In the summer of 2016, we experienced several incidents that sparked a state of racial unrest in our country, unlike anything we had seen in quite some time. The idea that racism and racial discord were of the past was proven to be false. Somewhat like the recent outrage over the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, the events of July 2016 ripped the Band-Aid off the unhealed wounds that we carry in our country still today. How should the church respond? How do we as Christians react to the news, the pictures, the nonstop talk, and the constant blaming?
On Saturday, July 9, 2016, my wife, Andrea, and I visited with then-Pastor Keith Cowart and his wife, Pam, to pray and ask the Lord to give us answers to the questions mentioned above.
How will we lead Christ Community Church in response? Should we, as leaders of the church, even bring this up on a Sunday morning? How do we do so in a challenging yet honoring way to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile? How do we acknowledge the horrific and wrongful deaths of the five police officers who were shot and killed in Dallas, Texas, in alleged retaliation?
I want to share with you the message that God gave to us that day because I believe it is still applicable today. I also want to share with you something that only I saw that Sunday morning and the outcome that I think is vital to our way forward.
After several hours of praying, crying, and listening to each other, we had a plan for Sunday morning. The four of us would share the platform to lead our church in a time of prayer for the families of the deceased, in the reading of the Word (James 1:19–20; Micah 6:8; 1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:7–12) and in corporate prayer. We would end with a time of passing the peace. Before I go on, I must say that I believe this is a crucial step. We should be leading our people in addressing issues concerning racial unity.
Leading in this manner is especially true in light of our heritage of being Free Methodist. Our Book of Discipline states, “We are therefore (because of our commitment to the dignity and worth of all humans) pledged to active concern whenever human beings are demeaned, abused, depersonalized, enslaved or subjected to demonic forces in the world, whether by individuals or institutions (Galatians 3:28; Mark 2:27; 1 Timothy 1:8–10).”
In my opinion, unless we take the words “active concern” seriously, this statement in our Book of Discipline and resulting position paper will be rendered meaningless.
On Sunday, July 10, 2016, we altered our planned service, and for 23 minutes after opening worship, we ministered in the manner described above. If you are interested, you can view it here: https://vimeo.com/174359702. At some point, I noticed a good friend of mine exiting the sanctuary with his family. I asked the others after the service if they saw someone leave, and no one else did. I was hoping that an emergency had come up, but I suspected otherwise.
I called and made an appointment to meet him at his home. He confirmed that he left out of anger and frustration because it seemed that we were always bringing up “racial stuff” and framing it in a way that cast him and people who looked like him as villains. He was tired of it. For hours, we sat in his living room and eventually at his table (with a good meal). I shared with him that I too was tired — tired of seeing incidents of violence against people of color go unaddressed. I was tired of seeing the oppression and unfair treatment of people who look like me. I was tired of the deafening silence of the church. We didn’t leave seeing eye to eye on everything that day, but I believe that because we sat down at his table and talked to one another, we remain friends to this day. Both of our lives have changed as a result of God’s grace. (He permitted me to share our story with you today.) We remain friends, and he has remained a committed member.
When we have an active concern, we will make time to talk with, not at, one another. Our communication is not just over social media channels, not just in texts and emails, not in our narrow opinion that we share with only people that look, think, and act as we do. Instead, we will seek out opportunities to put our feet under another person’s table and listen as well as talk (a good meal is a bonus). Even though we may not be able to have an in-person meeting due to COVID-19, we can start with virtual meetings.
When was the last time you had someone over to your home for a meal who didn’t look like you? When was the last time you asked to come over to the house of someone who didn’t look like, vote like or think like you? I pray that you will try it. God desires to pour out His grace, but we must recognize our identity in Him, humble ourselves, seek His face, and turn from our wicked ways. Then He will hear from heaven and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Derrick Shields is the lead pastor of Christ Community Church. He earned a Master of Arts degree in leadership from Asbury Theological Seminary, and he came to the ministry after retiring from the U.S. Army in 1995.6