This Time, It’s Personal: Reflections on the Charleston Shootings

Black&White CharlestonIn the last several weeks, we have seen two extremes unfolding in the saga of race relations in America.  On the one hand, was the amusing, but at the same time sad and puzzling story of Rachel Dolezal, who, apparently empathized with African Americans so much, that she slowly began to take on the identity of a black woman. However, her story was forced off the front pages by yet another signal event in this country’s bedeviled relationship with race.

This time, the script was more familiar. A young disenfranchised white male who apparently had been spending his time prowling the Internet’s racist sites and imbibing raw, unfiltered racism, decided that it was his duty to incite a racial war. Forget the fact that in the more than four centuries since the introduction of African slaves, there has never been a war between the black and white races on our shores. A large part of that has been because of the resilience and the faith of African Americans.

The church has long been considered the most important institution in the black community. Writing for The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said:

“The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America… After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the country’s oldest black Protestant denomination and remains one of its most prominent. An outgrowth of a civic group called the Free African Society, Methodist evangelist Richard Allen founded the first AME church in 1794. When his segregated congregation in Philadelphia went as far as pulling black parishioners from their knees when praying, Allen knew it was time to establish safe, secure places where people of African descent could freely worship.

AME churches thrived in the Northeast and Midwest, but also eventually stretched below the Mason Dixon line. At one time, the dream was to remove African Americans from the US and to take them to established black homelands in Liberia and Haiti, but those plans eventually were foiled. (The denomination does now have branches in Liberia, Sierre Leone, and South Africa.)

My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all grew up in the pews of the AME church. I come from a long line of AME ministers, and although my parents were non-observant, the imprint of my father’s AME past was passed on to him and his three siblings. Raised in a strict home as PKs, pastor’s kids, they were expected to achieve and serve. I see the influence of their AME upbringing in their striving for excellence, concern for social justice, and passion for education.

I saw glimpses of that ambition and commitment to service in the victim’s obituaries as well: distinguished graduates of historically black colleges, active in community organizations, faithful ministers of Emanuel AME Church.

I recall hearing stories from my relatives about NAACP meetings held in the church basement and the traveling civil rights leaders who visited. My grandfather, a presiding elder overseeing AME churches in Baltimore, ended his career at Washington DC’s Turner AME Church. Decades later, the congregation still remembers his legacy with a bio on their website:

“The Reverend Clarence Clyde Ferguson … was a spiritual and dynamic leader with foresight, wisdom and great pastoral ability. Under his leadership, Turner continued to grow and to develop rapidly. A parsonage, located at 509 P Street, N. W. was purchased. The church grew from a mission to a station charge. Reverend Ferguson served until his death in 1946.”

I think about how the late pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, will be remembered. Sadly, he too served until his death—at just 41.

But after months and years of declaring #BlackLivesMatter, why has this event been the one to stir more white Americans as well as blacks and their progressive allies?

Understandably, the Charleston shooting hits especially close to home, symbolically and emotionally, for African Americans like me.

Many African Americans, even those raised in the North, have ties to South Carolina. More than half of black Americans have ancestors who came as slaves through the state’s coastal ports including Charleston, according to historians.

Within my family, there are black Fergusons in South Carolina to this day. (Our branch migrated to North Carolina; my father was born in Wilmington. I grew up in New York, where my parents, Southern transplants, met and married.)

Even more significant, though, is Mother Emanuel itself. A historic black church, it represents both a force against American slavery and oppression and a beacon signifying the rights of African Americans to worship freely.

When I heard that Pinckney and the others were killed in their church basement, I immediately flashed back to my own memories of Wednesday night Bible studies, of being excited to welcome any new face who came.The young white man who visited Emanuel AME apparently considered it his duty to incite a racial war. We know, however, that our battle ultimately is spiritual, not physical. We know that the enemy comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

I watched grieving in both black and white communities on CNN in the aftermath. Commentators marveled at the joy in the worship service, attended by both South Carolina’s black and white communities. I saw the mutual comforting and the tears. I heard the church bells that rolled across the historic city of Charleston in mourning for nine lives lost.

It brought to mind this Scripture: “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17, 21)

This time, the killing of black Americans going about their daily business, I suspect, became personal for white believers. Instead of a thug, they saw a pastor; instead of unfamiliar, possibly suspect blacks, they saw brothers and sisters in the Lord gathering for Bible study.

