Subtle Stories of Racial Change for White Churches

I was so excited to see this in my Facebook newsfeed today. Erin Wathen offers some advice to congregations that aren’t all on the same page about marriage equality. This sage pastor recognizes that struggle in some congregations even if it’s not an issue in her own. She knows — as well as I do — that there are many churches where it’s hard to celebrate because not everyone in that body of Christ is on the same page. So, she offers some tips in Holy Edges: 10 Things to Preach if your Church is Divided on Gay Marriage. The good news that she offers are all scriptural. Build on these themes — as demonstrated in our holy word — and you’ll be able to nudge toward celebration for one and all.

But, after watching President Obama deliver such an eloquent eulogy for the Rev. Pinckney (yes, I only just watched it today), I’m thinking about how to preach about race and racism. In that eulogy, the President quoted the good reverend saying:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

What is true in the south is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.

That — that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress. It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world.

church-581069_1280I wish that that manual could come from scripture alone — but it seems that we need a bit more to illustrate this possibility of paving a way toward a better world. It has to be personal. What I didn’t find in my internet search today was a round-up of stories that might hint toward this possibility. Because there are congregations that don’t know their white privilege and really struggle to have a conversation about racism. My own denomination has been trying to have such a conversation since our President was elected. It’s happened in fits and spurts but we’re not quite there yet. There is still much more that needs to be done to break the cycle.

And we need stories to help us. We need stories of real people and real places that will inspire us along the way. As I prepare to preach on Sunday in one such congregation — a church that mourns what happened in Charleston but isn’t compelled into action — I’m trying to find stories that break the encourage people that don’t think that this is their issue to find something unexpected in the stories told in connection with the gospel. Here are but a few that I’ve found.

  • As the disciples go out two by two, I’m tempted to use this heartfelt, honest story from Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika who really struggles to hold the hand of a white woman at a Charleston vigil as an image of partnership. I fear it will not be heard as being more about his racism than anything else but the image is powerful for any one of us that wants to believe that we can we can create a better world.
  • To find the courage of the disciples going out into the world, we might need to hear a few inspiring words. Though it might not be too subtle for some, there are amazingly inspiring words in the Rev. Norvel Goff’s sermon just after the shooting. I will also admit that quoting another isn’t exactly telling a story. Still… so good.
  • Gwen Moten lost her best friend Denise in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. She shared her story on StoryCorps after the shooting in Charleston when the memories came rushing back. Though I haven’t found as many as I might like, I imagine that there are many more stories like this one that get to the truth that the racism that is burning across the south right now is not new. It’s been happening for a long, long time. Offering these stories makes the connection for those that might have marched at Selma or those that have been tempted to believe that we won that fight that many years ago.
  • One of my very favorite stories to address how long this injustice has permeated our nation is the story of Ruby Bridges. There is a children’s book that tells her story well but Ruby’s story is also beautifully told here. In this story, you can hear the tension of a prophet having to shake the dust of her hometown — though here that doesn’t mean that she leaves. It only means she prays.
  • The good people at TED have created a whole playlist of Talks to help you understand racism in America. As with so much of our media, many of these talks focus on talking points rather than the power of story but there is this one talk by James A. White Sr. He tells the story about trying to rent a home as a black man. He’s rejected before he can even create a home in this new place — even after serving in the military.
  • In This American Life‘s recent episode Birds & Bees, Act Two features Kadijah Means as interviewed by W. Kamau Bell. There’s a lot about this little segment that I’d like to use but I think I would choose the story where Kadijah steps up to the pulpit in her family’s church and asks for the mic. That’s when she announces to the whole church that black people and white people should not be together. She’s five years old. Please keep this in mind because there is a truth that children can speak in our churches that adults cannot.
  • The 2014 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading included this story about Dave Chappelle’s hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio of which there are several gems but it’s what Chappelle says about his dad — and this community — that seems to speak most vividly to the gospel’s hope that we go out two by two relying on each other.
  • Let’s not forget the power of popular culture and especially the little bit of good news we can find in Hollywood. There are recent two films in which individual scenes could be highlighted as images of a better world including Selma and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. (I know I said real people and real stories. These are more true than the last suggestion that I’m going to make.)
  • Finally, I would encourage dusting off your copy of The Help or The Secret Life of Bees or even The Color of Water to find a snapshot of confronting racism. Oprah has recommended these stories to every woman in America so that anything from these books will be incredibly safe to preach — and it just might hint toward that possibility of breaking the cycle of racism.

What stories have you found that might subtly hint toward the better world we dare to dream is coming soon?

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