I was on my way to South Carolina 5 years ago today when I heard the news that a young hate-filled white man had gone into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and opened fire, killing 9 of God’s beloved children. Our subconscious finds powerful ways to disassociate ourselves from these tragedies and genuflect from our own sense of responsibility. I was no different. I did my best to distance myself from the murders. “Dylann must have grown up as a ‘white evangelical’” I thought to myself. “They’re the racist ones!” You can imagine my painful disappointment and shock as I discovered that he grew up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my same denomination. “The ELCA? That progressive, all-are-welcome-singing, grace-and-liberation-of-God-professing church that I love so much? This had to be a mistake! He must have missed the ELCA’s message of love for all.” I thought. But deep down inside I knew the truth: Dylann Roof hadn’t internalized messages of white superiority in spite of his upbringing in a white church. He internalized those messages, at least in part, because of it.
Realizing that someone who grew up in church had been involved in this demonic racial violence, I had to take stock in my own experience in the church I grew up in. Here is what I realized:
- I had heard hundreds of sermons throughout my life from dozens of pastors. Every one of those people looked like me racially.
- I had sat through countless bible studies with youth directors, teachers, etc. to interpret what God’s Word was trying to speak to the world. Every one of those people looked like me racially.
- I participated in Confirmation Classes, Sunday school classes, and youth group curricula that had all been written by people who looked like me racially.
- I had grown up reading a bible whose vast majority of editors looked like me racially.
- Every one of the counselors I had at the bible camps I attended growing up looked like me racially.
- The policies that my church had inherited about how to lead, how to govern, how to disagree, how to worship, and how to live faithfully had mostly been created by people who looked like me racially.
- The songs I sang were written by people who mostly looked like me racially out of a hymnal that had been created by people who mostly looked like me racially.
- And lastly, but perhaps most important of all, the large pictures on the wall and every image I had ever seen of the One who was called “Holy of holies” looked just like me racially!!
I now know this, Dylann Roof isn’t out there somewhere in another church, Dylann Roof is sitting right in our own pews. He is an insecure, white teenager without community who is flirting with white supremacist ideas. Where is he hearing explicit condemnation of white supremacy from us? How is he being invited into a community that is practicing collective liberation? Where are the “cool” anti-racist Jesus followers modeling a different way to him? Where is he experiencing the beautiful diversity of the kin-dome of God? Is he hearing anything (and more importantly experiencing anything) in our churches that would counter his narrative of racial animus?
I know that trying to lead a church with varying ideologies is a huge challenge. When a Trump voter is mourning their grandson’s death, it may not be the time to lecture them on critical race theory. I do know, however, that our current methods of leading our churches are not producing the fruits of peace and justice that our God calls us to and that we were ordained for. Many pastors have said that they do not want to be too political. This has led to the decision to be silent about white supremacy. We must recognize that silence is a politic. “Race neutrality” is a stance on race. To continue with uninterrogated white normative patterns is a reification of white dominance that can harm people like the “Emanuel 9” and our beloved brother George Floyd. We have work to do, white church. God is inviting us to build our awareness of the ways that we have emboldened and enabled the Dylann Roofs in our congregation. We must confess our silent complicity in white supremacy and work to repair the harm that has been caused “by what we have done and by what we have left undone”.
We have to do this work because the stakes are too high. How many more have to die before we wake up and do the work that God is calling us to? Dylann Roof is in our pews waiting to hear a word of liberation from us. Derek Chauvin (the officer who killed George Floyd) is in our church basement having coffee needing to hear about the value of black life. Bob Kroll (the head of the police union in Mpls with ties to white supremacist groups) is on our church council waiting to hear about the evils of racism. Are we speaking up or are we staying silent in hopes to not make the “big givers” of our church uncomfortable? White church, 5 years ago, 9 of God’s beloved children died at the hands of a young man who had been failed by a community that was not able to effectively proclaim God’s liberating love for all in a way that he could hear it and experience it. We have to take responsibility and learn from this. Part of this is to say the names of the people who were killed on that tragic day:
Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Mrs. Cynthia Graham Hurd
Mrs. Susie J. Jackson
Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance
Reverend DePayne Middleton
Doctor Reverend Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders
Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.
Mrs. Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson
Each of these humans were made in God’s image.
Each of these humans were loved beyond measure.
Their lives are begging us to show up, to stand up, and to speak up against injustice.
Their voices are crying out to each of us.
What will we do now?
I hope we will rise to this challenge.
God is with us.
We may feel inadequate in our knowledge and therefore harbor fear that we might say the wrong thing. We still need to speak.
We may be uncomfortable with what our neighbors of color say about us and the impact our actions and inactions have had on them. We still need to listen.
We may be scared to take a stand and make some of our congregants mad.
We still need to act.
God is with us. Amen.