I pray they can remember how that feels—to assume the “other” to be one of them—next time an injustice occurs. That instinct can be a first step to bridging a divide, to loving their neighbor, to begin healing racial wounds.

My prayer is that brothers and sisters in Christ, be they white, black, brown, or any other color, would put down our differences at the foot of the cross. For as South Carolinians of every stripe demonstrated in the last several days, and as we sing in our churches: “He is our peace; He has broken down every wall.”

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Her.menuetics blog on Christianity Today)

Have Black People Lost Their Vision?

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What do a celebrity chef, a second-degree murder trial and a Supreme Court decision have in common?

Answer: They demonstrate that when it comes to race, the U.S. is far from “color-blind.” Concerning the Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin controversies, there remains a disconnect between blacks and whites. As white fans flooded Facebook clamoring for Deen’s redemption, many blacks remain unconvinced of her contrition.

And most blacks I know are hoping for a guilty verdict in the Martin case, while in the general population, perhaps not so much.

It seems as if the president’s election, far from ushering in the new post-racial U.S., has instead been a lightening rod that has illuminated the underbelly of race relations in this country.

While some believe that we have achieved an equitable society (as the Supreme Court apparently did when striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act), many blacks, especially black men subjected to indignities every day, are well aware there’s still a way to go.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, the Times ran a story detailing the slide backwards of black professionals. One commentator, a white hiring manager, accused African Americans of having a “victim” mentality and being hobbled by slavery’s legacy. He wrote that he much preferred to hire “hard working” and “bright” West African immigrants who do not carry the same baggage.

Commentators went back and forth about blame, some maintaining blacks should just “get over it.”

Meanwhile, a mini-dust storm erupted in the black press over what was considered a “scolding” on the part of the president and first lady when they addressed graduating classes at predominantly black colleges in May.

Commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and contributing writer for the New York Times, wrote a blog post chastising the first couple for talking down to, and disrespecting the black graduates. He wrote that the Obamas assume a familiarity with, and seem to feel comfortable criticizing black audiences, in a way they do not with other constituent groups.

This got me to thinking. We do, in fact, need to have a conversation about race: and about the violence, drugs and hyper-sexuality in our communities; the epidemic of fatherlessness; and the limited dreams that cause generations to languish in the projects. And let’s not forget the abysmal state of black matrimony. But we also need to correctly diagnose the problems.

War on Families?
It has been said that African Americans are the most uncoupled people on the planet. Yet at the turn of the century, more than 90 percent of black adults were married, according to Alikah Butler, author of a book on the topic. Today nearly 70 percent of black women are single, and many at the higher socio-economic levels go childless as well for lack of a suitable mate.

According to Butler, one of the barriers that work against black marriage is the fact that 900,000 black males between the ages of 18 and 60 are incarcerated on any given day. (see The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander). Although most are out of jail in two to three years, those are the prime years to get established, get a job and get married.

Historically, the breakdown of the black family was exacerbated by the well-meaning War on Poverty of the 1960s, that rewarded households headed by women.

Identity in Christ
Joshua DuBois, in a fascinating cover story in Newsweek recently addressed some of the unique challenges of black males. Although I agree that retraining programs and education help, I think the heart of the issue is nothing less than the loss of  identity grounded in a belief and hope in the God who loves us beyond measure.

During slavery, faith in God sustained a subjugated people who sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” as they labored in the fields belonging to others. Those songs are said to have a secret subtext – pointing to an earthly escape from slavery to the promised land of Canada; but I believe the longing for a celestial home in those spirituals was very sincere. Life was short, hard and brutal, with very little to look forward to on earth.

Subsequently, the black church has been a bulwark against the storms of discrimination and racial hatred for centuries.

We often forget how recent this history is. The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated last year. My grandparents were born little more than 40 years after slavery ended.

New life and true life comes from one place, and that is in the “Father of lights in whom there is no shadow or variation of change (James 1:17).”

Until we, as black people, “look to the hills from whence our help comes (Psalm 121:1)” and rekindle our first love, we will be left with travesties such as Kanye West singing “I am a God.”

As a black woman engaged to a black man who bears many of the scars resulting from racism, I have seen firsthand how the gospel of Christ has transformed his life and sustained our healthy relationship.

I believe that the president and first lady were addressing blacks as “family,” in the same way your favorite aunty will tell you your slip is hanging or you’ve got lipstick on your teeth.  They were casting a vision for young people, and I say good for them! For “without a vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).”

A version of this story was originally published in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/july/what-post-racial-america.html