealthy ways. We don’t grow as a human family…we just stagnate and learn to mistrust our sisters and brothers. When we don’t talk about race, when we ignore the problem we find ourselves drawing circles of insiders and outsiders.

***

Our human inclination to define boundaries of worthiness between ourselves and others is not new to our age. Our desire to  claim God’s love for ourselves, and those like us, while excluding folks who are different has been going on for a very long time.

In our scripture lesson from the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul addresses the drawing of circles that exclude others from God.

Early in the history of the church, the gentile Romans to whom he writes had already drawn a circle that excluded those Jews who did not view Jesus as the messiah. They thought that because some Jews did not accept Jesus as Christ that they were outside God’s love.

Paul reminds the Gentiles that he himself is a Jew when he writes,

I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Romans 11:1b CEB

He reminds them that God made a covenant with Abraham and God doesn’t break promises. Paul reminds them that,

God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people, whom he knew in advance…God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Romans 11:2:a, 29 CEB

God’s love is not conditional. God created each human being in the divine image, God’s hopes and dreams for each of us is endless. As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to Rome, “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 CEB).

And, so, when we draw circles that exclude others from our love and from God’s love, we sin. When we participate in racism, a hateful and extreme form of exclusion, we participate in sinfulness.

When we fail to recognize that racism is real because, well, we’re white and we have that option…

We sin.

When we fail to see racism because we have a black president and that means racism is over…

We sin.

When we fail to speak out when a friend begins a sentence with, “those blacks”…

We sin.

When four unarmed black men have been shot by police this month alone and we fail to ask why (1)…We sin.

When our inactions & indifference tell our sisters and brothers of color that their boys are outside of our circle of concern and God’s circle of love…

We sin.

***

The Good News is that God’s plans for humanity are,

plans for peace, not disaster, to give [us] a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11b CEB

It is time to take our heads out of the sand about racism and strive to be a part of God’s plan for love, for peace, and for hope for all peoples.

We can do that by opening our minds and our hearts. We can do that by listening to the mothers and fathers who fear for the lives of their boys <> on August 12, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.and to those who have already lost their sons.

As followers of the One who endured ridicule, torture, and who overcame death we are each called to love. We’re called to love,

God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength…[and] love [our] neighbor as ourselves. Mark 12:30-31

The Apostle Paul says God’s call is irrevocable. Open your hearts and minds to our neighbors who suffer under the scourge of racism. Face the challenges and messiness of racism and work for justice.

One way or another, God’s love will prevail. Choose to be a part of it. Live your calling so that one day humanity can say,

Look at how good and pleasing it is when families live together as one (Psalm 133:1 CEB)

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Condon is a tiny town in rural, eastern Oregon. The church community, reflecting the larger community, is nearly all white.

(1) (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/3-unarmed-black-african-american-men-killed-police)