Protests and prayers
Warren G. Blakney Sr.’s long fight for racial equality stretches…
‘We lose connection with the heart of God, and we stop screaming at the stuff God screams at, and that’s a problem,” said Rigel J. Dawson, minister for the Family of Faith Church of Christ in Flint, Mich. “We are not screaming when God is screaming.”
“We lose connection with the heart of God, and we stop screaming at the stuff God screams at, and that’s a problem.”
Dawson spoke as this week’s killing of George Floyd sparked protests that led to destruction and looting of dozens of businesses in Minneapolis and nearby St. Paul.
On May 25, a convenience store clerk called police and reported that the 46-year-old Floyd had attempted to make a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill. Police said he resisted arrest. After Floyd was handcuffed, a white officer kept his knee on the black man’s neck for several minutes while witnesses videoed the encounter.
On Friday, Derek Chauvin, 44, the officer who held Floyd down with his knee, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Amid national outrage over Floyd’s death, The Christian Chronicle convened an 80-minute panel via Zoom with five African American ministers and two Christian journalists — one black, one white — who have covered civil rights stories for more than 30 years.
Bobby Ross Jr., the Chronicle’s editor-in-chief, gave the panelists ample time to talk between questions. “I just wanted to listen,” he said.
He asked Russell Pointer Sr., minister for the Minneapolis Central Church of Christ, “How are you looking at this as a minister in the heart of that city right now?”
He asked the five ministers, “How should white people, white Christians, respond to what has happened in Minneapolis? Is denouncing racism what we should do?”
And he asked Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning Mississippi journalist and author of the book “Race Against Time,” which tells the story of four civil rights era cold cases that ultimately led to convictions because of Mitchell’s investigative reporting, “What does justice look like in this case in Minneapolis?”
No matter the question, the answers all seemed to focus on a few themes: History. Power. Outrage. Leadership.
The panelists spoke from experience and from the heart.
For Mitchell, history both tells and teaches about race in America.
“The thing that strikes me is we in America don’t know our history, because so many of these things are echoes of the past. You know, this is not the first black male to be killed by law enforcement,” said Mitchell, a member of the Skyway Hills Church of Christ in Pearl, Miss.
Mitchell said another recent case, involving Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging when he was shot and killed in Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23, reminded him of slavery patrols.
“Basically, if you’re an African American and you’re walking, they would stop you, any white man. Not just the people that were the law, but any white man had the authority to pull over anyone black and question them,” Mitchell said. “And you had to produce a pass that showed what plantation you were from and where you were going. That reminded me of those slavery patrols.”
Russell Pointer Sr., minister for the Minneapolis Central Church of Christ, is watching and living history as its plays out in his own city.
“Now I don’t know what to tell my boys. I don’t know what to tell my church,” Pointer said. “I used to tell them, ‘Put your hands on the steering wheel. Put your hands up.’ You still get shot. ‘Don’t say nothing.’ You still get shot.
“You talk. You still get shot. You get out of the car. You still get shot. So I don’t know what to tell my boys and my men. I say, ‘Look, try to live to see another day. If they say it, do it. Fight to see another day.’”
It’s harder when fellow ministers who are white don’t share the same experience.
“I was talking to some of my white colleague preachers, and they laughed when I told them I have to have lessons and tell my boys what to do when they get pulled over,” Pointer said. “I get pulled over still.”
John Edmerson was a youth minister for the 137th and Avalon Church of Christ in Los Angeles in 1992 when riots began after the beating of Rodney King.
Edmerson remembers when it began.
“I was up in my office, and on that day the first thing you started smelling was smoke,” said Edmerson, now senior minister for the Church of Christ at the Vineyard in Phoenix. “I went around the whole church. I was like, ‘Man, is the church on fire?’ Nope, the church wasn’t on fire, L.A. was on fire.
“I was like, ‘Man, is the church on fire?’ Nope, the church wasn’t on fire, L.A. was on fire.”
