Doing Our Own Work
One of my great joys at church over the last 18 months has been the deepening of our relationship with the First Baptist Church on New Street. In partnership with the New Baptist Covenant, our two congregations formally entered into a covenant together on Pentecost Sunday of 2015, where we promised to grow in our relationship with each other “as a witness to the body of Christ.”
In the time since, we have made good on this promise in a number of ways. But perhaps more importantly than any one single “event,” it has been my experience personally that this relationship has brought what has become a national conversation about race and racism somehow closer.
I’ve shared on a few different occasions in sermons how my relationship with James has given me new eyes to see the racial disparities in our country. Hearing him talk about the conversations he has with his son, CJ, and thinking about the different world that my boys will know, in so many ways, has forced me to come to terms with my own privileged experience of being white in America.
And as a person of faith, it’s also compelled me to take a closer look at the church’s role in these matters (not simply our local church, but the wider church in America). What part has the church played in the racial history of our country? Has the church been a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, or have we remained silent? Worse, have we at times simply baptized the mores and prejudices of our culture? These are hard questions, but I’m convinced they are questions we need to ask. They're also questions I believe we know the answer to, but have resisted saying aloud.
Race and racism are difficult to talk about. Perhaps more than any other subject, they make us uncomfortable, and so it has been our practice to avoid talking about them in church. But given the tragic events of this summer, there is a sense that something has changed. We seemed to have come to the conclusion that we can no longer turn a blind eye, or wait for the moment to pass.
In an effort to not let the current moment pass, we spent the combined Sunday school hour in July studying sermons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Turnout was exceptional--the fellowship hall was packed each week. And the discussion were equally impactful. At times these discussions were tense and even uncomfortable, but this is how we know we were getting somewhere. As I noted in a sermon recently, Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta noted that pearls are formed when an irritant gets inside a mollusk. Likewise, "pearls" in the church are formed when we get close enough to irritate each other. I like to think we already have some pearls forming among us.
These conversations were a good start, but there is more work to be done.
As I mentioned this past Sunday, this fall we will gather with our friends from New St. for a series of conversations on race. We will look at race in general—what it is, what it is not—and also study our churches’ histories as a lens through which to view the racial history of our community, our county, and the church in America. We also hope to provide space to share out own stories and testimonies about race.
In an effort to further prepare ourselves for these conversations, I’m encouraging Sunday school classes to continue the discussions we had together in July. Some classes have already expressed an interest in continuing to read sermons from Dr. King, or some of this other writings (his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” for instance). This is a great idea, but I would encourage you to force yourselves to make your conversations as current and personal as possible. How do these sermons speak to your own experience? How about the present moment? Where are you in the sermon? Is this sermon written for you, or for you to overhear?
As another option to consider, CBF of North Carolina has put together a 4-5 week curriculum for talk about racial reconciliation within the church. I’ve read over it and believe it to be very good. I would strongly encourage you to consider using this sometime this fall, perhaps leading up to the conversation at the end of September. Here is a link to a PDF version of it. The office would be happy to print out as many copies as you’d like.
I've also learned that our women's book club will be reading Alice Walker's masterpiece, The Color Purple, this fall. This will be a powerful opportunity to approach these difficult questions of race and racism through literature.
For those who are interest in doing their own reading, I am in the process of putting together a list of other resources, both for group discussion or personal use. I'll look to post that in this space next week.
Brothers and sisters, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us! We are stewards of our history and the incredible story of our two churches, which in so many ways is the story of the church in America over these last 190 years. I truly believe God has called us into this covenant with New St. for a time such as this. I know of no other churches who are engaging in the kind of relationship as our two churches, and doing the work we plan to do. I believe this should give us a sense of courage, and purpose.
Much has happened over these last 18 months-- in the relationship between our two churches, and the national conversation about race and racism--all of which I believe has prepared us to go deeper. And deeper we must go, for there is still much work to be done.
We will do some of this work together this fall with brothers and sisters from around the corner, but there is also work we must do within our own congregation, our own families, and our own hearts. I hope you will join me in this work, for I am convinced it is truly the work of the gospel.