A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

“I cannot wait until I am in a different appointment, so that I can preach the way that you do.”

I cocked my head to the side, a little puzzled. I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God as the guest preacher at a predominantly white gathering. It is true that serving as the first white pastor on the staff of a predominantly African American congregation means I am accustomed to receiving a consistent flow of interesting statements and questions from those both inside and outside of our congregation. But the clearly articulated assumption that my situation somehow gives me immunity to the consequences and discomfort of addressing injustice made me pause.

After that pause, my response was very simple, “Actually, I’ve always preached this way. No matter where I’ve served. You can preach this way anywhere. It is possible.”

When I first became clergy at the age of twenty-six, I was appointed to two small congregations in rural Maryland, in the beautiful marshes of the Chesapeake. When the appointment was made, my District Superintendent presented the congregations with a resume that led them to expect anyone but a small, blonde woman to walk through their doors. It informed them that I had served an African American congregation in Durham, North Carolina; been part of multiple anti-racism trainings and efforts; and most recently served a diverse, urban congregation in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Ironically, or appropriately, the city of Coatesville, that I was leaving, shared an ignoble distinction with this community in Maryland, which I can only assume was an act of coincidence or divine intervention. The distinction is that Coatesville was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Pennsylvania; while Princess Anne was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Maryland. In the case of Coatesville, it was Zachariah Walker in 1911; in the case of Princess Anne, it was George Armwood in 1933. Both of them accused of crimes; but more importantly, both of them innocent for all eternity, denied their right to be proven guilty or not.

The way that I found out about the lynching of George Armwood was not from my District Superintendent or from a history book. The way that I heard the story was, instead, over coffee with a man who explained to me that he had relatives who had been a part of the mob. He had relatives who had told him about watching George Armwood die. He presented the facts with little value judgment given; to this day, I do not know with certainty how he felt about those who had taken part in the murder.

What I do know is the reason why the conversation, and many more like it, came up. That reason is the same reason for my colleague’s recent response: I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God.

It is true that I preach that way in Houston, Texas, at St. John’s Church, one of the largest predominantly African American congregations in Methodism. But it is also true that I preached that way in the pulpits I served in Durham, North Carolina; Dames Quarter & Oriole, Maryland; Coatesville, Wayne, & Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and any other places I have traveled. The truth of the matter was that I spoke to my congregations and audiences about these realities not because we did not care for one another; I spoke to them about hard truths because I loved them and they loved me, and we all deserved the space to talk and think about how to act in order to love others better.

I do not lead a charmed life where there are no consequences for what I do and say. The reality is that there are consequences, and I have and will pay them.

I must also acknowledge, however, that I preach this way because I can; I am able to say things from the pulpit as a white person with privilege that it would be much more difficult for my colleagues who are people of color to say without different repercussions, pressures and stresses.

For this reason, I also acknowledge that I preach this way because I must. I preach this way, in whichever pulpit I stand, because when I search “Cross-Racial Clergy” on Facebook, I am confronted with a virtual monument which will last for as long as God and Mark Zuckerberg will allow. It is the profile of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Joyce Anderson, in whose eyes my youthful exuberance often caused both a smile and a sigh. A smile because she was a loving person; a sigh because I did not really understand the difficulty of her life as “Cross-Racial Clergy.” I wish I could tell her that I understand better now; I wish I could tell her that I am still listening to her and that her experiences and witness have not been silenced by death.

In her last blog post, exactly 3 months before she passed away from cancer, Joyce wrote:

“During Black History Month worship services in white churches I have experienced White members passively, but passionately, apologizing to me for the centuries of oppression, suppression, and dehumanization against my African ancestors.  This always made me uncomfortable, because the fact is that those acts were everything but passive. They were blatant acts of cruelty and violence. They were done with calculated evil and conviction, supported by carefully legislated laws, and laced with thin and blasphemous attempts at corroborating them with Biblical principles. The true offense was, and still is, against God.  If anyone needs an apology, it’s God.”

These are the feelings that Joyce endured as she struggled to remain polite in a church culture where the silence of we, her white colleagues, caused the burden to be too heavy and change to seem too far away. We perpetuate this reality when we, as white leaders, are more concerned about the comfort of our congregations than we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our colleagues who are persons of color.

Several years ago, Bishop Kenneth Carder explained to a group of students at Duke that it is not the role of women alone to make churches ready for female pastors; male pastors must also preach as if equality was their responsibility. I raised my hand and asked him a question that he was glad to answer in the affirmative: should not the same also be true for white pastors who bear the responsibility to prepare their congregations to love, accept and follow pastors of any race or ethnicity?

This is the reason why we must preach as if lives depend on it; because somebody’s life does.

I have been quiet for the past few months; unable to write since the blog I posted about standing in a street still stained with the blood of Michael Brown. My ears were still ringing with Justin Hansford’s explanation that this disregard for Michael’s body, this lengthy exposure and exhibition of it, was – in effect – a modern lynching. The body sending a traumatic message to the community where it was left to lie.  It has been my time to listen, rather than speak; to read, rather than write; to follow, rather than lead.

The question was raised by someone a couple months back of whether it was right for me to stand, on occasion, in the pulpit of a predominantly African American church during such a time as this. I have done a good deal of thinking about it. And I know that it is, in fact, for just such a time as this that I stand where I stand. That I speak, after listening. That I write, after reading. That I lead, in the very act of following.

This is where God and the Pastors of St. John’s have asked me to stand. This is where we have chosen to stand together.

Have the courage to join us. Not only in knowing when to speak, but also in knowing when to be silent – when to listen, to read, to follow.  Then, when it is your time, speak truth; in whichever pulpit, podium, or desk you stand; with whichever congregation, classroom, or context you address; carrying whichever fears and apprehensions you bear.

“I say come ye ye who still have hope
That we can still survive now
Let’s work together as we should
And fight to stay alive

I say come ye ye who would have love
It’s time to take a stand
Don’t mind abuse it must be paid
For the love of your fellow man”
Nina Simone

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