“There was such a visceral reaction, and it touched people so deep. I think in the first few days of the affair, we could have gotten on top of it if we were more action-oriented around listening, empathy, allowing people to talk, to cry, and in those moments, steering the conversation about being more constructive in ways to respond to this.”
Pointer believes racism and the debris left in its path are systemic.
“It took years to build this systemic machine, and it’s going to take another systemic machine to break, to dismantle the systemic system of racism,” he said.
“It has to be dealt with, and I hate to say it, but some folks are going to die before it gets better. It can get better, but we have to start somewhere. Let this begin with me; let’s make a difference. I at least want to know I tried to make a difference, even if it’s just one man.”
As Mitchell sees it, the key to changing things is truth.
“The first thing you want in order to have justice is to have the truth,” he said. “We need the truth, the full amount of truth — although it’s pretty darn obvious from the video what happened, multiple videos of what happened.”
Related: Protests and prayers
Related: Protests and prayers
The veteran reporter brings that perspective to ferreting out what is true.
“Let’s say I’m a reporter there, that would be one of the things I look at,” the founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting said. “This (police officer) apparently had a history of mistreating people over time, and the thing they ought to look at is how was this guy punished in the past, and at all? And if he wasn’t punished, why not? And if he wasn’t punished, you can almost bet there were others who weren’t punished, so therefore it’s a part of their culture.”
B. Chris Simpson, minister for the Holmes Road Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., said the racism he sees is “not just necessarily between individuals, but in a whole system.”
“It’s understandable for one person to say, ‘I have friends of all ethnicities, and I personally am not racist or prejudiced,’” Simpson said. “But when we say racist, when we say prejudiced, we are talking about a system. In this system, there is one group vying for power, even if it be subconsciously. When you get power, and enough of it, power sort of makes you drunk.
“I think as the church, if we are to be serious about making these things right, we have to first check that hunger for power,” the Memphis minister added. “We’re supposed to find the comfort and the self-esteem and safety in Jesus, which actually gives up power, especially for the smaller, more at risk group.”
Simpson said being equal with another requires surrendering power.
“You cannot simultaneously be equal to the person and maintain your same amount of power,” he said. “You have to search yourselves, especially my white brothers and sisters have to search themselves to make certain that they’re willing to do that.”
Even before Ross asked what white Christians could do, the ministers had raised the subject. In fact, Pointer said addressing systemic racism must begin with white Christians.
“If I say something, it will not carry the same weight,” the Minneapolis preacher said. “At first, they wanted to just put (the police officer) on administrative leave. But because of the outrage of so many white people in this city who saw that dude and have some morals, some character about themselves, they had to react.”
Chauvin and three other officers at the scene were fired the day after the arrest and Floyd’s death. A federal investigation has been launched.
“Because why? Because the white man, if I can say that, is outraged now. They couldn’t even believe they saw that,” Pointer said of the video footage. “If I saw it, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s just Pointer. Oh, he’s black. He’s mad. He’s angry. He thinks he knows all that.’ If you say it, if a white man says it, I think it carries more weight.”
Sammie Berry is the senior minister and an elder of the Dallas West Church of Christ, where Botham Jean was a member before he was shot and killed by off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, in Sept. 2018. Guyger was later convicted of murder.
Berry has been meeting with white ministers in the Dallas area to discuss racial relations in their community.
“I think it’s going to take white people, if I can say it that way, being honest with themselves that we really and truly have a problem,” Berry said.
“We have to sit down and have some honest conversations in order to deal with it.”
Berry said his white colleagues get “a lot of pushback from the people in the pews. So, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the pews.”
Dawson called it a deeply rooted spiritual problem for all believers, “black and white or whatever you are.”
“It goes back to being connected to the heart of God. I think that’s where a lot of our disconnect comes. That’s why we don’t see the needed, the very, very necessary outrage.”
“It goes back to being connected to the heart of God. I think that’s where a lot of our disconnect comes. That’s why we don’t see the needed, the very, very necessary outrage,” he said. “Again, it doesn’t have to be out of control, but from our white brethren, we need that outrage. We need you all to be just as upset as we are.”
