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Fighting injustice with shared silence

Summit encourages meditation, active listening to bridge the rift between black and white.

Chris Dowdy of Paul Quinn College in Dallas addresses participants at the Racial Unity Leadership Summit in Abilene, Texas. (PHOTO BY TED PARKS)

ABILENE, Texas — How do Christians respond to centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow laws and the almost daily revelations of race-related violence in America?
With 24 hours of silence.

Organizers of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit — a program bringing together leaders to work for racial reconciliation in Churches of Christ — met for a planning session at a Texas retreat center a year ago. 

Eric Wilson
Before discussing specific times and topics for the summits, the latest of which took place recently at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, they observed silence from 6 p.m. one day until 6 p.m. the next.

“Of course, your cell phones and all your technology were to be put away,” said Eric Wilson, spiritual director for the summit and executive minister for the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn. “Everybody just had very individual kinds of prayer and meditation, walking the grounds, being in silence.”

The minister underscored the importance of contemplation and other traditional spiritual disciplines.

Instead of praying “OK, God, here’s the deal. … We’re going to do this racial unity thing. So please help us. In Jesus’ name, amen,” Wilson said, the participants asked open-ended questions, such as “God, what would you have us do? Who do we have to be in order to make this work?”

‘A CONTEMPLATIVE COMMUNITY’
The Abilene gathering — attended by about 150 people, black and white — was the sixth unity summit.

The first took place in September 2013 at Abilene Christian University, followed by meetings in Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., Memphis and Los Angeles. ACU Bible professor Jerry Taylor began providing leadership for the development of the summits during a one-year break from teaching responsibilities. 

Jerry Taylor
“It is understood that faculty who take that amount of time off will work on something they’re passionate about,” Taylor said. “It started there and has just taken on a life of its own.”

Organizers encourage participants to use contemplative practices — including fasting, silence, meditation, study and active listening — to foster spiritual and racial unity.

“When blacks and whites become partners in a contemplative community, they can experience together the transformation of their conscious and subconscious minds,” Taylor wrote on the ACU website www.char.is. “It is when people sit together in silence that they give their souls the opportunity to communicate with one another in a spiritual language that is not of this world.”
RECOGNIZING EVIL AS EVIL
While grounded in ancient Christian practices, speakers at the Abilene summit addressed complex issues plaguing church and society.

Charleston minister Bobby Green Jr. speaks during a Racial Unity Leadership Summit. See Green’s response to the racially motivated slaying of nine churchgoers in his home city. (PHOTO BY TED PARKS)

“Within the African-American community, there is a deep sense of racial inferiority,” said Bobby Green Jr., minister for the Charleston Metropolitan Church of Christ in South Carolina. “And most of it stems from … slavery and the effects afterwards.”

Dating the arrival of the first slaves in 1619, then jumping to the end of the Civil War in 1865, Green added up 246 years of slavery. After that came a century of Jim Crow legislation, halted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Only an eighth of the period of history that we’ve been in this country have we really been free on paper,” Green said.

During the summit, Jarrod Robinson, preaching minister for Abilene’s Southern Hills Church of Christ, interviewed Green and Lawrence Rodgers, ministering evangelist for the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore.

“Most people know on the ground in Baltimore that the problem is the system,” said Rodgers, whose city experienced violent protests after the April 19 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.

Lawrence W. Rodgers, ministering evangelist for the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore, speaks during the Racial Unity Leadership Summit. Read The Christian Chronicle’s profile of Rodgers. (PHOTO BY TED PARKS)
Even if individuals despise his skin color, Rodgers said, he expects fair treatment in society.

“We don’t have to sit around and sing ‘Kum ba ya,’” Rodgers said of those who discriminate against blacks. “But the system that I pay taxes into, I want the system to protect me like it protects other people.”

The Baltimore minister believes that Christians need to view social ills through a theological lens, recognizing evil as evil.

“We have to be willing to say that what happened to Native Americans was dead wrong, and it was an evil action done by people who might have been evil,” Rodgers said. “We have to be willing to say that the American slave trade was absolutely wrong. It was atrocious. It treated people like animals; it dehumanized them in the worst form possible.” 

Too often, he said, Christians create a romanticized version of American history with compassionate slaveholders, content slaves and a Jesus who condones the injustice of slavery. 

This sanitized, inaccurately portrayed Jesus “cares nothing about those who are at the bottom,” Rodgers said, “nothing about those who are below the scratch line, nothing about those who are in poverty.”


THE GOSPEL AND RECONCILIATION 

Central to the summits’ approach is an insistence that God’s will does not stop with individuals, but calls for justice in society.

Don McLaughlin
“Following Jesus means becoming like him. With Jesus, there is no category that he calls a ‘social gospel’ as if it were something different than a ‘missionary gospel,’” said Don McLaughlin, the summits’ program director and preaching minister for the North Atlanta Church of Christ.

“With Jesus, the Gospel is comprehensive and is aimed at the total redemption of God’s creation, including the reconciling of people together right now,” McLaughlin said.

Wilson echoed that God’s will is far-reaching.

“God’s big plan is the reconciliation of all things,” Wilson said. “Of course, the individual is a part of that, but that is not the beginning and the end of the reconciliation process. We are reconciled so that we can be reconcilers.”


’NOW THAT I RECOGNIZE INJUSTICE …’

Carla Garrett, an elementary school principal and member of the Southern Hills church, was moved by what she heard at the Abilene summit. 

“We know that, in the Christian walk, we are to take up the cause of the injustices in our world,” Garrett said. “Now that I recognize injustices that I’ve somehow walked past the majority of my life, I feel like I need to become very reflective. 

“I need to … pray and ask God what is it that I am called to do.”

A willingness to address social ills, anchored in Christianity’s oldest spiritual practices, distinguishes the summits from earlier efforts at racial reconciliation among Churches of Christ, Wilson said.

Those efforts include Unity in Christ conferences hosted at ACU in 1999 and Dallas in 2001, said Doug Foster, professor of church history. Royce Money, the university’s then-president, and ministers including Tony Roach and Andrew Hairston led the events.

Racial Unity Leadership Summit

Organizers plan a National Racial Unity Revival for April 3-6, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn., and offer to host racial unity retreats for churches, colleges and universities. For more information, contact Keri Gray at [email protected] or (903) 241-3312.


Also significant, Foster said, were New Wineskins and Freedom in Christ gatherings organized by Taylor to discuss racial and doctrinal issues in Churches of Christ.

More such events are needed, the summits’ organizers said, if Churches of Christ are to heal the racial divide — in their pews and in their nation. Churches can invite the summits’ organizers to conduct spiritual, racial unity retreats for elders, ministers, staff, ministry leaders and members.

“If the past 11 months have taught us anything, (it’s that) the wounds of racialization in America have not been healed,” McLaughlin said. “How can we imagine our work to be done when Christ himself does not believe the work is done?

“He is still reconciling the world to himself — and the world to each other.”

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