He recalled the Old Testament prophet Amos. “He literally shows us that the heart of God screams. In the very first chapter, he says the Lord roars from Zion. That’s a powerful image of God’s heart and his outrage and his reaction to the cruelty and injustice and oppression that the book of Amos goes on to detail.
“I think as Christians, as members and as leaders, we become at ease in Zion. Comfortable in our buildings. Comfortable with the financial security that we have. Comfortable with the relationships that we have. Comfortable with our little pocket of the culture. We lose connection with the heart of God, and we stop screaming at the stuff God screams at, and that’s a problem.
“We are not screaming when God is screaming.”
Hamil R. Harris reported for the Washington Post for 25 years. He is a minister for the Glenarden Church of Christ in Maryland and a correspondent for The Christian Chronicle.
Representing the Post, Harris covered the memorial service for Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody prompted rioting in Baltimore in 2015.
“I had to stop being a journalist to do a memorial service at the cemetery because there were no other preachers there,” said Harris, who wrote a 2016 Chronicle column about his experience. He sees the preachers’ absence as symptomatic of a different problem, a problem in black churches and among black ministers.
“Unfortunately, in our own communities, we don’t see us on those demonstrations for Freddie Gray. Sometimes we still struggle as black ministers to not fellowship with people who are not in the Church of Christ,” Harris said.
“Look at Dr. King. Look at Freddie Gray. How do we deal with being part of a coalition, and not also being yoked, and people saying, ‘You’re going with nonbelievers and gays and whatever?’ So what do we do to empower a community and still keep our theology sound and not get kicked out by the elders?”
Berry sees it, too.
The Dallas minister tells congregants, “There are Baptists. There are Methodists. There are Episcopalians. There are Catholics. Those are the people in the community. This is not just a Church of Christ problem, and we cannot solve it only in the Church of Christ.”
Dawson believes reluctance to get involved in activism and protest affects the white church and the black church.
“That’s an issue,” he said. “Even in the work we were doing around the water crisis here in Flint, when I would talk about going to a protest or going down to City Hall or going here to do this or that and make our voices heard, there’s a lot of reluctance from members of the church to get involved in that kind of thing.
“We’ve cultured ourselves to think, ‘Well, that’s not really a spiritual thing.’ But it is because it goes right to the heart of God.”
“This is not just a Church of Christ problem, and we cannot solve it only in the Church of Christ.”
Dawson said church members sometimes resist getting involved because they don’t know who is organizing.
“There might be some folks we don’t agree with theologically or politically and all of that, but at some point you have to step out of your comfort zone and take a stand for what is right.”
Edmerson and Simpson both said the black churches need to be a safe place where black Christians can express their anger.
“Burning up your neighborhood is not the way to go,” Edmerson said. “But I understand that, and I’m mad, too. If I’m mad, let’s be mad together. How can we channel this anger and this frustration into some type of vehicle that has a greater outcome than just a few items being destroyed that will probably get repaired in a couple weeks, and we’ll be right back to square one?
“Let’s sit down and figure out some strategies of how we can take this unbridled anger and do something with it constructively.”
“We should be angry because we should like what God likes and hate what he hates,” Simpson said. “But as the church, I think what we need to do is give black people a forum in the church to be angry. Over 40 percent of songs are called lament songs, which are designed to be angry, to be upset and to lay it bare before the Lord. We are not good at that in our church.
“I think what our black church needs to do is open up forums and teach where we can be angry, we can be scared.”
He also said black Christians need to help white Christians learn about racism.
“I think another thing we as black people need to do is to be brave enough to be humble,” Simpson said. “It’s difficult to be this angry and then turn around and try to help white people learn what they need to learn.
“It takes a certain amount of bravery to be this humble, this scared, this put out. My son is a black boy. I am a 33-year-old black man. My brother is black,” the minister added. “So it’s hard to be that angry and then turn right around to be humble to teach, to not fly off the handle and to not burn the neighborhood.
“So it’s the church that should counsel us, that should love us and teach us that God is big enough to handle your anger because he’s angry too.”
CHERYL MANN BACON served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].
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